Sheer power, unreal flexibility and explosive jumping ability – all tied to the rich cultures of Alaska Native peoples – are on display as hundreds of youth gather in Anchorage for the annual NYO Games, April 23-25, 2020.
There are only a few sports moments in which the athlete’s laser focus on the task at hand can render an entire crowd silent: a long putt to win. A match point serve. A “Hail Mary” pass hanging midair. It’s as if that instant sucks all the oxygen away from the crowd. Everyone holds their breath, as if the slightest breeze could upset months of preparation and practice. But nothing turns a raucous crowd as quiet as a library like a record attempt at the NYO Games.
Started in 1972, the NYO Games, previously known as the Native Youth Olympics, includes 10 events based on games past generations of Alaska Native people played as a way to test their hunting and survival skills, increase strength and maintain endurance, agility and the balance of mind and body. The Eskimo stick pull, for instance, is based on a strengthening exercise that Native hunters would do to prepare themselves for pulling seals out of the water. Although events are based on traditional Alaska Native activities, the competition is open to all Alaska students from seventh to 12th grade, regardless of ethnicity.
It’s an insight into Alaska's rich cultural heritage and a friendly competition for Alaska kids all at once. About 500 students from across Alaska assemble in Anchorage each spring to demonstrate their skills during the NYO Games. This year’s games will be held in the Alaska Airlines Center on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus. Admission is free, so check it out and cheer on the athletes. It’s an exciting time; in recent years decades-old records have fallen. If your visit to Anchorage doesn't coincide with the NYO Games, the Alaska Native Heritage Center has regular demonstrations of Alaska Native games several times daily throughout the summer.
There’s a reason the NYO Games can inspire that hushed awe; not many athletes in any other sport could accomplish what some of these athletes – middle and high school students – can do. The best can hop 150 feet across a hardwood floor on their knuckles (the seal hop), launch off the ground and kick more than 8 feet in the air (one- and two-foot high kick) or balance all their weight on a single palm while stretching for a ball suspended almost 6 feet over their head (one hand reach). And if you’re thinking “I could do that,” well you’ve got a chance to prove it.
The premise of each event seems simple – touch the ball, jump high, hold on for as long as you can – but as height of the target increases or the distance required to advance widens, the skill required quickly approaches the superhuman. Attempting one of the events yourself might take your breath away quite literally. But watching these young men and women compete can definitely leave you breathless.
NYO Games are hosted by Cook Inlet Tribal Council, Inc., the nonprofit social service agency for Cook Inlet Region, Inc., with a mission to provide culturally appropriate services for Alaska Native people to achieve self-determination through individual, family and community development. The games include Alaska Native dance performances twice a day.
Learn more about NYO by watching “I Am A Native Youth Olympian,” courtesy of INDIE ALASKA, an original video series produced by Alaska Public Media in partnership with PBS Digital Studios.