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Arctic Winter Games 2023: The Olympics of the North

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Team Alaska heading to Wood Buffalo, Alberta on one of two jets that had to be chartered. Photo courtesy of Team Alaska, Arctic Winter Games.

Team Alaska headed to the Arctic Winter Games on Saturday, made up athletes that are as young as eleven and range in age up to nineteen.

They flew to Canada, to join about 2,000 competitors from northern countries across the globe to compete in winter sports like cross country skiing and hockey, as well as cultural events.

It took two chartered jets to get more than 243 athletes, 41 coaches and 12 support staffers from Anchorage to Alberta.

Before their departure, the speed skating team from Anchorage put in one last practice at Cuddy Park on Thursday night.

The rain made the oval ice-skating track a little rough, so the team didn’t hit their top speeds, but that didn’t dampen Amy Fitzpatrick’s enthusiasm. She’s on the Arctic Winter Games mission support staff and a parent, who has followed the games for years.

“It’s just super exciting to watch. These kids are going to make memories of a lifetime,” Fitpatrick said, “and I think we might be coming back with some ulus.”

But these are not the kind of curved knives that Alaska Natives use to cut fish or scrape hides. Fitzpatrick says they are awarded just like medals in the U.S. Olympics.

“Gold, silver and bronze. If you get one, it’s a pretty big deal,” she said.

In the past years, eight Arctic nations have sent teams: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Russia with the United States, represented by Alaska. To participate, countries must be above the 55th parallel, north.

The games take place every other year and move to a different country, but that pattern of biennial games was broken after 2018 in the Northwest Territories, the last time the games were held. They were cancelled in 2020 and 2022, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, five years later, after being rescheduled three times, they resume in Wood Buffalo, Alberta from Jan. 29-Feb. 4.

The first games were held in 1970 in Yellowknife, the brainchild of the late Alaska governor, Walter Hickel, who wanted to bring Arctic nations closer together to work more like a team.

And teamwork is important for Josephine Leonard, an 8th grader at Stellar Secondary School, known by her teammates as Jojo.

“My team is really great. They’re really supportive, and it’s really fun to skate with them,” Leonard said.

Teamwork is a big part of Leonard’s Alaska Native culture. As a skater of Yup’ik and Cup’ik heritage, she’s excited about the chance to compete with other Indigenous athletes. After checking out the competition in Nunavut in Northern Canada on Facebook.

“They looked really fast. They looked really confident,” said Leonard, who is focused on improving her technique. “How I swing my arms. How low I am. How aerodynamic I am.”

Her father, Martin Leonard, says competition at this level will help her grow as both an athlete and as a person. He says she’s only 13 and might be able to compete in as many as four Arctic Winter Games.

“She sees these kids for almost a decade. Right?” Leonard said. “They’ll compete every year. She’ll make friends for life.”

Some of those friends she will make this year, Leonard says, will likely come to Alaska, the host for next round of Arctic Winter Games which is set to take place in 2024 in Wasilla.

The team has had a lot of support from the Alaska Speedskating Club.

The club’s head coach, John Monroe, has been working with the AWC team. He’s had some experience coaching U.S. Olympic skaters and a team from Holland, but he says no matter what the level of competition, he likes seeing how it brings out the best in athletes.

Munroe says the Alaska speed skating team is not as prepared as he would like. The pandemic cut into their training and cost the team its momentum. Also, he says, teams from other countries like Canada, have had stronger financial support, so they have the edge – but Monroe says there’s more involved in the Arctic Winter Games than just winning.

“What is good to see is that their competitive spirit is still high,” Monroe said. “They don’t know how they’re going to do, but they’re going to have fun.”

The games come at a time when the world is emerging from a pandemic, and when one of the major Arctic nations, Russia, is at war.

The International Arctic Winter Games Committee has suspended the Yamal, Russia team from the games, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Collin Sullivan, a student at Dimond High School, says the games are pretty extraordinary but there’s something very ordinary about them that deserves appreciation, given all that’s going on in the world today.

“It’s just a bunch of teenagers going out to do what we love to do,” Sullivan said. It might be the best thing that we need right now.”

You can follow the games online. Here’s a link to the livestream. Opening ceremonies begin on Sunday night and close on Saturday afternoon.

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Rhonda McBride has a long history of working in both television and radio in Alaska, going back to 1988, when she was news director at KYUK, the public radio and TV stations in Bethel, which broadcast in both the English and Yup’ik languages.