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Excruciating ear pull challenge tests athletes’ limits

By Heather Hintze 11:05 PM July 18, 2014
FAIRBANKS –

It’s not about strength, it’s about how much you can take.

“It’s for the pain endurance,” said Michelle Strange. “I’m very competitive as well so I love it. And I apparently have really good ears to compete,” she laughed.

The ear pull is not only one of the most painful games to play at the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, it’s also one of the more grueling to watch.

Strange was gunning for first place this year, but not if Vanessa Tahbone had anything to say about it. One by one she knocked out other first-place hopefuls.

“Two down, undefeated,” Tahbone smiled. “On the way to the top. Got a few more pulls. Hopefully I can go all the way undefeated.”

It was quite a sight as competitors wrapped simulated sinew around their ears and tried to tug it away from their opponents.

“It’s simulating being in the cold, preparing for frost bite,” Tahbone said of the cultural significance. “The pain is a different feeling,” she paused. “It burns.”

In years past it was just a single strand that would take its toll on their aural appendages.

“I got eight stitches on this ear,” Tahbone said as she flipped over her left ear to show the scar. “This is my weak ear and this is my strong ear. So when I start, I like to start with my strong ear because it’s my winning ear.”

Now the competition uses a braided rope. Athletes said the thicker strand is hard to keep on, but it cuts down on the cuts.

“I’m super excited,” said Strange as she prepared for the semi-final round. “She beat me two years ago for first place. So I’m excited/nervous.”

Strange and Tahbone went ear-to-ear in the third place match where Michelle came out on top.

Then it was time for her to go for the title that escaped her last year.

“Ready, set, pull!” shouted an official.

Strange won one and her opponent won one, forcing them into a third round where they both pulled with their winning ear.

Unfortunately, Strange couldn’t pull out a victory this time and will have to settle for second place again. That’s just fine with her tough because she escaped with minimal damage.

“[I'm feeling] really good cause my ears aren’t cut, so I’m doing fabulous,” she said.

Not all the competitors were that lucky.

“Ahhh … ahhh … AAAHHH!” one of the men screamed as the match seemed to last forever.

The men’s final rounds proved to be a bloody battle. One athlete’s ears turned purple with blood blisters. Another wiped blood from behind his ears onto his pants.

It was ear endurance to the extreme that paid off for at least one competitor in the end.

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