Local athletes back from Arctic Winter Games with dozens of medals

Fort McMurray athletes defended their wins and found new victories as part of a smaller Team Alberta North. The Arctic Winter Games is debating the future of the event this fall.

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Athletes from Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo have returned from this year’s Arctic Winter Games with dozens of medals in 15 events. Team Alberta North, which included 66 athletes and coaches from the region, finished third in this year’s medal rankings with 43 gold medals, 42 silver medals and 37 bronze medals.

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“It was an excellent experience for all the athletes involved and not just with sports,” said Mike Cox, who coached Alberta’s alpine skiing team. “Getting to see that part of the world and how beautiful it is was amazing. It’s just an amazing place in general.”

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After being absent from last year’s games, Fort McMurray wrestlers won two golds, a silver and bronze. Gymnasts won a gold and bronze, while Fort McKay archer Tayden Shott won a bronze. Last year, the region failed to podium in both events.

Alberta’s female hockey team successfully defended the gold medals won at the 2023 games. The male team won gold after taking home silver last year.

“The organizers and the event were just incredible… it was a very rewarding experience,” said Dan Hodgson, who coached the girls’ hockey team. “It was incredible how the girls stuck up for one another. They saw the rewards with working hard, working for each other and following the process. It was impressive to see.”

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Alpine skiiers with Team Alberta North show off their medals during the Arctic Winter Games in Mat-Su Valley, Alaska. Fort McMurray’s Axel Lecompte (left) has two golds and a silver, Tula Sundholm (second from left) has three silvers, and Julianna Ryan (right) has a gold, silver and bronze. Dozens of Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo athletes are competing in Alaska. Image supplied by 2024 Arctic Winter Games

Veterans of the 2023 Arctic Winter Games said they loved seeing Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo filled with athletes and delegates from across the circumpolar north, but it was exciting to see how the games were handled in a new community.

Everyone interviewed had kind things to say about the organization of the games. The cultural events continued traditions of celebrating and acknowledging the histories of the north’s Indigenous nations and arctic cultures. The games also exposed people to new sports, particularly Indigenous sports.

Pin trading continued to be popular among the different teams. Competing against Team Alaska was a challenge since they had the home advantage. In the end, Team Alaska won the medal count with 70 golds, 84 silvers and 68 bronze medals.

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“A goal for us as a team when we got to Alaska was to try to see some of the cultural events at the games, as these are not at the athletes’ usual competitions. We saw some of the Arctic Sports. Two-foot high-kick, wow! These athletes are incredible,” said Tania Miller-Sauve, who has coached Team Alberta North since the 2018 Arctic Winter Games and is involved with Noralta Skating Club.

“I really enjoyed the games. We saw some of the cultural events… I loved the competition part of it, competing against other people and getting medals,” said Kiara Stannard, a 13-year-old figure skater from Anzac who won a gold and silver. “It was interesting to see how people skated differently than people in my club.”

figure skaters
L-R: Fort McMurray figure skaters Alexis Robinson, Isabella Scheers and Kiara Stannard with their medals at the 2024 Arctic Winter Games in Mat-Su Valley, Alaska. Photo by Tania Miller-Sauve

Future of the Arctic Winter Games to be debated

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Team Alberta North sent a smaller delegation to Alaska compared to what was featured last year in Fort McMurray. A single male futsal team, which won bronze, was sent compared to four last year. There was no basketball team. The cultural delegation was smaller.

Sending large contingents from northern communities is expensive. Many communities across the circumpolar north struggle economically and socially, and have few facilities to train. Even practicing is costly when athletes are often spread across the north. Team Alberta North was largely made up of athletes from Fort McMurray Wood Buffalo and the Grande Prairie region.

John Rodda, president of the international committee overseeing the Arctic Winter Games, says the games needs to adapt to these social and economic challenges.

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Warming winters is also becoming a hurdle for organizers. A warmer-than-usual winter also hit Alaska this year. Cox said when he returned to Fort McMurray, the region was colder than Mat-Su Valley.

Rodda told Ollie Williams of the Yellowknife-based Cabin Radio that delegations are answering surveys about the future of the games. That feedback will inform a fall meeting in Whitehorse on the topic.

“Is the two-year rotation best-suited? Is it sustainable? Does it meet the needs of developing northern youth? All of that is under consideration,” he said. “If we modify the rotation, what does that look like? They’re all pieces of dialogue. But yes, finance comes into it.”

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