“You want to represent as much culture as you possibly can. Back in our ancestors’ days, this is what they would do to prove who’s the strongest."
FAIRBANKS – It’s the most painful and physically taxing sport of the Inuit games: The knuckle hop.
“The first 10 feet or so, you forget you’re on your knuckles. They go completely numb,” explained Nick Hanson, a member of Team Alaska from Unalakleet. “The pain from doing the hops on your knuckles goes away and then it’s just a matter of going as far as you can.”
“For myself, I’m so in the zone that I don’t really feel anything while I’m going,” added Casey Ferguson from Chevak. “I think that I’ll feel in the pain in my knuckles but the adrenaline kicks in and all the endorphins kick in and it’s just a test of endurance for me.”
Arctic Winter Games competitors said it’s not just the spirit of competition that drives them, but also the desire to get back to their Native traditions.
“You want to represent as much culture as you possibly can. Back in our ancestors’ days, this is what they would do to prove who’s the strongest,” Hanson said.
Men positioned themselves in a push-up type position on their knuckles. They hop along a line on the gym floor at Lathrop High School, pushing with their feet as well. The knuckle hop was also used as a hunting technique.
“I love it because of what it represents,” Hanson said. “When you’re out on the ice when you’re trying to catch a seal and you’ve got a spear on your back, you want to mimic that seal’s movements. So you knuckle hop as close as you can so you can strike.”
It’s an incredible feat of strength and pain tolerance. Not matter how much it hurts while they were going, athletes said the real pain set in when it was over.
“Your knuckles are peeled open and you’re bleeding and you have to peel the skin off. That’s the worst part,” Ferguson laughed.
Hanson won gold, hopping 128 feet and seven inches, almost the entire way around the gym.
“When you’re finished, you’re pretty much just relieved. You just want to lay there,” he said. “The judges let you lay there because they know how hard you just got done going. You lay there for a minute and just catch your breath. After you get up, the pain sets in.”
“Go wash your hands first then we’ll get you fixed up,” said volunteer medic Wilma Vinton. She had no idea she’d be so busy; this was her first time seeing the knuckle hop competition.
“I can’t believe the strength they have to be able to do it. But yeah, what they’re doing to their knuckles is pretty ugly,” Vinton said.
She rubbed antibiotic ointment on the wounds and bandaged them up.
“Some have worn it clear down to the cartilage. You can see the bone and the cartilage,” she explained.
A little TLC and competitors can rest their knuckles until the next Arctic Winter Games when they’ll be back for more brutality.