The group of children sat, fidgeting, whispering, giggling and watching until the referee called two names. Two girls moved quickly onto the mat, crossed legs, each grabbing the other’s ankle and then hooking one of their arms together and waiting for the word to go. Suddenly, an explosion of action and both girls are making fists and straining to grip, to slip is to lose. Finally, one gets the edge and starts to lean backward, pulling hard until the other girl slips and stops. The two shake hands and move back to the circle, waiting to cheer for the next duo.
The gym at Kenai Middle School rang with cheers as groups of junior and senior athletes competed in the annual Native Youth Olympics, part of the weekend’s 38th annual Peninsula Winter Games.
Fallon Hughes, 9, sat in the circle of girls competing in the arm pull, looking at Anevay Ambrosiani, 10, whose arm was red from the competition.
“It kind of hurts,” Hughes said.
But before she could explain further, the two were called to compete against each other.
Wide-eyed, the moved onto the mat and got into position, Hughes easily beat Ambrosiani.
Hughes, of Seward, traveled with several teams to spend the weekend on the Central Peninsula competing in the games.
Her coach, James Wardlow, found her after the round.
“Once you make a fist, it should be nice and tight,” he told her. “It should be tightening all of your muscles.”
Wardlow and the other coaches roamed the room, stopping to coach any athlete that caught their attention, often catching ones on competing teams as often as they coached their own.
It’s the way the games work, said Leroy Shangin, an official at the games.
As he worked with a group competing in the toe kick, a complicated long jump that requires the athlete to lung forward and kick their toes back at the last minute to push a stick backward.
In between tries, Shangin would stop to talk to each athlete.
“I was giving them advice,” he said. “That’s what most officials do at these games,” he said. “I was telling them that they have perfect form but sometimes their feet are not kicking back.”
Charlie Mack, 13, tried the toe kick unsuccessfully several times. He could land the jump, but had a hard time connecting with the stick.
“I think it’s harder to do it from closer,” he said.
He said he’s not good at the event, but he likes to do it anyway.
“It’s just fun, tests your mind,” he said. “It’s definitely got a big mental part. Any of these events. You can psych yourself out in almost all of these events. If you don’t think you’re going to jump too far. If you don’t think you’re going to be able to make it over the stick. When you’re doing one foot and you psych yourself out you just don’t jump to high.”
Mack stood out from the group as the only jumper without shoes.
“I do it barefoot because I find it easier, like when I’m kicking I know where I am. If you’re wearing basketball shoes it cuts off your ankle so you can’t really bend it to get a flat toe. It just gives you a lot more freedom,” he said.
The games are designed to develop skills, stamina and strength Alaska Natives needed to survive for thousands of years.
“The toe kick is like... if you’re running away from like a polar bear or a wolf and you have a broken sheet of ice in front of you that you have to get through, you have to be light on your feet. When you’re touching a small chunk of ice or a big chunk, you don’t know if it’s going to break off or what,” Shangin said. “So you have to be really quick on your feet to get across that ice before the polar bear or wolf gets you.”
As the day progressed, several hundred children and their parents crowded into the Soldotna Sports Complex for a different kind of fun.
From noon to 4 p.m., free food, cookie decorating, archery and building projects kept the crowds entertained.
Gavin Kinneen, 10, Mason Broache, 9, and his dad Dameon Broache, of Palmer, said they were happy to have so many free activities availble while they waited for their game in the Kenai Peninsula Hockey Association’s Stanley Chrysler Cup.
Broache and Kinneen, both Palmer Pioneers, were set to play Saturday night and Dameon Broache said he was happy they didn’t have to sit in a hote.
“This is great because kids from Homer and different parts of the state can come here after their games and play,” he said. “This is outstanding for us.