The Games Must Go On

COVID can’t keep us down: In the face of cancellation, NYO Games goes virtual

Instead of traveling to Anchorage for the annual NYO Games, athletes participated in Virtual NYO from their homes, submitting videos to compete.

It is with a saddened heart that we announce…CITC is cancelling the 2020 NYO Senior Games.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread across America and shuttered the doors on hundreds of events, concerts, and sports tournaments, the team behind the annual Native Youth Olympic (NYO) Games made their own tough decision. NYO 2020 was officially canceled on March 13.

But you can’t cancel the NYO spirit. From May 18 – 25, athletes from Juneau to Nome, from False Pass to Anaktuvuk Pass, took to their backyards, bedrooms, beaches, local gyms, front porches, and anywhere else they could find that was safe and socially distant to compete in the first-ever Virtual NYO Games Alaska.

Rethinking NYO

“I was bummed,” summarized Adele Villa, who has been the NYO coordinator since 2016. When CITC made the difficult decision to cancel NYO, she said, “I was sad — but I was immediately trying to figure out what we could do in place of the Games.”

Since 1971, NYO Games Alaska has brought together student athletes from communities across Alaska to compete in events based on traditional Alaska Native games. While the focus of western sports often lies on the competitor who can defeat his opponents, NYO emphasizes sportsmanship and camaraderie, celebrating Alaska Native culture through the abilities of young athletes.

NYO has never been canceled before. But as the seriousness of COVID-19 became apparent, NYO host Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) made the difficult decision to call off the Games out of concern for the health and safety of the thousands of athletes from across the state who converge in Anchorage each year for the event.

“We immediately heard from the athletes, the coaches, and their families,” Adele recalled. “Some were very adamant on finding an alternative. Multiple communities reached out on how they could help to pull something together.”

Teams in Whitehorse and Juneau had already competed in virtual competitions. At CITC, staff brainstormed how social media, video recording, revised NYO rules, and other behind-the-scenes support could make a virtual event work.

But in a sport that emphasized teamwork and collaboration, would athletes be interested in competing in isolation?

You bet they would.

Athletes All Across Alaska

NYO Head Official Nicole Johnston hosted the Virtual NYO Awards Ceremony on Facebook Live this May.

In a family room in Sitka, a television blares some serendipitously triumphant music as Mt. Edgecumbe High School student Regan Hoblet leaps to her feet from a kneeling position. Her family, unseen in Regan’s video, cheers.

In Juneau, Thunder Mountain student Matthew Quinto takes off from the edge of his family’s deck to kick a sealskin ball with one foot. Port Graham student Ashlen Malchoff balances on one hand in a narrow hallway to execute her One-Hand Reach.

As Virtual NYO kicked off, videos from across the state showed the resilience of NYO athletes. They substituted balled-up socks for the traditional sealskin ball used for the kicking events. They used basketball hoops or brooms in place of kickstands.

“They were really able to make do. They came up with some cool contraptions,” praised Adele. “I loved seeing them use whatever they had at hand to make their events happen. And I feel, in some ways, like social media allowed us to engage even more than we did before with our athletes.”

Forty-six athletes populated the NYO Facebook feed with 74 event videos. Athletes who had never before traveled to Anchorage as part of an NYO team even took part individually from several communities.

A Collaborative Effort

In a typical year, dozens of sponsors provide the funds for NYO Games, a huge event with hundreds of athletes and attendees that happens over the course of three days. As Virtual NYO started to become a reality, CITC relied on the generous partners who chose to continue their sponsorship of the Games, even though the official event was canceled, to cover already incurred expenses.

Meanwhile, a small team of CITC staff worked out the logistics of holding what would normally be the organization’s largest annual event online.

And on Facebook, as Virtual NYO ramped up, families and coaches submitted questions through comments and Messenger to clarify video requirements. NYO fans urged athletes on in the comments: “You athletes are amazing!” “Nice kick, Galen!” “WTG, Lyric!” “Great job, so proud of all the participants!”

“I don’t know if we’ll need to do another Virtual NYO in the future,” Adele said after the event wrapped up on Friday, May 29, with a Facebook Live Awards Ceremony, “but I’m already thinking of ways to do it better. I think there are ways to intertwine a virtual aspect with the in-person NYO Games.”

“We appreciate you offering some way for the kids to compete this year,” wrote one parent in the wake of Virtual NYO. “It was a real morale boost for them.”

It was a morale boost for the team behind the scenes, too, Adele remarked.

“It took a lot of collaboration between many people to make this happen,” she said. “At the beginning, we didn’t know how we were going to make it work. But we knew we would. That’s one thing we learned: There’s always an option. We can find a way.”

Learn more about the history of NYO Games Alaska, which celebrates 50 years this year. Or follow NYO Games on Facebook to see the latest videos, news, and posts. Or view the Facebook Live Virtual NYO 2020 Awards Ceremony, below.