The healing power of community: NYO coach leads the way in reviving healthy cultural traditions in Southeast Alaska

SPONSORED: Juneau’s Kyle Worl wants his teenage athletes to think of Native Youth Olympics as more than “just a hobby.”

Coach Kyle Worl isn’t in it for himself. He isn’t in it for the recognition, either.

Worl coaches Native Youth Olympics in Juneau, Alaska -- in fact, he’s largely responsible for a renaissance in NYO participation in the state capital. He’s gotten a lot of positive feedback along the way, including winning the Healthy Coach award at the statewide NYO Games in both 2018 and 2019.

He’s also helped some kids turn their lives around -- something that means more to him than any athletic victory or honor -- and helped revive traditional sports for a new generation of Southeast teens.

“Native Youth Olympics is not all about competition,” Worl said. “It's a different mindset, I think, from other Western sports. I always tell my athletes, ‘You're training for your personal best. You set a new (personal record). That's how you measure your success. You look at your improvements. You're not measuring up against anybody else.’

“Sure, there's awards, and that's always nice, but the success of each student is important to me.”

Reviving a cultural tradition

Native Youth Olympics is a statewide annual sporting event based on traditional games created by Alaska Native hunters to train their bodies for agility, balance, flexibility, strength, and endurance. Many NYO events, like the seal hop and the Eskimo stick pull, originate from the Native people of the northern Arctic.

Worl grew up in Fairbanks and Anchorage, but with Tlingit, Yup’ik and Deg Xit’an Athabascan heritage, he has ancestral ties to Southeast Alaska. When he moved to Juneau two and a half years ago, there wasn’t much NYO participation outside of some elementary school activities.

“Our Southeast (region) has not had as strong of a NYO community, and so I always try to introduce Native Youth Olympics just like any other sport,” Worl said. “It's not just a hobby. It's an actual sport, and that's how I try to introduce it.”

He organized a workshop with some of the older kids, and it was successful enough that he expanded to an after-school program, a partnership between the Juneau-Douglas School District and Sealaska Heritage Institute.

The program started off small, with twice-weekly practices at Juneau-Douglas and Thunder Mountain high schools. Worl visited more than 30 regular and PE classes around the district to introduce older students to NYO as a sport, and not just something you do in elementary school. The last time Juneau had sent an NYO team to the state competition was in 1991, when Worl’s uncle was the coach.

“That was the only time they had a team,” Worl said. “Then a 27-year gap. And our first year was a little bit slow because people were like, ‘What is this sport? Why should I get involved?’”

Worl took a team of 10 students to the state NYO competition in 2018. The event generally attracts upwards of 450 students from around the state.

“We got one third-place medal, which was really big,” he said. “Derrick (Roberts) took third place in the Eskimo Stick Pull, and we were super proud, but also we're just proud of all of the kids and their training.”

The experience left the team wanting more.

“The very first day back they were asking, ‘Can we have practice on Monday?’” Worl said. “I was like, no, we're going to have a break. I need a break.”

When Monday arrived, the energized students practiced anyway -- on their own.

‘Everybody just teaches everyone’

Team parent Angela Kameroff-Steeves said her daughter, Sara, took part in NYO in elementary school, but didn’t really get into the sport until she encountered Worl.

“She thought it was OK,” Kameroff-Steeves said. “When she joined Kyle’s team she took off on it and learned more of our culture than I could have taught her.”

Kameroff-Steeves is Yup’ik from the Kuskokwim area, and she worried about how to keep her half-Yup’ik children connected to their heritage.

“I was afraid my children would not embrace any part of my culture,” she said.

Her daughter Sara said she shared that concern as a Yup’ik person living outside her traditional region.

“Before Native Youth Olympics I just said I was Native, but wasn’t able to practice anything about it,” she said. “We don't know our language, songs, or dance. I didn’t want to lose my Yup’ik roots if I started practicing the Tlingit language, dance and art.”

As a statewide program, NYO offers an opportunity for young people from different Alaska Native cultures to come together in competition. Sara said she likes being able to learn about her culture while also participating in athletic events.

