For nearly three decades, the Native Youth Olympics in Juneau quietly lapsed, relegated to games played in elementary schools, if that.
Now, Kyle Worl has dedicated himself to fanning the flames once more — and he’s being recognized for it.
Named one of the two of the Alaska Children’s Trust 2020 Southeast Champion for Kids earlier this month, Worl was recognized for his strenuous efforts to bring back NYO to middle and high school in Juneau, as well as spreading it to communities across the Southeast.
“I was surprised. It is humbling to receive it,” Worl said in an interview about the award. “The first thing I thought, was we’re only in the third year of the program, we’re still growing.”
Champion for Kids
The award is given for men and women who help create positive environment for Alaska’s youth. It’s a recognition of contributions toward eliminating child abuse by building safe and supportive communities.
“Kyle has made a huge, positive impact in a short period of time,” said Kathy Dye, media director of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, who nominated Worl for the award. “He has truly established himself as an Alaska champion for kids.”
Worl will receive the award at a ceremony at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 29 at the Alaska State Museum.
NYO is comprised of various events, derived from exercises or practices common to hunters in the high Arctic, Worl said. There are dozens or hundreds of games, Worl said, and the ones chosen for tournaments can depend on what organization is holding the competition.
“They were traditional games that were used to test things like strength, balance, endurance,” Worl said. “All things hunters needed to survive in the harsh Arctic environments.”
A self-sustaining reaction
Since 2017, Worl has served as a cultural specialist and NYO coordinator for the Juneau School District. The games, which compete at both the middle and high school level, have multiple practices a week.
The combined Juneau NYO team recently competed at the Peninsula Winter Games in Kenai, setting two records and bringing home 16 medals, including two first places medals for senior Matthew Quinto, and one first place medal for senior Haydon Chartier. More competitions are coming up, both in and out of Juneau, including the regional event at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé on March 7 and 8.
Worl said that one of his goals is to give students a chance to compete in NYO until they graduate and to cultivate a generation of Alaskans who can return to coach the games themselves when they’re older.
“I want a sustainable program where eventually in a few years I could step away from it and it would keep going. I don’t want to step away; this is my dream career and I love doing it,” Worl said. “We’re still building it up. It still needs a lot of support. People are still learning about the sport.”
Worl said that he had problems joining sports as a kid, but that he found a place in NYO that other students might be able to connect with in a way they might not with more standard sports like basketball or football.
“When I did join NYO, I think it was a life changing activity that resonated with me so much where I belonged, and I was supported and encouraged,” Worl said. “That’s what I want. To be able to reach those students who may have done other sports that weren’t for them.”
Spreading the tradition
Worl is also working at many levels to spread the sport, both in width and height. He’s held camps in Juneau for others in Southeast to learn how to coach the games. He’s also helped at least eight Southeast communities — including Yakutat, Sitka, Hoonah, Angoon, Craig, Hydaburg, Metlakatla and Ketchikan — set up their own NYO programs. While the traditional Arctic games have had a steadier presence in the north of the state, they’ve quietly lapsed in the Southeast to a large extent, Worl said.
But Worl doesn’t want to stop with high school.
“My other goal is creating a collegiate level traditional games,” Worl said. “That’s something that happens in NYO. You participate all through high school and then it ends. It’s not something that exists beyond high school.”
While University of Alaska Southeast has a small team that continues playing the Arctic traditional games, Worl said, he’s working on involving other colleges into the practice. Worl is also looking to get some of the Arctic traditional games introduced to the North American Indigenous Games. Worl seeks to travel to the 2020 games this summer, hosted in Halifax, Canada, with four students from high schools across Alaska, representing a broad swathe.
“I want to represent Alaska as a whole,” Worl said.
• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.