Rural wrestlers represent Bristol Bay at Arctic Winter Games.
It’s the one-on-one aspect of wrestling that draws Aileen Lester to the mat.
"You don’t have to worry about disappointing your team or worrying about any of your team giving up. You put the effort in, you get something out of it,” Aileen said.
The red-haired 13-year-old is at the Arctic Winter Games in Canada representing Newhalen, a fishing village of about 160 people.
"It’s crazy because there are a lot of lodges,” Aileen described her town. "Most people think there’s nothing to do but we always find something to do.”
She comes from a long line of wrestlers-- including both of her parents. Her dad taught her the sport and maintains the community’s wrestling program.
"It means a lot to me because I know he cares and he loves me. He’s always doing something like this, putting me and my siblings first,” Aileen said.
She’s not the only grappler from off the road system on Team Alaska. Four of the five boys are from Dillingham, while the other is from Kodiak.
Coach Dave Lorring said it’s difficult for him to put a team together for Arctic Winter Games because many national wrestling tournaments coincide with the event.
"That’s my plan as a coach for Arctic Winter Games is I try to hit rural Alaska and try to get the kids who don’t get the opportunities of kids in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Kenai Peninsula. Wrestling provides a lot of really good rural athletes."
Andrew Heyano, 13, grew up in Dillingham. He said the competition in Canada is much harder than what he’s used to at home. He hopes his performance encourage others to try out for the team.
"We can be an inspiration to them to make them succeed further,” Andrew said.
Zachary Kolbe is one of about 25 to 30 wrestlers in the Dillingham wrestling program. He moved there three years ago from Minnesota. Zachary said he’s glad Coach Lorring makes it a priority to include the villages.
"It’s cool because we’re a small town and we don’t get out to these big tournaments, being able to show what we can do to other places.”
Aileen says, win or lose, she’s at the games to have fun. She and her teammates are excited to test their skills on an international level and bring what they learned at Arctic Winter Games back home to Alaska.
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