Changing Lives Through Traditional Sports

NYO is about more than playing the game

Young athletes who participate in NYO not only learn about and practice traditional Alaska Native competitions of strength and skill, but support and encourage their teammates and rival teams throughout the weekend-long event.

Young athletes who participate in NYO not only learn about and practice traditional Alaska Native competitions of strength and skill, but support and encourage their teammates and rival teams throughout the weekend-long event. Photo by Wayde Carroll

“It’s competitive, but it’s also supportive. Everybody’s trying their best,” reflected Makiyan Ivanoff as he prepared to compete in the One-Foot High Kick at last year’s Native Youth Olympics (NYO) Games Alaska.

He would go on to place first in the event. But for Makiyan — and for the more than 2,000 other students who participate in the games each year — winning isn’t everything.

“That’s one thing that stands out most when people see the Games for the first time: It’s coaches coaching other teams, athletes helping athletes, officials stepping in to help,” described Lead NYO Official Nicole Johnston, who has mentored athletes for more than 25 years.

The Alaskan High Kick is one of ten events that reflect traditional Alaska Native games at NYO.

The Alaskan High Kick is one of ten events that reflect traditional Alaska Native games at NYO. Photo by Wayde Carroll

Featuring events that are based on traditional Alaska Native contests of strength and skill, NYO Games values collaboration over competition. “The games demonstrate how important it is to be a community,” Nicole said, “because back then, if you didn’t have a community that worked well together, that community wasn’t successful.”

The support athletes receive from coaches, officials, spectators, and fellow competitors has a reach that extends beyond NYO to impact participants’ personal and scholastic lives.

A 2015 survey of over 400 students found that 75 percent of NYO athletes felt participating in the games was incentive to stay in school, with 74 percent improving or maintaining good grades to stay involved. Seventy percent also indicated improved self-confidence, while 37 percent reported improved overall health.

And as many as 87 percent of athletes see themselves as role models for future athletes, just like Nicole Johnston.

“I have worked with kids who come in angry, who feel like they have nothing in their lives, who have turned around and made better people of themselves because of these games,” Nicole reflected. “It’s because of the coaches and the other kids that are there supporting them. The friendships that are built in these games last for lifetimes.”

The 2016 Senior NYO Games will take place April 21 – 23 at the Alaska Airlines Center on the UAA campus. Cook Inlet Tribal Council will host athletes from more than 50 communities across the state as they compete in traditional Alaska Native games; spectators will also enjoy cultural events, contests, and an opportunities expo. The event is free and open to the public.