NWT takes third

Sport North eyes second-place finish for 2014

Winter Ross with two
bronze and a silver
she won for figure

Team NWT came up seven medals short of its goal of finishing second at the 2012 Arctic Winter Games in Whitehorse, claiming 116 ulus. However, territorial athletes had more podium performances since 2006, and won five more medals than when the team finished second in 2008 as the host contingent.

"It's always a real dog fight between us and the Yukon," said Bill Othmer, assistant chef de mission with Team NWT. "We're always trying to push to get second overall."

This year Team NWT earned 32 gold ulus, its second-highest gold rush since the 2008 games in Yellowknife when it won 34 golds.

Much of the team's success can be credited to the efforts of NWT biathletes and speedskaters. The two teams combined for 62 medals – 20 gold, 15 silver and 27 bronze.

Othmer said both teams have benefited from strong coaching over the years and the efforts of strong territorial sports organizations.

"With the new (coaches) from biathlon who are taking the place of our long-standing Patty Kay Hamiltons, Pat Bobinskis, Doug Swallows, they are mentors for the coaches who are there now, the Chuck Lirettes. You can tell (the new coaches) have had some very good mentorship preparing the athletes," said Othmer. "For speedskating, we are blessed with having David Gilday as a mentor for our current coach Shane Clark. He is also the father of Hannah who blew the doors off the competition this week."

Hannah medalled in each of her races claiming two gold and two silver ulus in her individual races and helping the junior female relay team to a gold.

Speedskating also has two outside influences pushing them to success on the ice.

"With respect to Michael Gilday and his sister, Jill, a lot of these kids look up to them, they are like the Wayne Gretzkys of speed skating to these kids," said Othmer.

Speedskaters won 37 medals this year, one short of a record high of 38 in 2010.

“In speedskating, we are teasing the coaches a bit. They are taking 12 out 15 medals a day, seven out of 10 medals a day. (Friday) every relay team won a gold so that's a testament to their coaching and their program. However, we do tease them and say 'where are the other three medals.' If they are not winning all 15 something must be wrong," said Othmer.

Joking aside, Othmer said speedskaters have surpassed all expectations and only time will tell if the team will be able to maintain its momentum. Othmer added the future looks good.

"If everyone stays healthy and the program stays strong then I think they can do it," he said. "One of the reasons is the strong representation from the community athletes who are coming up. It's going to really help. I think we are going to have really strong representation at the next Arctic Winter Games."

One athlete to watch will be Fort Simpson's Madison Pilling. Pilling skated as a juvenile in 2010 taking four gold and a silver. This games she made the transition to junior and still managed to medal in all her races with four bronze and a gold.

After receiving her fourth bronze medal, Pilling said she wasn't disappointed with bronze and in fact enjoyed the competition. She said she learned a lot being able to skate against athletes who were faster than her.

Traditional sports

Arctic sports and Dene games also showed improvement this Games, a fact Othmer said the team should be proud of.

"We were a little bit embarrassed over the last couple of games when there were athletes coming from Northern Alberta beating us in the traditional games. We took that personally," said Othmer.

Dene games and Arctic sports combined for 26 medals – 10 gold, three silver and eight bronze – this year, seven more than in 2012 and doubling the combined gold count.

Fort Smith's Veronica McDonald walked away from Whitehorse as Team NWT's top-medalling athlete. McDonald took seven medals – five gold, one silver and one bronze – medalling in all but one event. She also shattered two world records in the two-foot high kick and the kneel jump.

In her record-setting two-foot high kick, she nailed a six-foot attempt, beating her personal best by two inches. She also smashed the kneel-hop record by four inches with a 52 and one-eighth inch jump. Prior to the games McDonald set her goals high, saying she hoped to medal in every event and break some records.

Although she did not medal in the sledge jump, she did earn the gold for top junior female. McDonald competed in her first games in 2004, when she was nine years old with her mother Meika, who is no longer a competitor.

"That's some genetics. Her mother Meika has a whole bunch of medals," said Othmer. "We were having a Veronica medal count on the black board in our mission office. She was at 17 all time and we're trying to find out how many Meika had during her time. Stay tuned, we think she's going to bypass Meika."

The improved success of traditional sports at the games is attributed to the efforts of a dedicated trainer, Othmer said.

