As the 25th biannual Arctic Winter Games were hosting their silver celebration, a group of Kenai Peninsula athletes were busy hauling in the gold.
Held every two years, the Arctic Winter Games wrapped up March 24 in the small communities of Hay River and Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, in Canada’s South Slave region. Known as “The Olympics of the Arctic,” the weeklong competition has been held every two years since 1970, when the inaugural games were first held in Yellowknife, Canada.
This year, 20 peninsula competitors joined the rest of Team Alaska in vying for the precious gold, silver and bronze ulus, and 13 returned home with the prized hardware awarded to podium finishers.
Among the biggest winners was Ninilchik runner and Kenai Central High School senior Riana Boonstra, who racked up four golds in a week in snowshoe racing, winning the 7.5-kilometer, 5K and short distance individual cross-country races while also joining the winning 4-by-400 meter relay.
“The goal was to sweep all four (events) and get four golds,” she said.
Consider it mission accomplished.
Because she will be over the age limit the next time the AWG convenes in 2020, this year’s races were to be Boonstra’s last. At age 17, Boonstra has made it quite a career.
Boonstra wrapped up her AWG career with 11 total ulus in four trips, an astounding 10 of them gold. Boonstra won her first gold ulu as an 11-year-old in Whitehorse, Canada, in 2012, then added two more in Fairbanks in 2014 and three in Nuuk, Greenland, in 2016. She also won a silver at the Greenland games.
“I keep them on a rack my room,” Boonstra said, admitting that the rack is starting to fill up.
The superlative week was enough to earn Boonstra the honor of carrying the state flag for Team Alaska at the closing ceremonies, but unfortunately she never got the chance as the team had to fly out early to avoid incoming bad weather.
Boonstra wasn’t the only peninsula athlete to reach the pinnacle of their Arctic sport this year. Other locals that won gold included Soldotna’s Shaylynn Zener in junior female volleyball, Kenai’s Brooke Satathite in junior female basketball, Ninilchik’s Judah Eason in the junior male high kick, and Kenai teammates Brenna Eubank and Brianna Stanton in junior female ice hockey.
This year, Alberta North won the overall ulu count with 133 total, while Team Alaska finished second with 125 and Yukon finished third with 122. Alaska, however, finish tied with the most gold ulus with 51, the same as Yamal, a Russian contingent. Alberta North was a close third with 50 golds.
Boonstra said her snowshoe racing prowess stems from her early upbringing in the northwestern Yukon River community of Galena, where the annual spring carnival featured snowshoe races.
The Boonstra family moved to Ninilchik when Riana was in sixth grade, and in her time on the peninsula, she has discovered that snowshoe racing isn’t as common.
“It’s kind of unique, it’s just a different kind of sport,” Boonstra said. “There’s not that many people that are into snowshoe racing. They don’t understand, they ask, ‘You run on snowshoes?’”
Boonstra’s mother, Kelli, is the team coach, and has the athletic accolades to back up her words of wisdom. Kelli nearly made it on Team USA for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in cross-country skiing, while the patriarch of the Boonstra family, Todd, is a three-time Winter Olympian in skiing, as well as a four-time men’s Mount Marathon champion.
Boonstra competes and trains with family friends Leah and Greg Fallon, both of whom attend Kenai Middle School. Leah earned silver in both the juvenile female 2.5K and 5K races.
In addition to her success in the games, Boonstra said she has felt the transition of going from a starry-eyed kid in 2012 to a seasoned leader of Team Alaska this year. Boonstra has played a role in mentoring the younger athletes, such as the Fallon siblings.
“I was the younger one (in 2012) and I looked up to the older girls running, like wow, they’re so fast,” she said. “Now, I look at our juvenile girls, thinking where will they be in the future.”
In the 4-by-400 meter snowshoe relay, Boonstra teamed up with Clare Howard, Shadrach Stitz and Ronan Davies to claim the gold. Boonstra said Howard proved to be her toughest competition in each race, save for the relay.
In the 5K, Boonstra said she started fast in an attempt to gauge her competition and see who could keep up.
“I didn’t know exactly how fast everyone would be,” she said. “I just wanted to go out and see how it was.”
Howard was the only other racer that could hang with Boonstra, and the Anchorage runner led through the first of two laps. Eventually, Boonstra made her move on the second lap and pulled away to win in 28 minutes, 1.4 seconds, almost 13 seconds ahead of Howard.
In the longest race, the 7.5K, Boonstra had to fight off a side cramp to win. Boonstra said she has a history of developing muscle spasms in her side during races, and the one that got her in Canada forced her to almost slow to a walk.
However, it quickly disappeared and Boonstra was able to regain chase of Howard and claim her second gold, thanking her stars along the way that the longer distance allowed her the time to chase down the leader.
While the distance races were just her thing, Boonstra said the sprint races were not.
“I’m definitely not a 100 (meter) runner,” she admitted. “It’s different going from 7.5K to 100 meters.”
Nevertheless, Boonstra dominated by winning all three races in the combined event, the 100, 400 and 1,500.
The KCHS senior will now set her sights on attending Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction this fall, a Division II school, where she plans on competing for the cross-country and skiing teams, as well as outdoor track and field.
Unlike Boonstra, Soldotna’s Shaylynn Zener was competing in her first AWG, but she also made it a golden week with the junior female volleyball squad.
“It was really cool being able to join this team and meet people from all over Alaska,” Zener said. “I feel very lucky to have been part of this, representing our state.”
Playing both the libero and outside hitter positions, Zener helped Team Alaska capture the gold ulu with an intense five-set victory over Alberta North, a team that had beaten the Alaskans earlier in the tournament.
