Sean Nipisar of Team Nunuvut makes contact with the ball during the one-hand reach event of the Inuit games Monday at Kenai Central High School. Athletes balance on one hand and try to reach a ball suspended overhead.
Photo by Roy Shapley
Standing on the sidelines of the one-hand reach airplane event, Matt Anikina of Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories silently bobbed his head to 50 Cent blaring in his headphones and watched as his competitors dropped out one by one. As the defending Arctic Winter Games champion in the Inuit games event, Anikina had every reason to believe he would repeat as champion.
During the early rounds of the event, Anikina looked unconcerned, cruising through the preliminaries without even removing his blue jeans. But as the field narrowed, Anikina began to look worried. His longtime rival and the event’s runner up in 2004, David Thomas of Palmer, was still alive.
The one-hand reach is typical of all Inuit games a simple competition that requires mind-numbing athleticism, balance and skill. Participants must balance on one hand and reach for a ball suspended above their heads. The competitor who can reach the highest without toppling to the ground is declared the winner.
In 2004, Anikina outlasted Thomas, reaching a height of 5 feet, 2 inches to take home the gold ulu. As the 2006 competition at Kenai Central High School wore on, however, it became obvious it would take more than that to repeat as champion. After the 5’4” level, both men were still alive, and the ball was raised to 5’6”.
By this time, Anikina and Thomas had stripped to just their shorts, as the competition became serious. Still, both wore smiles and appeared to be impervious to the pressure mounting around them.
Stepping up the the ball first was the ponytailed Thomas. The task before him seemed impossible as he looked at a ball dangling as high as his eyebrows. Then, playing to the crowd a bit, he smiled and flexed his biceps as if to show he was up to the task.
He was. Thomas cleanly touched the ball with his hand, setting a new personal best and putting the pressure squarely on Anikina.
The Arctic Winter Games are about more than competition. After Thomas made his reach, he and Anikina embraced, both rivals smiling at Thomas’ achievement.
After the competition, they agreed that their rivalry came secondary to the camaraderie fostered by the event.
“We’re good friends,” Anikina said following the event.
On his first two of three attempts at 5’6”, Anikina narrowly missed touching the ball. With the championship at stake, he then went for his third and final try.
He hit the ball then fell in a heap to the ground. Thomas was the winner.
Afterward, the two men again shared a hug, with Anikina holding his friend’s hand up in the air.
For Anikina, the loss came as a disappointment as he said he expected to win the event coming into Monday’s contest, but conceded he was beaten fair and square.
“I thought I would win,” he said. “But he was the better guy today.”
As for Thomas, he said the victory fulfilled his dream of becoming a champion at an event that runs in his blood.
“I grew up watching my biological father doing this,” he said. “He told me he used to win this game in his village.”
Now, with a golden ulu to hang from his neck, Thomas can say he’s lived up to the high mark set by his father.
Even more than becoming a champion, Thomas said that he’s just happy to be able to participate in a traditional Native sport that puts more emphasis on teamwork and friendship than winning and losing.
“It’s a competition, but it’s still more friendly,” he said, pointing out that competitors from opposing teams routinely give tips to help one another.
“It helps show what the spirit of the Games is all about.”
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