‘It’s a beautiful game’: The anatomy of the Alaskan high kick

The Native Youth Olympics event is a hybrid of force and form with a picturesque pinnacle.

Of the 10 unique events contested at this weekend’s Native Youth Olympics in Anchorage, the Alaskan high kick is a true enigma.

To succeed in the event takes strength, technique, focus and practice. Lots of practice.

The movement is a hybrid of force and form with a picturesque pinnacle. The competitor pushes from a seated position while grasping one foot. Balancing on one hand, the athlete uses their other foot to kick a hanging ball that dangles feet above the floor. The best in the sport reach a completely vertical position when they kick the ball.

Athletes from all over the state converged on Alaska Airlines Arena to compete in the Native Youth Olympics, which wrapped up Saturday. The gathering includes other traditional events like the wrist carry and seal hop. But the Alaskan high kick holds a special mantle for being a thorough test of mind and body.

“The Alaskan high kick is the greatest example of body control among all the games because you really have to listen to your entire body,” Juneau coach Kyle Worl said. “Your hand position, your elbow position, your shoulder, your head, your chest, your hips. There’s so much detail to it.”

Worl is among the state’s most decorated athletes in the Native games with over 100 medals in international competitions. Worl said it took him four years of practice to achieve the vertical handstand that has evolved into preferred method to reach maximum height. While the physical technique is the first major hurdle, there’s much more to it, he said.

“You want to get into the detail of every single part of it, but you also can’t overthink it,” Worl said. “I think it’s a beautiful game because it’s complicated. And it takes a bit of technique and then just listening and trusting yourself.”

Like the other Indigenous events, the Alaskan high kick has traditional origins. The kick started in small subterranean homes, where contestants would dip a toe in the ash leftover from a fire and perform the kick, attempting to mark the highest spot they could reach on the hut’s ceiling. The discipline helped develop coordination, strength and concentration.

Kaidon Parker squinted and tilted his head slightly as if he was face to face with a perplexing math equation on a chalkboard.

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The 15-year-old from Unalaska paused to collect his thoughts on the event Thursday afternoon as he watched fellow competitors practicing off the side of the main floor at Alaska Airlines Center.

“It’s just crazy how someone can get vertical off their own hand using their foot,” said Parker. “I just love this one. I can’t stop. The coaches are like ‘Alright, you’ve got to take a break now.’ I just can’t until I hit that one. I just have to keep going. I love it.”

A rookie in the event, Parker had been practicing the kick regularly and doing extra training to help improve his performance including work on balance balls, handstands and dead lifts.

“Anything that can use your whole body,” he said. “The obliques are really, really essential and you’re using your hips to push up there.”

Parker was in good company when it came to Alaskan high kick fanaticism.

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Caelyn Carter, a freshman at Wasilla High, won the girls competition with a kick with a height of 70 inches. She only started getting serious about the kick in the last three weeks. But after seeing friends on her Mat-Su team work on the even she was hooked.

“I saw those like boys going vertical and was like ‘Oh, I want to try that so bad. It’s gonna be so cool,’ ” she said. “It’s really something I can show off to people and teach them how to do it.”

She said she still has plenty of room to grow in her quest to go vertical.

“I’m gonna continue doing this for the rest of my days,” she said. “I’m hooked on this one. This is fun. This is crazy.”

There has been plenty of advancement in Alaskan high kick technique in recent years. Phillip Blanchett, who is master of ceremonies at NYO, grew up competing in the games in the 1980s before the vertical form was the norm. It wasn’t until 1988 that Ivano Kaput representing the Northwest Territories went vertical at the Arctic Winter Games. Anchorage’s Jaclyn Weston was the first female athlete to reach the vertical position in the game.

“It’s just really a unique game,” Blanchett said. “Now with these kids, everyone goes vertical. And it’s really cool to see. It’s really a cool, iconic posture.”

Blanchett said the movement is seen in other artistic forms, including dance.

“If you go back and look at some of the poses in the most competitive or advanced forms of breakdancing, you’ll see that same exact move, that same pose, where you’re in a complete one-arm handstand holding your leg,” he said.

While the endpoint is the same for the elite competitors, there is variance in how the athletes start the kick.

“There’s a lot of diversity in the techniques,” said Judah Eason, a former competitor who now coaches in Kenai. “I’ve seen people setup in very different ways. Some people will start with their arm completely touching them. Some people start with their backs and they rock. It really doesn’t take much power. It’s more about balance and control.”

Colton Paul won the boys event Thursday with a kick of 92 inches. He had a chance to tie the state record, making contact with the ball at 93 inches but landing on the opposite side of his takeoff, which is considered a foul.

While Alaskans have traditionally done well in the event internationally, athletes from around the world are kicking higher and higher.

“I think we do take pride in it and we train and push each other,” Worl said. “But I know there are up-and-coming athletes in Canada and Greenland that are also now learning to go vertical, which is a great thing, because the games are all about sharing.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.