The ball for the one foot high kick was suspended at 63 inches above the gymnasium floor at Gruening Middle School last Saturday as Milan Eisenmayer gently cupped her hands around it to steady its swaying.
Just minutes before, her right foot made sufficient contact with the ball then suspended at 62 inches to send it flying through the air rebounding back and forth until its pendulum-like movement slowed enough for Eisenmayer to catch it in her hands.
A sixth-grade student at Alpenglow Elementary School, Eisenmayer has competed in the Native Youth Olympics since first grade. She knows the drill as far as the one foot high kick goes. At Saturday’s first ever “practice meet” held for local elementary students, Eisenmayer had advanced past her other competitors. She was the only girl left; the only girl having the suspended ball raised inch by inch after her right foot connected with it mid-air.
As Eisenmayer stepped several feet away from the suspended ball, her former competitors were chanting, “you can do it, Milan.”
It was the kind of encouraging atmosphere that organizers of the event wanted to create.
“This is a big family,” Nicole Johnston said. The Eagle River resident is a 2017 inductee into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame for having held the Native Youth Olympics women’s two foot high kick record for 25 years. She is a regular volunteer with the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, a coach and an official at native game events. “We are here for the kids. Native games promote a family atmosphere in which it isn’t about winning but it is about beating yourself, about going harder, faster and longer than you did the last time you did it.”
Sportsmanship, Johnston said, is the most coveted award at a native games event.
“It is voted on by the competitor’s peers and the officials,” she explained.
Johnston likes the fact that Native Olympics, unlike other sports events, provides a variety of challenges combining mental and physical skills.
“There is a game for every kid,” she said. “There is something that every child can be successful at doing. When a child feels they can succeed at something, it promotes a healthy attitude and encourages them. It builds confidence.”
Caela Nielsen, a physical education teacher at Ravenwood Elementary School, agrees.
She is an unbridled proponent of outdoor activity in PE class and of combining Alaska Native culture in education.
Nielsen took on organizing Saturday’s event that was billed as a practice run for students wanting to participate in the Junior NYO games at the University of Alaska-Anchorage Wells Fargo Sports Complex Feb. 24-26. The junior games are for students in first through sixth grade.
The Jan. 28 event at GMS in Eagle River is the only such precursor this year, but Anchorage School District officials are considering hosting similar events in other parts of the Anchorage Bowl next year.
Nearly 150 elementary students turned out last Saturday to participate.
Melanie Sutton, the district’s curriculum coordinator for health and physical education, was on hand to help track results and write student names on the certificates given out for first through fifth place in each event.
She was beyond tickled by what she saw going on in the GMS gym.
“The PE teachers out here understood that their students needed a little more exposure to these games before going on to the statewide competition,” Sutton said. “They are dedicated teachers that constantly work for their students.”
Many of the local elementary schools incorporated Native games in PE classes in November as part of the Alaska Native Heritage Month. Others continued the effort with after-school clubs dedicated to teaching the skills used in the games.
David Mazur teaches at Ravenwood part-time with Nielsen and was on hand Saturday to help with the practice games.
“What I love the most about the Native games is that it brings culture together with athletic competition,” he said. “But it isn’t just about the competition; you get together to see your community and friends and there are so few other games that have such real-world applications.”
For example, Mazur said, the scissor broad jump features skills that are essential for jumping from one piece of floating ice to another or perhaps across a stream with rocks sticking up out of the water flow.
The event requires four continuous hops or steps without losing balance. It is completed by starting with two feet together and jumping forward landing on one’s dominant foot. The other foot is then swept behind and the athlete lands on that foot while moving forward. There is another forward jump and the athlete lands with both feet parallel.
He also sees mastering the scissor broad jump as helpful in other sports.
“It requires coordination and jumping speed,” he said. “The explosive energy and coordination necessary to do this well is a great skill.”
That thought isn’t lost on Kaleb Sherman, a sixth-grade student, who said learning skills necessary for native games should help his football game as well.
“I learned how to jump higher,” he said, noting that could help him avoid defenders as a running back.
His father, Michael Sherman, watched the games intently from the sidelines with a smile.
He liked the development he saw in his son, but that was not limited to just his athletic abilities.
“I like how the competitors shake hands with the judges,” Michael said. “You don’t see that too often in other traditional sports. It builds good character.”
In the end of the one foot high kick, Eisenmayer just barely missed the ball when it was suspended at 63 inches.
She was getting tired. It’s tougher to hit the ball at the higher heights when you’ve expended as much energy as she did getting that far in the competition.
But that’s okay, she said.
“I have learned that I should never give up on something that I love,” Eisenmayer said.
Her dark brown eyes were beaming with joy as her fellow competitors formed a circle around her congratulating her on her victory.
Each of the girls had two lines marked under their eyes like football players do. The top line was blue; the bottom was pink. It was created by Crayola marker brought by Carolyn Burrill, a fifth grader from Alpenglow.
Burrill was there to compete for sure: She earned first in the Alaska high kick and second in the scissors broad jump. But more importantly, as noted by her PE teacher, Curt Olson, Burrill was there to cheer.
“She cheers for everyone,” he said with a smile.
Her reason is pretty simple: “I really do like to compete. And I know how it feels to win and I know how it feels to lose.”
And she also knows how to improvise.
“I couldn’t find anything else but the markers, so I thought, sure that will work,” Burrill said.
Apparently, it does.
“I made me ferocious,” Eisenmayer said.