‘You’re all on the same team’: Junior Native Youth Olympics bring Alaskan kids together

Reagan Dibble took first prize in the wrist carry at a local competition for students in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. He says it was good practice for the statewide Junior Native Youth Olympic Games. (Emily Dibble)

The Native Youth Olympic Games test athletic abilities required to survive in Alaska. The games were traditionally used to build the strength, endurance and teamwork needed for subsistence activities like hunting and foraging.

This year’s Junior Native Youth Olympic Games are virtual, with nearly 300 participants sending in videos of themselves competing in the events.

One of those competitors is nine-year-old Reagan Dibble. He and his classmates at Machetanz Elementary in Wasilla have been practicing for weeks. 

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Dibble competes in the wrist carry event. During the game, he hooks one wrist over a pole, grabs his arm with his other hand and holds himself off the ground. Two other boys hold onto each side of the pole and walk forward. The athlete who stays suspended for the longest time wins.

Last weekend, Dibble competed at a local event for students in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. His previous record had been 19 seconds. That day, he held on for 43 seconds. 

On Thursday morning, he filmed his video for the state competition at his school gym.

Dibble explained that the wrist carry was a traditional way to honor a hunted animal. His mom, Emily Dibble, said those types of lessons are what make the games special.

“It’s one more thing we love about living in Alaska,” she said. “They really do cherish their Native culture and immerse everybody in it, and I find that unique and special for these kids growing up here.”

Reagan Dibble said these games foster more teamwork than his other favorite sport, hockey.

“I like how you can encourage others and coach everybody, because you’re all on the same team,” he said. “Playing hockey, it’s kind of like you’re one-on-one, and this is all together.”

That’s what made Nicole Johnson fall in love with the games, too. She grew up in Nome, and first tried the two-foot high kick in fifth grade. She went on to hold the record for that event for 25 years. Now, she’s the head official for the Native Youth Olympic Games. She says it’s a different kind of competition. 

“You’ll see the athletes encouraging each other to go harder and higher, even if they are going harder and higher and further than you are,” she said. “You coach your opponents, you coach other teams, you help other coaches. It creates a community of friends and family for life.”

Winners of the Alaskan high kick and kneel jump were announced on Feb. 14, and the awards ceremony for the seal hop and two-foot high kick will be livestreamed on the Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s Facebook page on Monday.

Registration for the remaining junior events – the wrist carry, one-foot high kick and scissor broad jump – ends on March 1, with submissions closing on March 6. That award ceremony will be held on March 14.

This year’s senior games — to be held in-person for the first time since the pandemic began — are slated for April 21-23 at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.

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