Creating a culture of skiing

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UAA Nordic skier Zackarias Toresson volunteers as a coach for the Skiku program, helping young skiers get out on the trails. Photo credit: Skiku

Getting Alaska on skis is the goal of Skiku, a statewide program providing annual Nordic ski instruction to Alaska Native youth at schools in rural Alaska.

Outside of the school lessons, the Skiku teams of qualified volunteer and staff coaches offer lessons for both the children and their families. The name of the program comes from a combination of “ski” with “siku,” the Inupiaq word for ice.

Skiku Director Robin Kornfield started the program in 2011. Her initial goal was to help children from her hometown, Kiana, qualify for the Arctic Winter Games.

When World Cup skier Lars Flora came to her with the idea of bringing elite skiers to teach the children in Kiana to ski, she decided to focus her work on the establishment of the skiing program.

A team of 18 coaches traveled to four villages in the Northwest Arctic Borough in 2012. The next year, they provided instruction in 11 villages.

“People started hearing about it in other parts of the state and so we started expanding. We ended up with 40 locations across the state,” Kornfield said.

Soon, the program moved beyond the goal of just helping children to get to the Arctic Winter Games. It also helps address social problems like unawareness of nutrition, lack of physical activity and high suicide rates, Kornfield said.

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“I think there’s so much more to it. It’s not just an athletic thing,” Kornfield said. “It’s actually about taking people outdoors in a time of the year when they are desperate to be outdoors.”

The volunteer coaching teams include Olympians, World Cup skiers, high school athletes and collegiate skiers. This year, 2018 Olympians Caitlyn Patterson and Scott Patterson were part of the Skiku team.

“There’s a lot of motivation potential when you introduce kids to elite athletes like our Alaskan Olympians,” Kornfield said.

Out on the trails of the villages, the children get the opportunity to form relationships with the high-level skiers.

“Pretty soon, they are just Caitlyn or Scott [to the children],” Kornfield said.

Charley Field, health sciences major and Alpine skier for UAA, volunteered as a Skiku coach for the first time this year. The senior just finished her final collegiate season highlighted by a 14th place finish in the giant slalom at the NCAA championships.

She worked in a team of five coaches in the village of Selawik. Though it was challenging to accommodate all the different levels of skiing at times, Field said she was very lucky to get the opportunity to coach in the village.

“The most rewarding part was seeing the smiles and enjoyment on the kids’ faces,” Field said. “Seeing them really get into skiing was amazing. It gives kids the chance to do something fun outside during the winter that they may not get a chance to do a lot of.”

The long-term goal of Skiku is to keep the kids on skis — even when the program is not in town.

“I’m looking forward to seeing if we can really create a culture of skiing all across Alaska, not just here in Anchorage,” Kornfield said.

UAA students looking to volunteer and experience rural Alaska are welcome to apply as coaches for the program. More information about the volunteer work and applications can be found on skiku.com.