Matthew Quinto, a Thunder Mountain High School student, takes a shot at the one-foot high kick as members of Juneau’s Native Youth Olympic team compete against Whitehorse’s Team Yukon in a traditional games competition over livestreaming video at the University of Alaska Southeast rec center on March 17, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Matthew Quinto, a Thunder Mountain High School student, takes a shot at the one-foot high kick as members of Juneau’s Native Youth Olympic team compete against Whitehorse’s Team Yukon in a traditional games competition over livestreaming video at the University of Alaska Southeast rec center on March 17, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Traditional games athletes find new way to compete amid distancing

Far away from each, teams still found a way to be close.

This year’s Arctic Winter Games, scheduled to happen this week, were canceled as a COVID-19 prevention measure.

“We heard the Arctic Winter Games were canceled during Native Games weekend. We cried when we heard it,” said coach Kyle Worl on Tuesday. “I think that was really the best time for us to hear the news. We could come together, cry together, laugh together. They held a ceremony for everyone who qualified for the Arctic Winter Games. Sealaska Heritage Institute gave robes to everyone who qualified for the Arctic Winter Games.”

But Juneau athletes didn’t let that stop them from testing their mettle all the same — just at a greater remove than they may have envisioned.

Playing in an empty gym, traditional games athletes competed against Team Yukon, located in Whitehorse, in the “Just for Kicks” face off, livestreaming their match over Facebook and video chatting with each other as they competed in seven events.

“The Arctic Winter Games was canceled, and we had six people from our Native Youth Olympics team qualify,” Worl said. “The Arctic Winter Games is like our Winter Olympics, and it was heartbreaking when it was canceled.”

[State basketball tournament canceled]

Athletes competed in the triple jump, the kneel jump, the one-foot high kick the one-hand reach, the two-foot high kick, the Alaskan high kick and the sledge jump. Scores were based on how well a competitor did against the records set in the previous AWG in 2018.

“This is Whitehorse’s idea, Team Yukon,” Worl said. “They invited us on Friday.”

Athletes set up equipment as members of Juneau’s Native Youth Olympic team compete against Whitehorse’s Team Yukon in a traditional games competition over livestreaming video at the University of Alaska Southeast rec center on March 17, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

Athletes set up equipment as members of Juneau’s Native Youth Olympic team compete against Whitehorse’s Team Yukon in a traditional games competition over livestreaming video at the University of Alaska Southeast rec center on March 17, 2020. (Michael S. Lockett | Juneau Empire)

For many of the competitors, this year’s Arctic Winter Games would have been their last competition before aging out to the adult division.

“A lot of them will age out by the next games in 2022,” Worl said. “It’s pretty competitive to get on the team in the first place. A lot of the athletes will age out of their age bracket or division and there’s very little space for the adult division.”

[The show goes online for local open mic]

Getting to compete against Team Yukon over the video is a bittersweet consolation as the NYO season comes to a close in the spring. But it might set a precedent for competing against other, further-flung teams in the future.

“I think it might lead to something more. In the future maybe we’ll do this again with Yukon or Greenland,” Worl said. “This is an exciting experience that will allow us to connect more than every two years.”

Worl was excited that Juneau got to compete, even in the time of separation and distancing.

“I think we get to see them. The boys right now are playing with the other guys over the camera. We’re lucky because White Horse is pretty close and we go visit them for other tournaments,” Worl said. “That’s what the Arctic Winter Games is about, bringing our Northern communities together in celebration. We can’t do it physically, but this is the next best thing.”

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