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Native Youth Olympics highlight culture, camaraderie for competitors

By Heather Hintze 8:21 PM April 27, 2017

For athletes at the 2017 Native Youth Olympics (NYO), the games are all about culture and community.

“My favorite part about NYO is the camaraderie between everyone,” said Allie Ivanoff, a sophomore in Unalakleet. “You can go up to a person and they’ll coach you if you need it. Everything is about sportsmanship in this sport, almost nothing is about winning.”

The games have grown since they started more than 45 years ago. About 100 students competed in events in just one afternoon in 1971. Now, the three days of competition bring in up to 500 athletes from around the state.

“It’s so important for the youth to come here and know how to play the games but also know why the games were created, knowing their ancestors were playing these games thousands of years before them,” Marjorie Tahbone, master of ceremonies for the event and a former competitor herself, said.

Head official Nicole Johnston was a NYO competitor in the early 1980s.

“I can remember doing some competitions until eleven o’clock at night,” Johnston recalled.

In 1989, she set the women’s world record for the two-foot high kick at 6-feet 6-inches. That record held for 25 years.

On Thursday night she was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

Johnston said the games have grown since those early years but they’re still the same at heart.

“It’s a reminder that before today’s amenities became available you really had to work hard to survive and you had to encourage others in your community to be strong and fit, because you had to rely on each other,” she said.

Each event has a cultural meaning behind it. The strength used in the kneel jump is the same strength ancestors would have needed to jump to their feet on an ice floe; the seal hop mimics the motion of the animal so hunters could sneak up with their spear.

For Ivanoff, the games connect her to Inupiaq and Yupik heritage.

“A lot our villages don’t speak their Native language anymore, and I think this is another way to bring it back,” Ivanoff said. “People are realizing it needs to be brought back. I think this is helping.”

At NYO, culture, community and camaraderie take precedence over taking home the gold.

Follow coverage of this year’s NYO on KTVA 11 News every evening at 5, 6 and 10 p.m.

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