"Something Veronica has been doing over the past two months, she has been working with a personal trainer and someone who has been working with the Arctic Sports Association by the name of Colin Aloolloo," he said. "Colin has taken her under his wing. He really got her in top-notch shape and I think that's the major reason why she did so well. Two world records, and I predict she will be breaking her own world records in Fairbanks."

Othmer said the goal now is to keep the momentum with traditional sports in the territory.

"With Colin Allooloo taking care of Dene games, Arctic sports and snowshoeing, we think that he's going to not only build the athletes but the whole infrastructure in formalizing the associations to become a bona fide traditional sports organizations," said Othmer.

With the continued support of a formal organizing body, Othmer said Dene games and Arctic sports will improve territory-wide and show similar results seen as other sports that benefit from territorial sport organizations.

"We don't want it to be just every two years and then it goes for a little collapse in the off years, and you do see that in some of the sports that do not have territorial sport organizations," he said.

He added that with dedicated volunteers overseeing the progress and training of traditional sport athletes competitions can become a regular occurrence instead of being focused on the Arctic Winter Games.

"The Arctic Winter Games will be another competition for them. There are the World Eskimo Games in Alaska and other opportunities we may have to provide," Othmer said.

Figure skating

This year's Team NWT bodes well for the future. Many of the athletes interviewed said they were participating for the first time and many sports had young competitors who will have more opportunities to compete in upcoming games.

Among those was Inuvik figure skater Winter Ross, 11. In Whitehorse, Ross became the first Inuvik figure skater to win an ulu at the Arctic Winter Games in 12 years, or in the past six games. She claimed a silver and a bronze as well as the silver for overall skater in the ladies 1 junior category.

"Winter Ross, who captured the overall silver, was awesome to see and has really put Inuvik on the map in terms of figure skating and again young athletes," said Othmer. "I put myself in her shoes and she has had some success this year and that's only going to build that fire and keep it going."

Othmer said the goal is to make the Arctic Winter Games a stepping stone for NWT athletes to catapult them into other multi-sport competitions.

"I think we are starting to realize the Arctic Winter Games builds a real base for other multi-sport games," he said. "We have the 2013 Canada Summer Games in Sherbrooke. All these young athletes are training, they are learning proper nutrition, they are learning how to compete. The Arctic Winter Games is an opportunity for them to get into a village setting and get into a multi-sport event."

For Sport North, making the Arctic Winter Games experience a phenomenal one for the the athletes is paramount and what Othmers says will ensure the growth of athletics in the NWT.

"We compare it to when you're young you go to the movies for the first time and sit down and look at the big screen and go 'wow.' For us, this week, we want the Arctic Winter Games to be the 'wow' moment and prepare them further on for Western Canada Games, North American Indigenous Games -- through Aboriginal Sports Council -- the Canada Summer Games and Canada Winter Games."

If Ross is any indication, Sport North has succeeded in producing the wow factor. With her three medals in tow she said she was proud and happy to have had the opportunity to compete.

Fairbanks 2014

Momentum is what is going to help Team NWT reach its goal of second place during the 2014 Games in Fairbanks, Alaska, and that means finding ways to begin preparing athletes early. Othmer said Sport North is already planning two-years down the road.

"We can't rest on our laurels, we have to start preparing Monday (March 12) for the next ones," said Othmer. "In Fairbanks, I would like our team to be first or second."

With the number of up-and-coming-athletes from this Games, that goal might be in reach.

"We have a (13-year-old) table tennis player (Alex Huang) who nearly made it to the medal round and he is a phenomenal kid. We think that if that athlete keeps progressing, that is a big step for table tennis," said Othmer, adding he knows 2014 is going to present some heavy competition.

"It is always going to be tough against Alaska, and it's going to be harder because they are hosting so they are going to have somebody in every category. They have alpine, we don't have alpine, so all of sudden there are medals that we won't have access to," he said.

Alaska took first place – its fourth straight first-place finish -- with 190 medals this year.

Over all, Othmer said the games were a great experience and proof to coaches, athletes and volunteers that effort and hardwork pays off.

"Seeing all the effort of all the volunteers in the communities is not for naught, it's all for something," he said. "That's really what it's all about."