Hunting for heritage

Urban athlete takes up Native games on his own

Posted: Sunday, March 12, 2006

Surrounded by television cameras and microphones, one of the Inuit games’ greatest spokesmen had a hard time describing his latest feat.

“I was speechless,” David Thomas, the 2006 Men’s Arctic Winter Games all-around champion in Inuit games said following his dramatic victory in the one foot high kick Thursday night at Kenai Central High School. “I couldn’t put anything into words.”

In winning three gold and two silver ulus during the Games, Thomas joined fellow Alaskan Elizabeth Rexford, of Barrow, in sweeping the men’s and women’s open divisions in Inuit games. The duo were the stars of the show all week, with Rexford pulling in six medals — two gold, one silver and three bronze — of her own.

Throughout the events, Thomas displayed an electric smile and flair for the dramatic. Earlier in the week, he won a showdown in the one arm reach event over the event’s defending champion, Matthew Anikina. Then Thursday, he doubled up, grabbing gold in the high kick in the afternoon and the knuckle hop in the evening.

It was in his high kick win that Thomas’ clutch nature really came through.

In one foot high kick, athletes must leap into the air and kick a sealskin ball with one foot, then land on the same foot. It’s the premier display of skill and athleticism in Inuit games, the event everyone wants to watch — and win.

Thomas and Sean Nipisar of Nunavik-Quebec kicked 8 feet, 10 inches with no misses. After both men missed on all three attempts at 9 feet, officials lowered the ball to 8 feet, 11 inches, setting up a showdown for the title.

Tension during any high-kick event hangs in the air like an arctic fog. Athletes stand motionless as they try and channel all their nervous energy into the upcoming kick. Waiting for the moment to strike, they circle and stalk the suspended ball, the crowd watching in respectful silence. A cell phone ring or crying baby can cut the air like a siren.

As Thomas prepared to make his first attempt at 8 feet, 11 inches, he said he began to feel a perfect calm as everything around him faded into the background.

“I just realized I had to go out and have fun,” he said. “I was just focusing on the ball and myself.”

As he prepared to leap, Thomas said he waited until all his concentration was focused squarely on the task at hand.

“It was like tunnel vision,” he said.

Finally, he exploded upward and executed a perfect scissor kick, cleanly flicking the ball into the air with his foot. He’d kicked higher than he’d ever kicked before. He stuck the landing, his long hair coming loose from its ponytail and flying around his face. The crowd went nuts.

When Nipisar missed on his first attempt, Thomas could breathe again.

Now that he’s a bona-fide star in Inuit games, Thomas wants to help others in the state have a chance to learn the games he’s come to love — a chance he almost never got himself.

Many competitors in traditional Eskimo games hail from villages across the Arctic. Thomas took a different path to stardom. Growing up in Palmer with his mother and stepfather, he said he didn’t pick up the sport until 2002. Coaches in Southcentral Alaska’s more urban areas are hard to come by, and Thomas said that, growing up, he didn’t have much in the way of guidance in the traditional games.

“It made it tough, because there was nobody there to show us,” he said.

Still, after watching the Native Youth Olympics, Thomas said he became fanatical in his pursuit of learning and excelling at the traditional games of Alaska’s Native people. He trained himself mostly, jumping, stretching and hopping wherever he could find some open space.

“Whenever I’m at home, I always practice in my living room,” he said.

With the support of his family, Thomas said he used that homegrown spirit to push him to greater heights. In fact, he said that he relied on the strength of his family — many of whom were on hand Thursday to watch his triumph — during the week’s events.

Thomas doesn’t want future generations of Native games athletes to have to go through what he did. That’s why he’s working to spread the word about the sport he loves to young people around Alaska.

“I go into schools and demonstrate the games and just talk to the kids,” he said.

Thomas also works as a judge during Native Youth Olympics competitions. He said he believes it’s his duty to try and encourage other Natives to take up the traditional sports that are part of their heritage.

“Just like the dancing, the hunting, the fishing, the games are there to keep us strong,” he said. “It’s all part of who we are.”

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