With 147 medals in hand, the Alaska contingent returned from the 2002 Arctic Winter Games in Nuuk, Greenland, and Iqaluit, Nunavut Territory, Canada, as the most decorated team. Of the nine teams -- from Russia, Greenland, Canada and the United States -- Alaska won the most Ulus, with the Canadian Northwest Territories taking second place with 88.
Included among these victorious youth, were a number of Kenai Peninsula athletes who were selected to travel and brought back medals for the North Star state.
The girls basketball team, consisting of six peninsula players and led by former Homer High School coach Deb Lowney, pulled off an unprecedented feat, going undefeated through seven games and capturing gold after facing a tough Northwest Territories team a third time in the final game with a 42-38 win.
"They were definitely our greatest challenge," Lowney said. "They were a well-experienced, well-disciplined team. A lot of kids on the team (their top six players) had been together for four years."
This was in contrast to an Alaska team that had only practiced together twice before leaving for the Games, had to adjust to international rules and were younger than the other teams. Pam Howard of Soldotna accompanied her daughter Brittany, and the team, and said the Games' rules had set an age limit on Alaska basketball programs.
"Apparently, Alaska had dominated the basketball before, so they said that Alaska girls had to be 15 or younger," she said.
But Lowney said some of those obstacle were more of a benefit to her team. And she said they worked to overcome others.
"I look at it as a real positive that we're so young," she said. "They're real coachable. When the don't have a lot of time on the floor, they adapt to change well."
Brittany Howard said the chance to finish unbeaten was daunting, although the opportunities to explore new cultures off the court were exciting.
"We were really scared because it's really hard to go undefeated," she said. "But it was so much fun getting to hang out with people from different countries."
Peninsula girls basketball players included Howard and Stacey Foster from Soldotna, Denali Tuft from Kenai, and Megan Mahan, Kayla Creamer and Bailey Lowney from Homer.
Alaska's girls volleyball team gold-medalled in Nuuk. Mindy Cason of Soldotna was named Most Valuable Player of Alaska's game against Greenland and Alaska defeated Nunavut 3-0 (25-8, 25-12 and 25-10) in the gold medal match.
Cason said she especially enjoyed viewing the different cultures.
"We got to see many cultural dances," she said.
Alaska lost two games -- to Alberta and Yukon -- in round-robin play, to qualify for the finals, and Cason said one of the Canadian teams was particularly competitive.
"Alberta was a tough team," she said.
Another peninsula player was Chelsea Ward of Homer.
Stephanie Lambe and Lela Wiley of Kasilof and Aleta Phelps of Homer were on the Nordic skiing events, winning gold in the 3-by-5 kilometer relays in Nuuk. Wiley raced with the Junior (ages 15-18) team and Lambe and Phelps were on the Juvenile (ages 14-15) team.
The Alaska girls basketball team is recognized in a gold medal ceremony at the Arctic Winter Games in Iqaluit, Nunavut Territory, Canada.
Photo by Pam Howard
Lambe described the trail as being tough.
"The first 1K was kind of hard," she said. "Then it was strait up. Nothing like Alaska. There weren't any trees and it was really windy. We were probably 50 feet away from water."
Lambe raced the first leg, and Phelps was the anchor. Lambe said the opportunity was one she won't forget.
"It was an amazing experience," she said. "I went out there and tried my best and had fun."
Soldotna's Colten Goracke represented Alaska in wrestling, competing in the 75 kilogram, or 165-pound division. He earned a silver in the freestyle, losing to a Nunavut athlete. He said he went there with no clear idea of what to expect and made the most of his time and learned.
"I went down there not knowing what kind of wrestling we were going to do," Goracke said. "But I had some fun getting to know the other wrestlers. You learn a lot of things about other countries."
He said his final match was a close one, but his adversary from Nunavut edged him out in a decision.
"It came down to the last few seconds," he said. "He was a lot faster than most people down here."
Goracke also won a bronze in team duals. Melissa Deiman of Ninilchik won silver in the female 56-kilogram division and Devion Hagen of Homer took three bronze Ulus in boys freestyle.
Goracke said getting to know his opponent after the competition was the highlight of the event. He said he, along with many of his fellow Alaskans, brought back mementos of the event to mark new friendships. And he said he learned he wasn't that much different from his Nunavut counterpart.
"The big thing down there was trading coats and hats," Goracke said. "After the match, we just kind of talked about where we had been wrestling and where we were going to college."
Other peninsula medal winners included Heather Strutz of Homer, who took second place in the 4-by-400 meter snowshoe relay, Kyenna McKinstry of Homer who took a bronze in the snowboarding bordercross event, and Wes Busby, also of Homer, who won the snowboarding giant slalom event.
Sepp Jannotta of the Homer News contributed to this news story.
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