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WEIO means tough competition and lasting friendships

What is it about enduring physical pain in front of large crowds that brings people together for lifelong friendships?

Is it overcoming adversity? Setting goals? The thrill of competition?

Well, the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics is all that and more. Competitors gather from all corners of the state to compete in the ear pull, the knuckle hop, the muktuk eating contest and the high kicks, both one- and two-footed, just to name a few.

This year, WEIO is set for July 15-18 in Fairbanks and will draw Native athletes and dancers from Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

The games offer the chance for men and women to test their strength, discipline and endurance -- all qualities that are needed to survive in a northern rural environment, which is how the event originated.

WEIO has been around since 1961 in an effort to preserve traditional games and traditions. Also on the event roster at the games is the seal-skinning contest, the Miss Eskimo-Olympics Queen contest and the blanket toss.

The event has grown exponentially in 50 years, with an ever-increasing number of athletes. For the competitors, including longtime record holder and current board chair Nicole Johnston, WEIO is like one big family reunion.

Until April, Johnston held the world record in the 2-foot high kick at 6 feet, 6 inches and still competes in the pain threshold events, though she has retired from the agility competitions like the high kick events. She set her two-foot high kick record in 1989.

In total, she said, there are about 500 participants including athletes, dancers and artists.

"It's like a big homecoming every year," Johnston, who is from Nome, said last week. "Once you become of the community of traditional Natives games, dance and art, everybody is always happy to see you."

For Johnston, picking out a WEIO highlight was next to impossible but she mentioned that traditional dress contests, especially the baby regalia event, are some of the most popular.

Together with the Native Youth Olympics and the Arctic Winter Games, WEIO offers an outlet for youth. It's something they can train for and feel proud of all year long, Johnston said.

"Once you've experienced it, you always want to come back, whether you're a participant or a spectator," she said. "We're very passionate about sport and dance, and if we can share it with someone and they can pass it along and share it, then we're doing our job to keep the culture alive."

Athletes train for months and years to hone their skills, just like any other athlete, she added. Along with time in the gym or enhancing basic cardio, WEIO athletes must also work on specific technique depending on their sport.

As far as preparations for this year's event, venues are secured and Fairbanks is gearing up for the influx in WEIO visitors.

"WEIO gives visitors a chance to see unparalleled feats of endurance and agility," read a release from Explore Fairbanks. "Spectators and participants will see new vendors and artists as they browse through booths of authentic Alaska Native crafts, and meet the people who carved, sewed, wove or beaded the items. WEIO provides visitors the rare chance to experience a culture alongside those who live within it."

To learn more about the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics visit weio.org.