Sheer concentration. Pursed lips. Deep breaths. Without blinking, the 16-year-old girl stared through the sealskin ball hanging 56 inches above the gym floor.
She didn’t see the people gathered in the bleachers; she didn’t feel the stares of her peer athletes circled around — there was just the spinning, striped ball.
Then she vaulted forward, kicking two straight legs up, bending her chest and head forward and stabbing her feet just shy of the ball.
She landed on her heals and staggered backward.
She was out. It happened in less than a second.
It was Diana German’s third year participating in the Native Youth Olympics held in the Soldotna High School. Teams from Kenai, Ninilchik, Seward, Wasilla and Chickaloon were competing Saturday. The full competition ran from Friday to Sunday.
Although the Seward resident had placed third in the two-foot high kick, she was not discouraged; she had broken a personal record and had been supported by her friends.
“No matter where you’re from, everyone will become friends because we all help each other out,” German said. “Even though it’s an individual sport, it’s more of a team sport at heart.”
The Native Youth Olympics have been held at the high school level since 1971. At that time, youth were being pulled from villages and placed into boarding schools, and the games were a way to preserve native cultures in a big city like Anchorage, NYO head official Sam Strange said.
But they have been around longer than the ‘70s, Strange said. For generations the games practiced at NYO have passed from “village to village, person to person,” he said.
“They were games years ago when they lived in the mud and sod huts to keep them strong,” he said.
The Indian stick pull, for instance, was a game easily played inside during the dark winter days, he said. They used a short stick, tapered on both ends, and lathered their hands with a lubricant. Two competitors would grip the stick and pull.
“What this does is it signifies grabbing a fish by the tail,” he said; it’s a way to train grip strength.
Many of the games — the high kicks, stick pulls, seal hop — have lost their utility for hunting in an age of gunpowder and gasoline, Strange said. But for some they are still relevant, he said.
One of the NYO officials was once hunting on the ice when it began cracking, Strange said. Using the agility he learned as a kid from the scissor broad jump, he was able to dance along the ice chunks back to safety, Strange said.
“So there’s still some practically to some of them,” he said. “But it’s about the sportsmanship. That’s what makes these games so unique, is that sportsmanship and compassion.”
Strange said the games don’t have the same cutthroat mentality like basketball or hockey.
“I just remember when I did my first knuckle hop, my competitor told me my first 20 feet were going to be hell, but once you get past that first 20 feet it’ll get much better,” Strange said.
When German was struggling to kick the target in the two-foot high kick, other athletes coached her on. When she failed on her third try, her peers swarmed her with hugs.
After, instead of leaving, German sat back down in the half-circle and cheered on the last two: Seward’s 16-year-old Masha Hart, and former state champion in the one-foot high kick, 17-year-old Autum Ridley, of Anchorage.
The ball was now set at 57 inches and Hart had it pinned with the same look of intensity.
German, Hart’s teammate, said they had been trained to think of their minds as a chalk board and wipe clean all distractions.
“For me,” she said, “I try not to think about anything so I don’t get panicked. When everything is perfect in your mind you’re ready to go.”
Hart had been staring at the bag for almost 30 seconds without blinking. She had already missed twice and it was her last try.
Someone clapped and soon the rest of the gym was one clap after another.
Her arms swung as she breathed.
A baby walked by and threw her doll toward Hart.
She was oblivious to all of it.
Everything was a blur, but that one bag. It was spinning slowly.
Then, she rushed forward and flew up, missed the bag, landed hard and fell back on her butt.
Pushing herself up, she said: “That was awesome.”
Dan Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.