Reunited

For the first time in two years, NYO holds events in-person, bringing together student athletes from across the state

Eden Hopson (pictured in the green shirt) enjoys a moment of levity at this year’s Anchorage NYO Tryouts. After two years of virtual games, Senior NYO 2022 is taking place in-person, April 21 – 23.

NYO 2020 is canceled. That was the beginning. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Native Youth Olympic (NYO) Games host Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) made the tough decision to cancel its annual celebration of Alaska Native traditional games. Senior NYO 2020 would not happen.

Comments poured in on Facebook from the NYO community: I’m really sad about this, but better safe than sorry.

Can’t it be postponed?

Such a bummer!

This is really heartbreaking.

That May, CITC announced the first-ever Virtual NYO Games. From across the state, athletes and coaches rallied: COVID-19 wouldn’t mean all their training and anticipation had been for nothing. From back yards and school gyms, living rooms and beach fronts, the tops of mountains and basement floors, athletes high-kicked, seal-hopped, and broad-jumped, while parents and coaches captured their achievements on video.

In both 2020 and 2021, NYO went virtual, due to safety concerns around the COVID-19 pandemic. Student athletes took video of themselves competing in events in their homes, back yards, and school gyms.

More than 300 students from 52 schools submitted their competition videos. Families and fans followed the action on Facebook, commenting and liking posts and tuning in for live virtual award ceremonies.

The pandemic had isolated us from each other — yet we came together, from every corner of Alaska, to make sure the NYO Games would still happen.

This year, for the first time in two years, student athletes, coaches, officials, parents, and spectators are reunited for NYO 2022, happening in-person at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, April 21 – 23.

For senior Chad Hakala, NYO 2022 is both his first in-person NYO Games in two years, and the last NYO he’ll compete in as a student athlete.

For seniors this year, it’s the first time they’re returning to the state NYO Games since they were freshmen.

“It was a bummer not to participate,” said Chad Hakala, a senior at South Anchorage High School. This year, Chad is competing at NYO on the Anchorage team.

When NYO went virtual in 2020, Chad didn’t hear about it until too late; the following year, when he was a junior, a knee injury kept him from doing Virtual NYO.

“I love competing at NYO,” he said. “Growing up in Anchorage, I didn’t really grow up super in-depth with my [Inupiaq] culture. But NYO has given me that opportunity to connect with my culture.”

This year, for his last time, Chad will compete at Senior NYO in the One– and Two-Foot High Kick and the Scissor Broad Jump.

“I’m excited to represent South at the Games this year, and I’m excited to be back with the Anchorage team this year. I made some good friends [at NYO 2019], and it was fun hanging out, seeing new people from all over the state, getting to know about their experiences in their villages and all parts of Alaska. I’m looking forward to that.”

Eden Hopson, a senior at Service High School, missed the camaraderie of her fellow athletes during the last two years of virtual games.

Eden Hopson competes in the Alaskan High Kick at this year’s Anchorage NYO Tryouts. NYO 2022 will be her first in-person Senior Games since 2019.

“I’m looking forward to sitting around a kickstand, talking to each other, telling each other, ‘You’re doing great!’” said Eden, who competes in events like the One-Hand Reach and the Alaskan High Kick. “It’s something you didn’t get when it was virtual. When you’re in person, you’re competing, but it’s also pushing yourself and pushing each other to do better.”

For seniors like Chad and Eden, this in-person NYO is bittersweet; it’s the last time they’ll participate in NYO as student athletes.

“I’m going to miss competing,” Chad shared. “It’s exciting that I can move on to World Eskimo Olympics or Arctic Winter Games. But moving on is also sad. You meet so many great people at NYO.”

For now, though: High five the friends you haven’t seen in two years. Cheer with the crowd as someone comes close to setting a new record. Enjoy the next three days as we reunite — finally — to celebrate Alaska Native traditional games at NYO!

Come join the action at NYO Games 2022, this Thursday, April 21, through Saturday, April 23, in person at the Alaska Airlines Center! Visit the NYO Games webpage for a schedule, information about competitive events, and more. Can’t make it to the Games in person? Follow the competition on Facebook, where we’ll be offering live coverage.