Zener said that growing up, she was a shy kid that needed an outlet to express herself. She found that in volleyball, where her speed and quickness are a natural asset. Zener made huge strides playing with the Stars in high school and the Peninsula Midnight Sun club team.
Zener had to prove she belonged on the team, sending in game video of herself to Team Alaska officials in hopes of being selected to compete.
Her senior season at SoHi helped make the decision easy. Zener blossomed in 2017, capturing First-Team All-State tournament honors to go along with conference MVP and Defensive Player of the Year accolades. Zener will be graduating from SoHi on May 22.
As a libero, Zener has always relied on her agility to make defensive plays, but coach Sheila Kupferschmid, faced with having to make some changes this past season at SoHi, moved Zener to the outside hitter position.
Although she stands at just 5-foot-3, Zener provided the power for the Stars, helping the team qualify to the Class 4A state tournament in November.
“I’ve grown a lot this past year,” she said. “I was one of three seniors (at SoHi) and we had to really step up.”
Zener’s journey to Hay River wasn’t without hard work. The SoHi senior had to fundraise over $1,000 to minimize travel expenses, receiving sponsorship help from local businesses.
The big call couldn’t have been timed better, as she celebrated her 17th birthday Nov. 30 with the phone call informing her she made it to Team Alaska.
Zener’s Alaska team stepped up in a big way to capture the gold in Canada. Team Alaska went 4-1 in pool play, losing only to Alberta North, which earned the top seed in tournament play. Alaska swept Yukon 3-0 in the semis, with scores of 25-15, 25-10 and 25-22, placing the squad into the final against Alberta North.
In the gold ulu match, Alaska prevailed in a wild five-set thriller, winning with scores of 25-10, 21-25, 25-23, 23-25 and 15-6.
Zener credited the support from the rest of Team Alaska in the victory, noting that athletes from other sports showed up to catch the action and root for the blue and gold.
“The gym itself is small, so it got super intense,” Zener said. “When we won, it was so loud, and everyone was cheering.”
As the underdogs against Alberta North, the Alaskans appeared to be the rooting favorites, and it ultimately led to Alaska winning the Hodgson Trophy for a second straight AWG. The trophy is awarded every two years to the team that best exemplifies the ideals of fair play and team spirit.
“I felt the team spirit,” Zener said.
Zener said she is also using the AWG experience as steppingstone to playing volleyball this fall at Southwestern Oregon Community College in Coos Bay. Traveling almost 1,200 air miles and a 5 1/2-hour bus ride helped give her a good experience.
“The traveling part was definitely tough,” she said. “We’re waking up every morning, we’ve got games every day.”
By the end of the week, both Zener and Boonstra came to appreciate the cultural experience of visiting another community in another country.
“It’s such a small community, you meet a lot of people,” Zener said.
Boonstra said in all four AWG trips, the best experiences she got came from learning about rival teams from exotic places like Greenland and Russia.
“We’re surrounded by athletes from other cultures,” Boonstra explained. “The Russian team was able to come, we hung out with them and they were super nice. We got to hang out and connect with different cultures.”
In other game action, Brenna Eubank, a Kenai Central senior, took home the gold with Team Alaska in junior female hockey. Eubank was joined by fellow Kenai skater Brianna Stanton.
Eubank was part of the Alaska contingent that finished with the bronze in 2016, and two years later, had all eyes set on the gold. Team Alaska went 4-0-0 in round robin play, then demolished Yukon 5-0 in the semifinals to set up a finals clash with Northwest Territories.
In the gold medal game, Alaska squeaked out a 3-2 victory.
Eubank finished round-robin play with two assists, while Stanton finished with one assist over the tournament.
Eubank also continued a family tradition. Since 2006, a Eubank sibling has competed at AWG for Team Alaska in ice hockey.
On the basketball court, Kenai junior Brooke Satathite captured gold as well, helping Team Alaska win the gold ulu in the junior female division. Alaska went 3-0 in round-robin play before knocking out Team Nunavut 68-41 in the semifinals.
In the championship game, Alaska won 87-80 over Northwest Territories.
Alaska also got a champion in the high kick, a classic northern sport that challenges athletes to reach a small ball, suspended in the air by a string, with only their feet, and Ninilchik’s Judah Eason earned the gold in the junior male division.
Arctic Winter Games
Peninsula ulu winners
Riana Boonstra, Kenai — Gold in junior female snowshoeing 5K cross-country, gold in 7.5K cross-country &gold in short distance combined.
Brenna Eubank, Kenai — Gold in junior female ice hockey
Brianna Stanton, Kenai — Gold in junior female ice hockey
Judah Eason, Ninilchik — Gold in junior male Alaskan high kick
Brooke Satathite, Kenai — Gold in junior female basketball
Shaylynn Zener, Soldotna — Gold in junior female volleyball
Leah Fallon, Kenai — Silver in juvenile female snowshoeing 2.5K cross-country, silver in 5K cross-country
Keegan Lorring, Soldotna — Silver in wrestling (up to 71 kg female), silver in team competition mix, bronze in Inuit wrestling (up to 71 kg female)
Mekhai Rich, Kenai — Bronze in junior male 1-foot high kick, bronze in junior male Alaskan high kick, bronze in junior male triple jump.
Autumn Daigle, Homer — Bronze in 3x3K classic relay cross-country skiing
Terry Gilliland, Homer — Bronze in bantam male ice hockey
Casey Otis, Homer — Bronze in bantam male ice hockey