NYO 2017: Hall of Famer Nicole Johnston, Gamer for Life

A lifetime of passion for traditional Native games made Nicole Johnston an ambassador for NYO — and a Hall of Fame inductee

NYO Head Official and Alaska Sports Hall of Fame 2017 inductee Nicole Johnston greets participants and coaches at the 2016 NYO Games.

NYO Head Official and Alaska Sports Hall of Fame 2017 inductee Nicole Johnston greets participants and coaches at the 2016 NYO Games.

At her first Native Youth Olympics (NYO) competition, a tiny, seventh-grade Nicole Johnston walked right up to World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) gold medalist Reggie Joule and said, “I hear you’re the best, and I would like you to help me.”

Nicole got the help she wanted — advice that would help her become a record-setting WEIO athlete and Native Youth Olympian. Today, the confident little girl who went after what she wanted has chaired the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, served as Head NYO Official, and coached hundreds of young athletes.

And this April she will be inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.

Embodying the games

Referred to by the Alaska Dispatch News as “perhaps Alaska’s biggest ambassador for Native sports,” Nicole fell into Native games as a way to stay busy Sunday afternoons when she attended an after-church program with a friend.

Nicole Johnston competes in the Two-Foot High Kick as a young athlete.

As a young Native games athlete, Nicole Johnston competes in the Two-Foot High Kick, an event for which she would hold the women’s world record for 25 years. NOME NUGGET PHOTO

“I learned to do the Two-Foot High Kick and found I was a natural at that game,” she recalled. She started competing at NYO in 1982 as part of a team made up of mostly older athletes — teammates she found intimidating, at least at first. “But once I got started, I felt like I belonged there with them, and they never made me feel uncomfortable — they encouraged me.”

Like a lot of kids who practice Native games, Nicole found her confidence growing as she tried new events, like the Kneel Jump, Alaskan High Kick, and Scissor Broad Jump. During her high school years, she “toned down” her competitiveness, recognizing that her teammates wanted to compete in some of the same events in which she excelled, exemplifying one of the qualities that makes NYO so special: sportsmanship.

It was something her fellow former NYO athlete and current official, Shawn Seetomona, noticed the first time he saw Nicole compete. “She always had a competitive spirit, but she wasn’t anxious, and even at a young age, she was very mature. She was always helping others get ready and was always very prepared.

“She embodied the spirit of the games,” he adds. “And when we saw her that first year, we were all amazed. ‘Who is she? She’s pretty awesome.’”

Record-setter

After high school, Nicole began competing at WEIO and at the Arctic Winter Games, pushing herself harder and making one of her most memorable athletic moments when she attempted to hit the seven-foot mark in the One-Foot High Kick.

A young Nicole competes in the One-Foot High Kick.

A young Nicole competes in the One-Foot High Kick. ASSOCIATED PRESS PHOTO

“I went through a stage where I was having a really hard time with my form and the technique for the One-Foot High Kick,” she described. “I worked really, really hard to push myself…I had hit six-eleven, six-eleven, forever and ever and ever. That was the most memorable competition because I can remember being so nervous — that was almost thirty years ago, and I still vividly remember having those feelings, that excitement and anxiety and nervousness, and how happy I was that I had finally hit and met that goal of seven feet.”

Immediately, though, her goal was met by another athlete who went on to hit over seven feet in that same competition.

But the next record Nicole broke would stand for 25 years.

In 1989, Nicole and her friend and teammate Carol (Pickett) Hull had been pushing each other all summer. Nicole had joined a group of athletes who put on a summer demonstration of Native games for tourists in Fairbanks. “We spent every evening together, five days a week, training and doing the show, and we were all in really, really good shape,” she recounted. “I had worked really hard at trying to break my previous Two-Foot High Kick record of six-four.”

“I will be involved in the games some way, somehow, probably until I can’t physically do it anymore because it’s my passion.”
– Nicole Johnston

At that year’s WEIO, the hard work paid off: Nicole set the world record for the women’s Two-Foot High Kick at 6 feet, 6 inches — a record that was not broken until the 2014 NYO.

Meanwhile, her teammate Carol set the record in the traditional One-Foot High Kick during the same event. Knowing that her friend had also succeeded made victory that much sweeter for Nicole.

“To really be able to share that moment with my best friend, it was just really special,” she said.

Working as a team, rooting for one another — these are the things that make Native games what they are, according to her. “These games traditionally teach you not only the survival skills you needed, but they taught you how to work together as a community. You had to work together, you had to encourage each other to try harder and go further because you had to be strong enough to take care of someone else, and they had to be strong enough to take care of you. That’s what we pass on through the games.”

In it for the passion

“When you’re done competing and you’re passionate about something, you always find a way to stay in,” Nicole remarked of her history with NYO as a coach, an official, and eventually Head Official. She moved to Fairbanks in the 90s to teach and coach the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District’s NYO team. Nicole continued to compete into the 2000s.

She also remained active with WEIO, becoming chairwoman of the event’s board, and recently she was appointed to Team Alaska’s Arctic Winter Games board as Cultural Advisor. As a Native games instructor, she travels throughout Alaska to work with P.E. teachers and coaches, bringing traditional games to the next generation of record-breakers and athletes.

Nicole greets friends at the 2016 NYO. She has been a mentor to young athletes, coaches, and fellow officials throughout her Native games career.

Nicole greets friends at the 2016 NYO. She has been a mentor to young athletes, coaches, and fellow officials throughout her Native games career.

“Nicole has always been a mentor,” Shawn pointed out. “She’s mentored all the young athletes, and she mentored all the judges since they were young, and she’s helped them build confidence in their ability to do the games, their knowledge of the games, and how to judge the games. She helped design the new style of how we coordinate the games and made it much more streamlined. She’s one of the biggest leaders for Native games in our state.”

“My favorite part about being involved in the games is watching kids who didn’t think that they can do it, do it,” Nicole shared. “That twinkle in the eye — athletes who have been practicing and working so hard, going higher and further than they ever thought they could go. It’s the joy and excitement of watching them see that success.”

If you attend NYO today, you’ll see Nicole in her “Head Official” shirt, down on the floor with the athletes, consulting with coaches, demonstrating the proper way to do a particular game — she’s in the thick of it, and she’s in it for life.

“I will be involved in the games some way, somehow, probably until I can’t physically do it anymore because it’s my passion.”

Hall of famer

On April 27, Nicole will be inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. Cited for the more than 100 career medals she’s collected and her role as a champion, not just in the sport but for the sport, Nicole will stand in the Hall of Fame alongside NYO, which was inducted last year.

"Nicole embodies the spirit of the games," said fellow NYO Official Shawn Seetomona.

“Nicole embodies the spirit of the games,” said fellow NYO Official Shawn Seetomona.

“I’m very humbled to be inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame,” Nicole said. “I don’t do it for the notoriety; I do it because I love the games. It’s nice to be recognized, and I’m extremely honored.”

Her induction falls on the same date as the first day of the 2017 NYO — appropriate for someone who is so dedicated to traditional sports. Before she makes her way to the Anchorage Museum for the ceremony that evening, she’ll be at the Alaska Airlines Center, doing what she loves best: Coaching, mentoring, and cheering for this year’s NYO athletes as they work to achieve their personal best.

“NYO is one big family, and once you have become part of that family, it just grows,” she said. “Kids who participate in traditional Native games create that sense of family and community — and it’s not just the athletes. It’s the coaches, the officials, and the spectators who see this amazing event and say, ‘Wow, this just really is the coolest thing. You don’t see this in other sports; you don’t see people helping each other in this way. I am going to tell everybody I know about this.’ And that’s really special.”