By Melinda Munson
“I’ve never coached anything a day in my life,” admitted school board member Jaime Bricker.
Nevertheless, Bricker made Skagway history by starting the town’s inaugural Junior Native Youth Olympics team (NYO). Practices began Jan. 30 with 15 participants. They meet once a week for 1.5 hours and give fourth, fifth and sixth graders the chance to seal hop, kneel jump and toe kick.
The new coach is joined by Bricker’s 15-year-old son, Austin, and Bricker’s sister, Savannah Ames, who does have coaching experience. Cindy O’Daniel from Skagway School also volunteers her time.
Bricker, who grew up in Skagway and is the president of the Skagway Traditional Council, never had a chance to participate in Native Alaskan sports.
Her grandfather, Andrew Mahle, an Aleut, was forcibly relocated to Skagway from Kodiak in World War II. He was “educated and Americanized” at the Pius X Mission where his culture was eradicated.
Bricker was excited when she heard through social media that Sealaska Heritage Institute was sponsoring Native Olympic teams for Southeast. She started training virtually in November. Her instructor, Kyle Worl, is a famous Native Alaskan athlete and youth advocate.
The NYO homepage, found at citci.org, demonstrates all 12 competition skills and describes the purpose of the games.
“For thousands of years and countless generations, survival for Alaska Native people depended not only on individual strength, skill and knowledge, but also on the ability to work together toward common goals.
Traditional athletic contests and games helped develop these and other skills critical to everyday life in the challenging Alaska environment. Today’s NYO Games Alaska carries on in this spirit by encouraging young people to strive for their personal best while helping and supporting their teammates — even other teams.”
The NYO is open to all ethnicities. Sam Munson, a sixth grader whose ancestors are Scandinavian, has been attending each week and learning the cultural significance of the movements.
“They didn’t just play the games to play the games,” Munson said. “They did them for survival,” he explained, demonstrating the scissor broad jump, a skill used for jumping across ice.
According to Bricker, the program has been well received by Skagway’s youth.
“They’re excited to try something new,” Bricker said. “They’re engaged. They feed off of each other’s energy.”
So far, she is impressed. Particularly with the seal hop.
“Some of the kids can go 40 feet,” Bricker said.
Bricker said the decision to start the program with younger children was intentional. After conferring with Worl, they decided to grow the NYO in Skagway starting with lower grades, with the hope the program could eventually extend to high schoolers.
NYO is not a westernized competition.
“They’re not competing against each other. It’s about encouraging your teammates to perform their best … As long as they’re progressing each time they’re on the right track,” Bricker said.
Due to COVID-19, athletes will not travel to Anchorage in April for the yearly NYO. Instead, their entries are taped and submitted.
Bricker is coaching her own son, 10-year-old Waylon.
“It feels like a great honor,” she said. “He and I are getting exposure to something we were denied.”