AWG Day 1: Biathlon, speed skating reap medals

Three siblings and fast thinking accounts for growing number of prized ulus for Team NWT

NWT's Byron Okheena competes in the kneel-jump. Competitors must kneel with their bum touching their feet. They then hurl themselves upwards and forwards without touching the ground, landing in a standing position but not slip or put a hand down. The athlete who jumps the farthest forward wins.

It was a banner day for Hay River’s Crook family at the Grey Mountain biathlon venue for the Arctic Winter Games.

Brothers Clell and Kjel and sister Michaela each took home silver ulu medals in the morning’s snowshoe biathlon individual event, along with Fort McPherson racer Destiny Robert.

The biathletes kicked off what became a fast-growing litany of medals for Team NWT.

Earlier in the afternoon, ski biathletes Angeline Magtibay, Christopher Lirette, Jay Wright and Brennan Firth racked up four bronzes.

In the Dene games, Dettah’s Zhalaani Drygeese claimed an additional silver and Willz Storr nabbed another bronze as well.

Arctic sports athlete Veronica McDonald, of Fort Smith, brought home the first NWT gold of the games in the kneel jump, but she wouldn’t be alone for long.

When the NWT speed skating team hit the ice, it was clear from the start that the afternoon would have a golden, metallic ring.

Essentially, the skaters cleaned up.

By the time all the finals finished, the skating team had raised NWT’s medal count by nine, and could have brought home more were it not for some bad luck on the part of a few skaters who crashed out in the semis.

Yellowknife’s Simon Austin skated a final to near perfection, biding his time in a comfortable third place until four laps to go. Coming out of a congested corner, Austin glimpsed the narrowest of windows in the front straight, and he pounced. It was an aggressive move, but it propelled him well into a lead that he held easily until the finish.

“I kind of had that move set up from the beginning,” Austin said.

“I’d planned on being top three in the race and drafting for a while, and waiting for the window to open and taking advantage of it when it happened.

“It’s definitely something I’ve worked on, taking opportunities when they come but also creating them. I was definitely prepared to try the outside in case the inside didn’t open up,” he said.

Speed skating can sometimes seem like a contact sport, and while clever tactics worked in Austin’s favour, a couple of his teammates weren’t so lucky.

Fort Simpson's Kevin Anavilok-Roche was one of the NWT skaters to go down in his semi-final, but bounced back to win his B-final by an impressive margin. The number of skaters who went skittering instead of gliding across the ice is testament to how technical short-track speed skating can be.

For Austin, the key was to stay sharp and pay attention.

“I felt pretty good going into the early heats. My goal was to keep my focus, stay in first and just get through them,” Austin said.

The tournament sports got underway Monday as well. With days still left to play in their round robins, many teams were still finding their feet in Whitehorse.

On the badminton court, Hay River athlete Roza Balasanyan had a difficult start to the week.

She opened her match against Alaska’s Whitney Williams with a strong 21-15 win in game one, but lost the next two games 21-12. While she’s disappointed in the result, she said she’s looking at it as a warm-up for the tournament to come.

“It was a tough match. I lost my focus and was out of my zone. I have no idea what happened in the second two games. After the first game, I was going for the win, but you know when it starts to not work out, and you start to get a little rattled,” Balasanyan said.

While this is her first appearance at the Arctic Winter Games, Balasanyan is no stranger to the court. She’s competed at the Western Canadian Championships and the Canada Games in tennis, and said she’s confident she can use her racquet skills to her advantage.

Team NWT has athletes seeing action is nearly every sport Tuesday as play continues in Whitehorse.