Arctic Games foster Native competition, friendship

KENAI, Alaska -- Seated in the bleachers at Kenai Central High School, 18-year-old Alissa Joseph pulls her highlighted hair into a ponytail, removes her ear buds, raises her head and bellows like a seal.

Somewhere between a howl and a squawk, seal calls are the Arctic
Winter Games' equivalent of a hometown cheer.

Attracting teams from Alaska and northern reaches of Canada, Greenland, Russia, Sweden, Norway and Finland, the Arctic Games have been held every two years since 1970. This year, they have drawn 2,000 athletes from the world's Arctic regions to Alaska's Kenai Peninsula.

"This is a big part of my life," said Joseph, a Team Alaska
athlete who earlier claimed second place in the Inuit kneel jump,
open female division. Competing gives her a chance to reconnect
with far-flung friends and her Eskimo roots.

"It helps me remember who I am," she said.

Her echoing seal call was picked up throughout the gym, where a few hundred fans watched most of the day as athletes vied in the 2-foot kick in open and junior divisions.

A mesmerizing test of agility, timing, coordination and wicked
abdominals, the 2-foot kick requires players to rapidly leap up and
flick their knees and legs so the feet touch a target suspended at
various heights. Competitors approach at a run or walk, or they may
jump from standstill. Kickers must land squarely.

The record kick, set in 1988 by Team Alaska's Brian Randazzo, is
8 feet, 8 inches.

Jumping 8-2 to claim first place in the open male division this
year was Team Nunavut's Sean Nipisar, a rangy 26-year-old from the
remote central Canada province straddling the Arctic Circle.

"I was confident, but it was tough," Nipisar said after
winning the gold ulu, a semicircular medal shaped to resemble its
namesake, a traditional Arctic cutting tool.

In Nunavut, kickers practice on a target shaped like a seal and made of fur. Competitors aim their feet at a hand-sewn leather ball, stuffed with cotton and about the size of softball. Inuit
high kicking is a digital-free event: Officials used a step ladder
and tape measure to set the homemade target, suspended on a day-glo
yellow cord.

The Arctic Games began Sunday at venues on the Kenai
Peninsula south of Anchorage and end this coming Sunday, when the Hodgson prize
is presented to the team demonstrating exemplary fair play. The
games strengthen cultural ties while showcasing top regional
athletes in familiar sports like volleyball, cross-country skiing
and soccer as well as traditional Native games.

Nipisar, the 2-foot kick winner, began four years ago when a buddy invited him to give Inuit sports a try. He and 19 other Team Nunavut athletes train at community halls and rely on coaches like
Elizabeth Voisey, a former competitor whose father was a gold
medalist in the first Arctic Winter Games 36 years ago.

On this day, Voisey watched over her junior kickers from a seat on the gym floor. A trained kicker can avoid serious injury, Voisey
said, but pain happens. Bruises, too, as Inuit athletes twist,
reach, pull, leap and tug their way to the top.

"You use your mind to take it," Voisey said. "That's part of
the game, eh?"