The Arctic Winter Games were made to showcase traditional sports, said the Yukon’s Arctic sports coach.
And it appears the territory’s athletes were made to sweep the competition.
At the 2012 Games, the Yukon had its best showing and highest medal count on record for Arctic sports, said coach Teena Dickson.
Of the Yukon’s 12 Arctic sports athletes, half took home at least one medal.
“Our men’s side was our strongest that we’ve seen in years,” said Dickson. “They had strength in every event, which spread the medal count.”
Even with a slip that set back his results in the kneel jump, Tom Fulop took silver in the event, as well as gold in the knuckle hop and fifth in the sledge jump.
Teammate Juhyun Seo took silver in the head pull, but also endured a “heartbreaking” setback in the knuckle hop, said Dickson.
“It was so unfortunate,” she said. “He probably would have come in first or second. We would’ve had gold and silver in the knuckle hop, but he went off course so they ended up scratching him – and he was halfway around the course and still had a lot of strength.”
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Josh Carr, who doubled as a Yukon athlete and coach, took silver in triple jump behind Nunavut’s Andrew Bell, who set a new games record of 10.95 metres.
Junior Luke Londero caught everyone by surprise with an “unbelievable” performance in the Alaskan high kick.
“I don’t think Team Yukon has ever won a gold medal on the boys’ or men’s side in the Alaskan high kick ever,” said Dickson. “He’s a complete underdog, new to the sport and hats off to him. That was a real surprise. The Alaskans, that’s their event, that’s why it’s called the Alaskan high kick. They invented it and we were on the podium.”
On the women’s side of the team, it’s important to note that the athletes are still very young, said Dickson.
“They did an outstanding performance,” she said of the youngest – Foreste Martin, 16, Megan Banks, 13, and Robyn Poulter,12.
It was the first time former gymnast Martin competed in Arctic sports at the Games. She placed between the fourth and eighth spot in every event, said Dickson. She also snagged a silver in the sledge jump.
While Banks and Poulter didn’t take home any ulus this year, they will be a force to be reckoned with in the future Games, she said.
“If they stick with it – which I know they’re excited about – they will be contenders by the time they’re 16 and 17,” she said. “They were our youngest juniors on our team and had very good performances. They still have two more Games – six more years – as juniors and they will be contenders in the next couple games.”
The shining star of the team, Anna Rivard, took home seven medals, despite this being her first year competing in the higher category of open women’s.
Rivard won eight in 2010.
Rivard took home a gold in the two-foot high kick and the triple jump, where she broke the 7.9-metre record, set in 2010, by jumping 8.55 metres.
She also took bronze in the sledge jump and silver in the one-foot high kick, the arm pull and the Alaskan high kick, coming in behind new record setter Jaclyn Weston from Alaska who kicked six feet, six inches.
“The whole team met their personal bests, either kicking or jumping beyond their personal bests in training or former competitions,” she said.
“They all surpassed those and now have new heights and new distances to work on. They did amazing and we grew as a team and worked together and supported each other. It was a really fun games.”
The territory’s Dene games athletes were also a force the other teams took notice of, said mission staff Cody Wilkinson.
Tayler Vallevand-Vance swept the junior female division with a gold in the stick pull, fourth in the snow snake and gold overall, while Tora-Lee Williams took silver in the stick pull and 12th in the snow snake for the juvenile female category.
The men also showed their stuff.
Matthew Brown took bronze in the snow snake for junior male, Dustin Blackjack took silver in the open male’s stick pull and Doronn Fox took gold in the open males’ snow snake and gold overall.
The Yukon’s open male team also took gold in the hand games.
“The medal count was awesome this year,” said Wilkinson. “I think it’s the most medals we’ve got in traditional sports. It was really good to see that but I think we’re just building on this team and will keep moving forward from this.”
The teams already have a few sights set. They have been invited to compete in the Native Youth Olympics at the end of April and at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics in Fairbanks in July, Wilkinson said.
These Games are the only places these athletes have to show their stuff, said Dickson.
Traditional sports athletes don’t have the luxury of simply heading down to their local games centre or catching their favourite teams squaring off on TV.
“And it’s sports we cannot afford to lose,” the 20-year veteran of the Arctic Winter Games said. “Our games are the premier sport that helps make the Arctic Winter Games what they are. There are not very many of us that know the games and we have to keep it going.”
It is important to teach First Nation and non-First Nation people about how these events came to be, said Wilkinson.
“It’s about traditional ways and survival in these harsh conditions,” he said.
For example, the kneel jump was traditional training for ice fishers. While kneeling and fishing, fishermen had to be ready and able to spring up and onto solid ice if the piece they were on suddenly broke apart. The snow snake was, quite obviously, a hunting technique in snow-covered conditions and the head pull was a way to measure strength and endurance among the men.
The high kick was a way traditional hunters communicated direction, said Wilkinson. And the hand games were a way to pass the time and entertain each other during long, dark winters.
And it is mixing “old” with “new” that is setting teams apart in these events, noted Dickson, adding that gymnasts and break dancers have proven sure assets on the team.
“Over the past 10 to 12 years, we’ve seen more competition come in for these games,” she said, adding that five new records were set in Arctic sports last week. “We’re attracting more athletes from different sports.”
The dynamic among the teams are also shifting, she noted, pointing out that while Alaska is still a powerhouse, it, along with the N.W.T. and Nunavut, are being overshadowed by newcomer Nunavik.
“But still so many people don’t know about (these events),” said Dickson. “We’ll be developing the sport even further for the next Games. It’s very addicting. It is an adrenaline rush every three minutes (which is how long every athlete has for their attempts).
“It is amazing to watch how our young people and our adults can push themselves beyond the limits of what they believe. It happens at the games all the time.
“To do the knuckle hop – to go to another place where you don’t feel pain, is truly remarkable. And it’s the only place we can compete. So we go back, we see our other athletes and we see what new limits, what new records are being broken. It is very exciting.”
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