Toe kick returns to the Native Youth Olympics after a 10-year break

Apr. 27—After a decade of being out of rotation at the annual Native Youth Olympics, the toe kick was back by popular demand at the 2024 games.

Symbolizing the cultural subsistence living activity of ice floe hopping, it requires an athlete to jump from a standing position with their feet together as if they were doing a broad jump. However, after they launch, they must first tap a stick placed on the ground at a distance ahead of them measured in inches, with their feet together, before sticking the landing.

Almost as interesting as the event itself was the footwear that some of the athletes wore, which included traditional sneakers and tennis shoes. But there were a fair share of competitors sporting Crocs, and some even opted to go barefoot.

Finishing atop of the girls podium in the same pair of shoes she won the event in was 17-year-old Jordan Klejka from Bethel, who topped out at 54 inches.

Even though wearing sneakers helped her reach the top of the podium, she couldn't help but wonder if switching up her footwear would've yielded even better results.

"I've always used these shoes, but my last two competitors were using Crocs and I was like, I really think I should switch to Crocs because they were killing it," Klejka said. "I was really regretting my shoe choice."

Now she's contemplating whether to make the change.

Kipnuk's Shawna Paul from the Lower Kuskokwim team practiced and competed while wearing Crocs and believes they gave her an advantage over most of her competitors as she advanced to the final three.

"They're so light and comfortable," she said.

Coming in first place in the boys competition was 17-year-old Sean Moonin from Nanwalek, who topped out at 80 inches while sporting the same shoes he plays basketball in.

"I'm just used to kicking in (sneakers)," he said. "I love basketball shoes."

Unlike most other athletes who took part in the event, Moonin had previous experience with the toe kick, though limited and several years removed.

"I did it in seventh grade and this is my second time doing it, and I placed third the last time," he said.

Representing his region and his heritage at the same time makes him feel "really good" and grateful to have been able to finish at the top of the boys podium.

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As a seasoned and highly successful former NYO athlete turned head official, Nicole Johnson said she would never compete in the toe kick or any event in Crocs.

"When I competed, I used tennis shoes because they were indoor type track shoes, very light but provided a lot of support," she said. "I don't know what it is about Crocs but I see quite a few kids competing in Crocs, and 10 years ago there were a couple athletes doing the toe kick in Crocs."

Few compete in the toe kick barefoot because of the fear that they might stub, sprain or even potentially break a toe.

"I personally would not recommend going barefoot, but every person performs their best however they feel they need to," Johnson said. "It's a personal preference for footwear."

Wrestling shoes are another popular choice footwear at NYO, especially when it comes to kicking events.

"They're light, they provide ankle support and there is a less likelihood they'll roll an ankle," Johnson said.

Preparing to execute the unfamiliar

Archie Young is a former NYO athlete and the current head coach of the Mt. Edgecumbe team. Aside from practicing the actual event itself, he has his athletes hop off a pencil as well as just hopping across the floor and tapping their toes on the floor while trying to stay light on their feet.

"Not having a stick, just flexing your toes and getting in the practice of flexing your toes," he said.

Young, who hasn't had to coach the event in 10 years, says the biggest challenge is preventing the toes from hitting the ground.

"You're supposed to hit the stick with the ball of your foot and your toes," he said. "You can't tap the floor, you can only tap the stick and not land on the stick. It's very precise. ... I don't think anybody is born to do this, it's something you have to work out."

Successfully executing this event requires a lot of focus, timing and keeping the feet together when jumping, according to Moonin.

Klejka had only been training for the event the past year and has been taking part in NYO since fifth grade. Coming in first place was "very unexpected" but felt amazing all the same.

"I did not expect to get first at all," she said.

In preparation of the event, her coach recommended that she use a wooden pencil to jump off of for practice.

"It's been really fun but since it's a new event, there's less people to help me with it because it was done (10) years ago," Klejka said. "I'd say that's probably the biggest struggle with it, but it's been really fun. It's a new favorite event of mine."

Instead of trying to track down old footage of past athletes executing the events, she relied on the wisdom and instruction of her coach.

Paul thinks it's "really cool" that the event is back after such a long time because so many people either don't know or hardly have any experience doing it.

Preparing for this year's games was her first time ever doing the event, and while she struggled to get it down at first, it quickly became one of her favorite events. Her advice for anyone interested in picking it up in the future is to "concentrate and aim for the front of the stick."

Cultural significance, and the story behind the event's return

The Native Youth Olympics rotates its selection of games for the annual event every seven to eight years, and the toe kick was slated to be back in rotation in 2021. However, since it was the year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers extended the delay of its reintegration into the games by two years.

Typically, the return of one event is supposed to coincide with another being taken away, and while athletes clamored for the return of the toe kick, they didn't want it to come at the expense of another. Either the scissor broad jump or the kneel jump were scheduled to be pulled off the schedule this year.

"We're trying this year's schedule with 11 events instead of 10 events," Johnson said. "We'll see how it goes. We may keep the 11 or we may end up having to take one out."

Normally, when the toe kick is back in rotation, the scissor broad jump is the first one to go since they are very similar in their cultural backgrounds.

"They were both played to develop skills for jumping from ice floe to ice floe to get across the river in the springtime or if you're crossing a creek," Johnson said. "Or if you're out on the ocean hunting and you're ice hopping."

She believes that the toe kick is one of the most difficult events to do because it requires quickness, coordination and agility.

Johnson recognizes that it will take time for athletes to build muscle memory before they begin threatening the all-time records in the toe kick again. The top marks this year were 19 inches off the boys record and 22 inches off the girls record.