The annual Native Youth Olympics are definitely a competition — marks are recorded, medals awarded — but these games for all students in grades 7-12 preach cooperation, camaraderie and community above all.
Everyone is in these games together.
Athletes advise and encourage each other, and participation is valued as much as prizes in three days of competition that opened Thursday at the Alaska Airlines Center. Fans cheer heartily and never boo. When athletes complete an event, they routinely shake the hands of the officials who monitored and measured that event.
And paying it forward — whether from former NYO athletes to current ones, or peer to peer — is considered status quo.
That's why Neil Bocaneg of Unalaska City School District credited his fifth-place finish in the boys kneel jump to mentoring from a champion.
Bocaneg said Dylan Magnusen, whose 2013 NYO kneel-jump effort of 67 inches still stands as the boys' record, taught him well.
"He motivated me to work harder,'' Bocaneg said. "All the technique he had, he passed on to me. Everyone is always teaching each other new things, progressing, passing things to the next generation.''
The games are athletics that double as a bridge linking generations, and a connection with Native culture and a subsistence lifestyle.
The kneel jump, for instance, is a nod to the explosive strength and nimble balance necessary to jump from ice floe to ice floe, or lift fallen prey while hunting.
In the kneel jump, the athlete starts in a kneeling position, feet tucked underneath, tops of the feet flat against the floor. Swinging both arms forward and back to generate momentum, the athlete launches forward off the floor and must stick the landing on her feet without touching hand to floor or stumbling. Longest leap wins.
The Lower Kuskokwim School District reigned Thursday. Isaiah Fairbanks won the boys kneel jump at 65.75 inches, just shy of Magnusen's record. And Jordan Kashtatok won the girls event at 52.75 inches.
Fairbanks and Kashtatok, who was runner-up last year in the kneel jump, said hours of weight-lifting and kneel-jump repetitions honed them for NYO.
"It's my last year, so I tried really hard,'' said Kashtatok. "I gave it my all.''
Fairbanks said coaching and concentration, and no small amount of self-motivation, aided his victory.
"I try to be confident in how far I can go,'' he said. "And I try to believe in myself.''
Other events contested Thursday were the wrist carry and the Alaskan high kick.
The wrist carry requires the athlete to hook one wrist over a pole held by two carriers and lift their body off the floor while the carriers hustle around the edges of the basketball court. The event requires strength and endurance and tests will.
In the high kick, the athlete balances on one hand, grabs one foot with the opposite hand and uses his free foot to touch a ball suspended above the floor. Requirements for the event often played indoors during winter include upper-body strength, balance and flexibility.
This is the 46th year for NYO, and it has developed many athletes who have gone on to shine at the annual World Eskimo-Indian Olympics for adults. NYO this summer will be inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, which cited not just the athleticism necessary to compete in the games, but NYO's spirit of cooperation, community and giving.
That notion endures, as hundreds of NYO athletes were reminded in Thursday's opening ceremonies by Phillip Blanchett, a founding member of the Alaska band Pamyua, and a WEIO athlete.
"Respect your elders and your community,'' Blanchett told the assembled athletes, "because that's the best way to respect yourselves.''