FORT MCMURRAY, Alberta, Canada The 2004 Arctic Winter Games officially came to an end Saturday night in a wistful closing ceremony in Fort McMurray's temporary ATCO Plaza. Excited but tired, the athletes, volunteers and spectators at the Games gathered to say farewell to new friends and a week of athletic and cultural competitions until the 2006 Games on the Kenai Peninsula.
Team Alaska, which included about 380 young athletes from the Last Frontier and almost 40 from the Kenai Peninsula, will leave the Games with a close second-place finish, earning a preliminary count of 127 medals. Team Alberta North, host of this year's Games, was the winning contingent with an early count of 129 medals.
As the closing ceremonies kicked off Saturday night, the crowd and athletes were understandably quieter than last Saturday's opening ceremonies, having spent a week in fierce work and play. But the widespread sleepiness couldn't keep the crowd from dramatically waving their flags and banners, cheering for one another's successes and enjoying the musical performances throughout the evening.
Dignitaries at the ceremonies took the opportunity to thank the Games sponsors and participants, highlight the triumphs of the week and look ahead to the next Games on the peninsula.
"These Games have given us so many precious memories," said Stan Keyes, Canada's minister of sport. "They allow us to share our northern culture, our northern values and make new northern friends."
The crowd was a testament to friendships made, as contingent team members arrived decked out in traded gear. When they arrived at the Games, each team was visible in blocks of identical jackets and gear. Saturday night, the attire was mixed after a week of sharing and trading. Team Nunavik Quebec's flag carriers even wore Team Alaska jackets as they entered the plaza.
That spirit of friendship in the North was apparent throughout the week as well, as athletes showed not only their athletic abilities, but also their knack for kindness.
Team Nunavut was awarded the Hodgson Trophy for sportsmanship for this year's Games, but fair play and friendship were displayed throughout the week.
Speed skaters displayed their tenacity when, after rough falls against the ice rink walls, they got up to finish their races with dignity. Arctic sports competitors proved their good will, hugging their opponents in the midst of competition. Soccer players took precious seconds to lift fallen rivals to their feet.
And, in one of the most amazing examples of the spirit of the Games, Alaska's peewee hockey players managed to maintain positive spirits even after a couple of devastating losses.
Still, Alaska athletes also proved their abilities on the ice, turf, wood and mats throughout the week.
The community of Fort McMurray, Alberta, extinguished the Arctic Winter Games torch Saturday night. It won't burn again until the the Kenai Peninsula hosts the games in 2006.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Among Team Alaska's most successful group of athletes was the Arctic sports squad, who brought home 21 medals in seven different events. Nicole Johnston of Chugiak led the bunch with three gold medals and two silvers. Phillip Blanchett of Anchorage also earned five medals, including a silver and four bronze ulus. John Miller III of Barrow scored his single gold with a record-setting 9-foot, 5-inch one-foot high kick for the junior male category.
Alaska wrestlers also brought in a wealth of medals, earning 20 different awards for their skills. Nikiski's Lance Penhale earned two of those medals, including a silver for the up-to-57-kilogram individual freestyle male competition and a bronze for individual Inuit wrestling in the same weight class.
Cross-country skiers dominated several of their races, with the midget male team sweeping both the 750-meter sprint and the 5-kilometer freestyle race.
Girdwood's Callan Chythlook-Sifsof won five medals for her snowboarding events.
Reidun Todd of Homer was one of only a handful of Kenai Peninsula athletes to bring home medals for individual events. She won a bronze medal for the junior female 5-kilometer snowshoe sprint.
Soldotna's Jessica Turner also earned individual medals, winning a silver for her figure skating short performance and a bronze for her long program.
Peninsula athletes pulled their weight in a handful of team sports, as well.
Bradley Fusaro of Soldotna was the leading scorer on Alaska's bantam male hockey team, with one goal and two assists. Elijah Waldrip of Soldotna had one goal and one assist. Kegan Kiel of Kenai and Micah Perletti of Kasilof also played on the team. The boys were 1-3 in preliminary play and lost 14-0 to the championship Alberta North team in the semi-finals. They went on to lose 4-2 in a closer match against the Yukon team, ultimately taking fourth in the Games.
Gabriel Fellman of Soldotna was the only peninsula player on the midget boys' hockey team. He had one goal and two assists in the week of play, helping bring his team to a fourth-place finish, as well.
In basketball play, Anchor Point's Jennifer Erickson scored 36 points during the week, helping her junior girls' team claim the silver medal. The team went 3-1 in preliminary rounds, but ultimately lost to Alberta North in a 75-50 championship game.
The boys' basketball team, featuring Cook Inlet Academy players James Libert and Nathan Byrd, brought in the bronze medal after a 3-2 record in preliminaries and a 69-61 win over Northwest Terri-tories for third place. Libert scored 13 points, while Byrd scored 37.
In other team sports, the junior male indoor soccer team pulled off a tense 3-2 win against Magadan in an overtime shootout Friday night, winning third place for the week, while the junior girls beat the Northwest Territories for the bronze. The juvenile girls and intermediate girls brought home final hour wins for two gold medals Saturday afternoon.
Outside the athletic competitions, Team Alaska's cultural delegation the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's Jabila'ina Dance Group and Chuda Kuya Drum Group showed off the region's cultural heritage with performances around town. The group also performed at the closing ceremonies, as Arctic Winter Games International Committee President Gerry Thick presented Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley with the new Games flag in honor of the area's role as 2006 host.
"We're excited to invite all (of you) to visit the Kenai Peninsula when it will be our turn to make the 2006 Arctic Winter Games the best Games ever," Bagley told the crowd.
As the Games came to a close, there was a note of sadness in the air, but Fort McMurray Mayor Doug Faulkner told participants not to fret.
"As we sit here this evening, we must all look forward to the future and the 2006 Arctic Winter Games on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska," he said. "Many of you will meet again in Alaska."
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