Worth the Risk

As a student, Kyle Worl was hesitant to join in Native games. Today, he’s bringing Native games to new audiences in Alaska — and beyond

Juneau NYO Coach Kyle Worl talks with an athlete at NYO Games 2019.

In an alternate universe, Kyle Worl never received the Native Youth Olympic (NYO) Games Healthy Coach Award two years in a row. He never took first place in the Knuckle Hop at World Eskimo Olympics. He never revitalized Native Games in Juneau, bringing the Juneau NYO team back to the state competition for the first time in 28 years, in 2018.

In an alternate universe, Kyle Worl said no to taking a risk.

“I was kind of a quiet, reserved kid. A little scared to try new things,” Kyle recalled about growing up in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

As a kid, he’d heard about NYO. His father, Rodney Worl, had set records at the Arctic Winter Games as an athlete. But when Kyle’s stepmother suggested he give NYO a try, he said no at first.

Then a presenter from the Alaska Native Heritage Center demonstrated NYO games at Kyle’s school.

“Being in Anchorage and being Native, you’re not often well represented,” he said. “You feel sometimes like you have to hide who you are. I was used to hiding and not acknowledging my Native identity. But when I was in [the NYO] setting, it was an eye-opening experience because everyone was talking about being Native — about Native food, Native games, our language. And it was in a way that they were happy and proud and it was cool. That wasn’t something I’d ever experienced.

“From the very first practice,” Kyle added, “I felt like I belonged.”

Man on a Mission

Kyle Worl has received the NYO Healthy Coach Award two years in a row.

NYO gave Kyle more than a sense of belonging. It gave him a mission.

When he moved to Juneau for a Tlingit language apprenticeship, he was excited to delve into learning his Native language — but he was sad to leave behind his Anchorage NYO community.

So he brought NYO with him.

He’s been coaching the Juneau NYO team for four years; athletes traveled to Anchorage in 2018 to represent Juneau for the first time in almost 30 years. Today, NYO is active in eight Southeast teams, thanks to Kyle’s efforts. Before CITC took NYO Games Alaska virtual, Juneau coordinated its own regional Virtual NYO event last year.

Kyle envisions a day when NYO is a university-level sport. He’s already got a start at Northern Arizona University, where a fellow NYO alumni athlete, Shondiin Mayo, attends.

“Shondiin wanted to continue Native Games, so we were able to send her a kickstand, and she got her friends involved,” Kyle said. He’s working with Alaska Pacific University and the University of Alaska Southeast to incorporate Native Games teams into student activities, too.

“I just think of my own experience with high school; I didn’t want this to stop,” he reminisced. “So many things end when you’re 18. But in the Native community, we don’t just push you out the door. We want kids to stay part of the community. If NYO athletes can have the same opportunities as basketball and football players, that keeps them engaged and supported.”

The Worl family is doing its part to help athletes feel supported. An Honorable Mention NYO partner, the Eyak Corporation, for which Kyle’s father Rod Worl is CEO, and the Worl family has funded two $1,000 scholarships for athletes participating in Virtual NYO 2021; last year was the first time Eyak and the Worl family made this scholarship available.

Kyle also is working on building a program for NYO alumni that will train them as coaches, then help place them as assistant coaches in middle schools.

“NYO Save Lives”

Kyle coaches an athlete at Junior NYO.

NYO changed the course of Kyle’s life. He’s seen it change his students’ lives, too — sometimes in dramatic ways.

He recalls the time Indian Education referred a student to him—one who was struggling with suicidal thoughts. “I immediately brought him to NYO,” Kyle said, “because it had helped me.

Over time, he began to see a difference in the student, who little by little became more outgoing and interactive with the other athletes.  “He was starting to joke around. He got his personal best at our regional games, and you could see his excitement. He said NYO is the first thing he could be proud of.

“That’s one story,” Kyle continued. “But there are others. This year has been hard on young people. NYO saves lives — it really does. It’s been really important to our community and our families.”

NYO athletes: There’s still time to apply for the Worl/Eyak scholarship! Click here and scroll to “Virtual NYO Scholarship Opportunity” to download the application. Deadline is May 7.

You can learn more about NYO Games Alaska here. Follow NYO Games Alaska on Facebook.