ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
My co-host, Melissa Block, is on a reporting trip to Alaska this week, and when she heard that the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics coincided with her stop in Anchorage, she couldn't resist.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
I got to Sullivan Arena in time for the two-foot high kick. It's a combination of pure athletic power and breathtaking grace. The athlete takes off on both feet from a standing or running start. He launches himself impossibly high into the air, keeps his feet parallel, and has to kick a small, sealskin ball that's suspended on a string. Then, he has to stick the landing.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
BLOCK: Oh, the male record on this event - eight feet, eight inches of precise, explosive vertical launch. It's an amazing thing to watch. Like many of these events, this one has its roots in traditional Eskimo practices.
NICOLE JOHNSTON: Somebody from the hunting party or from a group of people would run toward the village, jump in the air. And by the way or the style of the jump, the village would know that their hunting party was successful or unsuccessful.
BLOCK: How tall are you?
JOHNSTON: Just a smidge over five feet.
BLOCK: But tiny as she is, she holds the women's record for the two-foot high kick - six feet, six inches. She set in 1985. So how will she feel if that record's broken?
JOHNSTON: I've held the record for so long that I probably feel like I'm losing a part of me. That day will come. Someday it will come, and I prepare myself for it every year.
BLOCK: You do?
JOHNSTON: Yeah, I do, because you never know who's out there.
BLOCK: Unidentified Woman #2: Far as back as you can, okay?
BLOCK: The athletes help each other out, the older ones coaching the younger ones.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)
BLOCK: You'll hear this a lot at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics. It's the seal call, imitating the bark of the seal to urge the athletes on. Speaking of seals, I stepped into a walk-in freezer next to the gym with Asta Keller. A few days ago, she got a call from the Anchorage Airport.
ASTA KELLER: They said we're looking for Asta Keller. You have five frozen seals here in freight at Alaska Airlines. So, coming right over.
BLOCK: Unidentified Woman #3: Women's ear pull is closed. Women's ear pull has been closed.
BLOCK: The ear pull. Now that's in a category all its own. The goal?
PERRY AHSOGEAK: To endure pain.
BLOCK: That's Perry Ahsogeak, the chairman of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics board of governors.
AHSOGEAK: Some of the stuff that we do when you're trying to survive out in the wild or out in the ice and you're a long way from home, and you hurt yourself, you have to be able to endure that pain until help comes.
BLOCK: And the defending women's ear pull champion this year was Asta Keller, who was with us in that freezer.
KELLER: It's a struggle to maintain our culture and, you know, we don't live in a world that is easy. And so, the ability to get through hardship figuratively, physically, physiologically, all of the above, I think is a reflection of some of these games.
BLOCK: Asta Keller has strong, proud features and good strong ears.
KELLER: I think the secret is basically just to have good genetics, good cartilage behind your ears, and it's a game where it tests your ability to withstand pain.
BLOCK: Unidentified Man #1: Ready, steady, pull.
BLOCK: Unidentified Man #1: Straight back, straight back. Straight back. Straighten your head. Straighten your head out.
BLOCK: Unidentified Man #2: Pull, pull, pull. Pull, pull, pull.
BLOCK: ...until the string slides off, well, or one of the athletes gives up. After Michelle George(ph) is eliminated, I find her walking around with ice packs over both ears.
MICHELLE GEORGE: Oh, it really hurts. It's supposed to be a game, and it's not a game. It's like, if you can handle the pain and stuff, and I thought I could. I did the first time and I was just holding on and then I felt my cartilage moved, and there's going to be bruises, holy cow.
BLOCK: Unidentified Woman #4: Oh, yeah, you're bleeding.
BLOCK: Unidentified Man #4: No, it's not. Okay. It's closing up.
BLOCK: Three of the ear pull competitors are sent to the hospital to get stitches. And in an upset, 34-year-old Noel Strick of McGrath, Alaska defeats Asta Keller to be the new women's champion ear puller.
NOEL STRICK: As a native woman, this - you know, I kept going. I survived. And my whole life has been like that, and I'm not going to give up.
BLOCK: I'm Melissa Block.
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