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Napakiak badminton team causes a racquet at state championship

Napakiak Badminton.jpg
Courtesy of Sally Benedict
Napakiak players pause for a photo-op with U.S. Olympian Howard Bach at the Alaska State Badminton School Team Championship.

In early April, 10 Napakiak students traveled to Anchorage to compete in the Alaska State Badminton School Team Championship. This was the first tournament Napakiak had competed in, and the first since the beginning of the pandemic. The tournament was put on by the non-profit “Badminton Goes Viral,” which promotes healthy, active lifestyles through the sport.

In February, Paul Knechtel and Lisa Ward of “Badminton Goes Viral'' visited the Y-K Delta to introduce LKSD students to badminton. Napakiak senior Ruth Enoch said that her connection to the sport was almost immediate. "I fell in love with badminton," Enoch said.

By the time the organization returned to Napakiak for a bootcamp to get the team in shape for competition, about half the village’s middle and high school students were coming to practice. "I mean, even from day one, we were having like 10 to 15 kids at practice every single day," head coach John Leahy said. "Which, considering the size of our school, is pretty awesome."

Just two months after their introduction to badminton, Napakiak traveled to Anchorage to compete in the state championship. While there, students got to meet U.S. Olympian and 2005 Badminton Doubles World Champion Howard Bach, who put on an exhibition for students to showcase some high-level moves. Bach also played doubles with younger athletes and provided mentoring through the sport. He even signed the Napakiak students’ shirts.

"I think, overall, the whole experience, both for the kids and as coaches, is badminton is a lot bigger than I think anybody of us expected it to be," assistant coach Cristian Rodriguez said of the impact badminton can have.

With over 270 students from across the state competing in the tournament, Napakiak teams came out with several podium placers. Seventh-grader Kristen Black and ninth-grader Shalen Kassayulie came in first place in the High School C Pool. "I was nervous the whole time," said Black. "But then after we were done, I wanted to play again."

Courtesy of Sally Benedict
From left to right, Torian Dull, Kristen Black, Shaylen Kassayulie and Kathryn Black pose for a photo with their new hardware.

Other championship contenders were eighth-grader Torian Dull and 11th-grader Kathryn Black, who secured a second place win in the High School B Pool. Christopher Nicketa and Josh Johnson made it to the quarterfinals for the High School B Pool, and Makayla Black and Nickisha Jenkins competed in the Middle School B Pool quarterfinals, which had the largest pool of competitors.

Just as the name of the non-profit suggests, it seems badminton is quickly becoming viral statewide. Leahy said that Napakiak was approached by representatives from the Arctic Winter Games.

"You know, it almost made us think, 'if we stick with this, could that be something in our sights?'" Leahy said. "First the Arctic Games, and then what?"

Napakiak’s badminton players are looking forward to more competition as others in the Y-K Delta pick up a racquet and birdie, and can’t wait for badminton to go viral in the region.

Elyssa (she/her) is the Wellness Programming Producer and a second year Jesuit Volunteer/Americorps Member at KYUK. She loves dogs, listening to podcasts and playing ABBA to close out the Birthday Line.