Seven young Ketchikan athletes will fly to Juneau in April to compete in the regional Native Youth Olympics competition. The program has grown over the past few years, attracting all ages and skill levels.
In a corner of the Houghtaling Elementary School gym, Izabella Agoney is trying to perfect her one-hand reach, coached by her mom, Starla Agoney.
The eighth-grader is a member of Team Ketchikan, a Native Youth Olympics team. The athletes on the team train twice a week in events like that one-hand reach, the seal hop, or the Alaskan high kick. They’re all games modeled after traditional Alaska Native skills.
Starla Agoney is a fourth-grade teacher and coaches Team Ketchikan with her husband, Wilfred. Her children Izabella, Sophie and Henry are all athletes on this year’s team. She explains the one-hand reach.
“So what you do is balance yourself, and eventually you’re holding your whole body weight on one hand,” Agoney explained. “And then athletes reach up and hit the ball and then put their hand down and they have to keep their balance.”
Izabella Agoney said it’s a hard one. She leans forward on both hands. Her arms shake as she concentrates on putting all her weight on her wrists.
“It’s more complicated when you focus on it, and when you’re not focused on it, then it’s super easy,” she said.
Izabella joined the team three years ago. She says it’s about more than just proving you’re stronger and faster than your competitors. She says it’s good for the spirit.
“Just being able to connect with what my ancestors used to do,” she said.
Across the gym, Izabella’s sister, Sophie, is working on the scissor-broad jump. She takes long leaps across the floor, crossing her legs as she goes. It’s been one of her favorite events since she joined as one of the team’s first members four years ago. She’s also a fan of the one-hand reach and the seal hop — which takes an athlete bouncing across a floor on their knuckles and toes.
“It’s really fun,” Sophie said. “You get to learn things that you didn’t know you weren’t good at until you try it.”
Ten-year-old Kendall Hamilton was the only student in her fourth-grade class who signed up — and she was instantly hooked.
“I enjoy the difficulty and challenge it gives you because it’s not against anyone else,” she said. “It’s against yourself. And that just makes it different from other sports.”
Sampson Oliver is one of the older team members. He’s a senior in high school and also a wrestler. He joined the team four years ago for a challenge. At the most recent practice, he was focusing on the Alaskan high kick.
He sits on the gym floor, propped up by one arm while his other hand grabs a shoe. He uses his planted arm to hoist his body off the ground, kicking at a ball suspended in the air.
Sampson said every time he does it, it’s like he’s challenging himself to go even higher the next time.
“And you’re like, ‘Okay, let me try to hit just a little bit higher,” he said. “And that’s kind of like what’s pushing me to keep trying this and keep getting better at it.’”
His coach Wilfred Agoney explained the events are a test of will.
“I like to see the kids challenge themselves,” he said. “And I like to watch them grow. Because they’re not competing against each other, they’re competing against themselves.”
Agoney is happy to see the sport grow in Ketchikan. He says it didn’t have the same presence in Ketchikan, Prince of Wales or Metlakatla as it did where he grew up.
“I’m from up north where the games are in gym class, it’s just a requirement,” he said. “Growing up, it was what we did. But down here, … it’s fairly new.”
The team didn’t have the funding last year, but will be making the trip to Juneau to compete in just a couple months.
Starla Agoney said the team is looking forward to testing its skills against competitors from all over Southeast Alaska. Last year’s contest boasted teams from Angoon, Hoonah, Prince of Wales Island and Metlakatla.
“It’s nice to all be together — usually, we stay in the school that we’re at — and just being able to make connections with other communities, and just growing relationships,” she said.
And she said there’s something special about doing it with her kids: a family pushing themselves to their mental and physical limits — all while connecting with their roots.
Juneau’s Thunder Mountain High School is set to host the 2023 games from April 1-2.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.