“It gives me an opportunity to represent my school,” she said.“I take pride in being a part of these games, and my schools and job are happy I’m doing them.” Her co-workers at Juneau’s NorthStar Trekking even started calling her “the NorthStar Ninja.”

Even if a student isn’t especially competitive, if they keep trying hard, Worl makes sure they get to be on the team and attend state NYO events, which can be incredibly positive experiences for athletes and their families.

“There are different experience levels,” he said.“Everybody just teaches everyone. No one hides their techniques.”

Making a difference in and out of the gym

Worl’s program has helped his athletes improve their lives in more ways than just the physical.

Andrea Quinto’s son Matthew attended the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks with Worl and the team. At the end of each day, there was a traditional dance performance.

“They're kind of long,” she said. “They keep going and going and going. But at the end of each one, each group, they encourage everybody to come out and dance, and my son actually went out and danced.”

That isn’t typical for Matthew, who’s struggled with self-confidence and grades in school, she said.

“He enjoyed it and he was having fun with it,” Quinto said. “He didn't just go out there just to do it to be with his team. He went out there on his own and he enjoyed it.”

Back home, since starting NYO, Matthew has become a leader instead of a follower.

“He's much more confident and comfortable in his skin,” Quinto said.

Worl recalls another student he talked into doing NYO to get independent study credits. The young man, who could often be seen with his hood up and his head down, needed a lot of encouragement to get out on the floor.

“He stood in the corner,” said Worl. “I had to continue to just engage him, and try to get him involved. He would do it, but then he would go back to the corner if I wasn't there.”

Slowly, the young athlete started opening up. His grades improved, and he began talking to his coach and teammates more often. It was at a regional traditional games event that Worl saw the biggest change.

“He was happy,” Worl said. “He was running up to me and telling me what he did, that he did this high in the one foot. He didn't place in anything, but he was just so excited for what he did. He made himself proud, and I think there was a big change there.”

After the event, the young man came to every single practice, pushing himself harder as an athlete and as a student.

“The previous semester, he had all Fs and a few Ds,” Worl said. “This last semester he had two As, some Cs, and one D. He had never had an A in high school before, and he was a junior.”

Inspiring youth through good health

Worl himself has participated as an athlete in WEIO, the Arctic Winter Games, and the Dene Games.

“I've competed in Greenland and in Canada,” he said. “I competed against Russian athletes that only spoke Russian, so that was a really cool experience getting to meet people from different parts of the world. There's the language barriers, but we share this cultural similarity of these games, which is really just amazing. We're (separated) by so many thousands of miles, but there's these games that unite us.”

Competing in traditional games is how Worl stays healthy.

“I’m 28 now,” said Worl,“but I still train and compete, and I train alongside my athletes. ... I stay healthy to compete and also just be a good example for my students so they can learn from watching me still.”

Quinto said the young coach inspires his athletes with his own athleticism. At WEIO this year, they watched as Coach Worl took first place in the knuckle hop.

“It’s like doing a push-up but on the first tips of the first joints of your fingers,” Quinto said, describing the demanding event that often leaves athletes’ hands raw and red.

After watching their coach compete, the girls and boys on his team decided to do their own knuckle hop run, and they wanted their coach to join them.

“I told him, ‘Kyle, your guys are going to do it as a team,’ and Kyle's hands were already all cut up and bloody,” Quinto said. “His face dropped.”

Seeing their exhausted coach’s reaction, the young athletes decided they had the confidence to do it on their own.

“The team went and said, ‘It's OK, coach. You can just take the video.’ So they all lined up and they did it as a team, all the way across,” Quinto said.

Worl has trained and competed around the state, and he still sets personal records while inspiring his students to work to the best of their own abilities.

“In order to be able to do that I have to eat healthy, I have to train lots, have to train specifically for the sport and also just general cardio or weight lifting on the side too,” he said.

Physical performance is a big part of Worl’s healthy lifestyle, but there’s more to it than just fitness, he added.

“Being involved with my community, that social aspect, is really important,” he said. “I am involved, and that helps me feel good. NYO is a really supportive community.”

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.