FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta, Canada About 40 young athletes from the Kenai Peninsula are in Fort McMurray this week representing their region and state in the 2004 Arctic Winter Games.
Though the Games include several features, from elaborate ceremonies to cultural presentations, they are primarily sporting competitions, allowing northern athletes to show off their skills and face off with their peers from around the world.
This week, Kenai Peninsula athletes are doing just that, teaming up with fellow Alaska competitors to contend with other young people from Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Greenland in sports ranging from basketball to wrestling and from hockey to figure skating.
"It's so cultures can get together, so we can relate with other parts of the world," said Nikiski wrestler Lance Penhale. "It's very fun. We have a lot of freedom, everything's free and there's a lot of support from the community."
Lance Penhale of Nikiski wrestles to a win Tuesday in a Team Alaska dual meet against Northwest Territories during the Arctic Winter Games in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. The games, which this year feature 1,700 participants from seven different countries, will take place on the Kenai Peninsula in 2006. Upper right, Erika Klaar of Homer talks about her visit so far to the Games.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Penhale, a junior at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School, is one of about 14 Alaska wrestlers at the Games. Though wrestling competitions just began Tuesday morning, he and his teammates are off to a strong start.
"It's going pretty good," Penhale said. "I'm bumping up 12 pounds, but it's fine."
Penhale usually wrestles in the 114-pound bracket, but was competing at 126 pounds Tuesday.
In his first match, he pinned his Northwest Territories opponent in less than two minutes. His teammates many of whom he knows from summer wrestling camps and high school competitions were having similar success.
Christopher Hall of Kenai rounds a corner Monday at Birchwood Trails during the 5-kilometer classic competition at the Arctic Winter Games in Fort McMurray, Alberta. More than two dozen local athletes and about a dozen performers from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's dance and drum groups are here with Team Alaska.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Off the mats, Penhale said he's enjoying his experience in Canada. Though he said he tries to attend at least one out-of-state match a year, the international venue is a new encounter for him.
"Everything's weird," he said, adding that he's enjoying the multicultural setting.
"I've noticed a lot of things focused on meeting people from other countries. There's a lot of different languages here."
Figure skater Jessica Turner, 12, of Soldotna, also said she is enjoying the different scene. She presented her short program Monday night and was scheduled to deliver the long program Tuesday evening.
"It's really fun, though I haven't got much sleep. It's nice to see all the different people," Erika Klaar of Homer said following her 5-kilometer classic race Monday.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Turner, who has been skating since she was 3 and competing since she was 5, said she's used to traveling for competitions. Last year, for example, she participated in the region finals in Washington, D.C.
"I usually go where there are more people," she said.
Still, she said the opportunity to skate in Canada is a different and exciting experience.
"It's just way different from the U.S.," she said. "It's been a blast."
Hockey players Kegan Kiel, 14, of Kenai, and Elijah Waldrip, 14, of Soldotna, also said they're enjoying meeting new people from around the world.
"It's cool making friends, being looked at by scouts," Waldrip said. "We've been watching games, hanging out with girls, meeting new friends and stuff."
The boys said they're struggling a bit on the ice, where their bantam team had an even 1-1 win-loss record by Tuesday afternoon.
They explained that team sports are a bit more challenging at the Games, because the players don't know each other beforehand.
"You have to get used to what their habits are," Waldrip said.
"It's hard, frustrating," Kiel said. "We should pick it up a little, but it's going good."
Back in the individual sports, peninsula cross-country skiers said they were enjoying the Games both on and off the trails.
Chris Hall, a freshman at Kenai Central High School, said he's only been to Canada once, when he drove through with his family on his way to Alaska.
The Games are offering him a new perspective, he said.
"It's really cool to see where other countries are and to listen to the different dialects," he said. "I'm really enjoying watching other countries and how they participate. It's fun."
Homer High School freshman Erika Klaar, also a cross-country skier, agreed.
Both she and Hall skied in the 5-kilometer classic races Monday morning. They were scheduled to have 750-meter sprint races Tuesday, but the events were canceled due to extreme temperatures.
"It's really fun, though I haven't got much sleep," she said. "It's nice to see all the different people."
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