At first 17-year-old Debra Hersrud didn't know exactly why she excelled at the tug-of-war-like game. She could wrap her hands around a lard-covered stick and pull it from her opponent's grasp with relative ease.
In Alaska, the Indian stick pull is sport, like shooting hoops or dribbling a soccer ball. There are regional brackets throughout the state, and if you can knock out all of the opponents you'll make it, like Hersrud, to the statewide Native Youth Olympics, where each traditional game highlights a survival skill.
The Indian stick pull? That's like grabbing a slippery salmon, organizers say.
Once Hersrud heard that, it all made sense, she said. You see, she lives in the Inupiat village of Shishmaref on Sarichef Island in Northwest Alaska. Each summer, she runs down to the docks and helps several companies clean their boats and their fish.
"I have a good grip," she said. "In the summer, I'm holding those 80-pound halibut up."
On Thursday, Hersrud joined more than 420 students -- some Native, some not -- in downtown Anchorage. The athletes, from 57 schools across Alaska, paraded into the Dena'ina Center, accompanied by the steady beat of drums and thunderous cheers for the start of the44th Native Youth Olympics, or NYO.
Hersrud and her 13 teammates from the Bering Strait School District rode in small planes to Nome and then took a jet to Anchorage just to make it here, she said. Others had similarly long journeys, while some, like the students from Bartlett High, just had a quick jaunt.
As the clock neared 2:30 p.m., the games began. The first event: the kneel jump. All of the competitors begin in an kneeling position, launching themselves forward as far as they can go and landing upright, on both feet. The game strengthens the leg muscles used for jumping from ice chunk to ice chunk or for lifting dead animals when hunting.
Apaay Campbell, 17, has won the girls' division for the past four years and set the world record of 55.5 inches at last year's competition.
Before Campbell jumps, she swings her arms forward and backward at least three times. She tells herself, "I'm good at this. I'm good at this."
Campbell and her mother, Sharon Campbell, live in the village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island. Sharon is a former NYO champion in the kneel jump, and by the time Apaay was in the eighth grade, she was jumping farther than her mother ever had.
"She pushes me to practice," Campbell said of her mother. "She sets goals for me."
On Thursday afternoon, Campbell took home her fifth gold.
When not exerting their muscles, students on competing teams hugged and high-fived on the sidelines, sharing tips on how to jump farther or hang on longer. Everyone applauded everyone.
The games teach sportsmanship, said Nicole Johnston, an NYO official who is a former coach and athlete. NYO encourages school attendance and good grades, while perpetuating and honoring traditions, she said.
"They have to understand how different it was to survive before all of this," she said, pointing to the brightly lit room.
Organizers surveyed 382 NYO athletes last year to see how the games affected them. Seventy-five percent said the games improved or kept up their grades and 72 percent credited NYO as an incentive to stay in school. Eighty-eight percent said they learned about Alaska Native culture, 13 percent stopped using tobacco and 6 percent stopped using alcohol, the survey said.
Hersrud said that since she started participating in NYO in eighth grade, her confidence has improved.
"If you put your mind to it, you can get better," she said. "And, I guess it kind of helps that I do have small hands."
The Indian stick pull is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m. Events are ongoing at the Dena'ina Center on Friday and Saturday. For a full schedule check out citci.org.
Reach Tegan Hanlon at email@example.com or 257-4589.
By TEGAN HANLON