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Tough climate produces tougher athletes

2/5/2009

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories about athletes playing sports in cold weather. Share your stories and upload your cold weather photos here.

The night before the 2007 Alaska state track
meet, Will Egolf couldn't sleep. It's not that he was
too nervous or too pumped to get some shut-eye.
It was just too bright outside.

Even though his hotel room clock said it was
midnight, the sun was beaming through the
curtains as Egolf tossed and turned. In a state best
known for its sub-zero temperatures and
snowstorms, Egolf couldn't sleep because Fairbanks
in the spring means 20-plus hours of sunshine a day.
That's life in Alaska, a state of extremes that
doesn't always fall in line with its stereotypes.

For most people in the Lower 48, Alaska is
accessible only through movies and television. Every
time Alaskan high school athletes travel to national
tournaments, they get the inevitable questions
about living in igloos and traveling to school in
dogsleds. In reality, those are mostly relics of the past
as technology has brought LeBron James and Lil
Wayne into Alaskan homes just like everywhere else.

It's impossible to easily characterize a state
that's more than twice the size of Texas. Alaska is a
place where the sun can shine at midnight or
disappear at noon, more than 300 inches of snow
can annually accumulate in one small town and
football players can celebrate a win by taking a dip
in the Arctic Ocean.

It's a place unlike any other in America.

Tougher in Alaska

Basketball has always been king in Alaska
because it requires limited equipment and allows
small schools to field teams. But perhaps the
biggest reason is because basketball courts
provide refuge from the harsh winters.

"Growing up, the gym was the warmest place
to be," says Egolf, a former two-sport star at
Juneau-Douglas (Juneau, Alaska) who now plays
Division I basketball at Bradley University in
Illinois. "You could either be outside in zero-degree
weather or in the gym."

As a result, Alaska's biggest sports heroes are
basketball stars like Utah Jazz power forward Carlos Boozer and Miami Heat rookie Mario Chalmers.

Boozer attended the same high school as Egolf
and grew up in Juneau, which has a climate more
similar to Seattle than what you'd expect in Alaska.
Chalmers, meanwhile, grew up in Anchorage, where
the temperature rarely gets warmer than 20 degrees
in the winter and more than 45 inches of snow
typically falls between November and February.

That sounds downright tropical to the citizens of
Valdez, which annually gets more than 300 inches of
snow. While that's an extreme case, it's a prime
example of why fall and spring sports throughout
the state adjust their schedules.

Football teams start two-a-days in July and the
season wraps up in mid-October, often just beating
the first major snowstorm of the year. The cross
country state meet is held in either late September
or early October.

Soccer tryouts at Chugiak (Chugiak, Alaska), a
small town outside Anchorage, take place in late
March and are conducted exclusively indoors. The
weather isn't much better when the season starts in
April, and most teams in Alaska have to play three
games a week to make up for the shortened season.

"We'll play in some snowstorms where you can't
see from one side of the field to the other,"Chugiak
soccer coach Dan Pinkerton says. "You really have to
watch for hypothermia and wind exposure."

Alev Kelter, a senior three-sport star at Chugiak
who will play soccer and ice hockey at Wisconsin
next year, typifies the determination necessary to
thrive in the face of those constant obstacles.
Along with twin sister Derya, Kelter doesn't let
anything stop her from playing.

"My sister and I shovel our yard, put on our cleats
with bags over them and play in the snow," says
Kelter, who was the 2007-08 Gatorade Alaska Girls'
Soccer Player of the Year. "If you really want to do
something, you make do with the way things are."

Overcoming challenges is nothing new to
Alaskans, which is why the History Channel
debuted "Tougher in Alaska" this past spring,
chronicling the unique perils of certain jobs in the
state. The show could spend an entire season on
high school athletes.

"We have a team picture with six-foot snow
banks behind us and you can see the mountains in
the background," Kelter says. "It's like, 'This is
Alaska soccer right here.'"

Athletes like Kelter and Chalmers take
enormous pride in their home state. When they
compete against teams from the mainland, they're
always on a mission.

"We would always try to go out and give it our
all and play with a chip on our shoulder because
people don't think Alaskans can play ball,"
Chalmers says.

Top of the world

While Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks are like
most cities across the country with Wal-Marts, chain
restaurants and rush-hour traffic, Barrow is unique.

The northernmost city in the United States,
Barrow is a traditional whaling community that
borders the Arctic Ocean and received national
attention when it started a football program in
2006. Even though kids from Barrow grew up
loving football thanks to satellite television and the
Internet, the school had to start from square one.

"These kids never had Pop Warner or anything
and were starting fresh in ninth or 10th grade," says
Lew Freedman, author of "Thunder on the Tundra,"
a book about the 2007 Barrow football team. "They
literally had to learn how to put a uniform on."

Despite the early start for football in Alaska,
two-a-days in Barrow are often conducted in
sub-freezing wind chills. Still, the cold has never
intimidated the players from Barrow, a town that
has 24 hours of darkness between mid-November
and mid-January. They instead seem to relish it,
customarily jumping into the Arctic Ocean in full
uniform following a win.

"They plunge right in like they're in the
Bahamas," Freedman says.

That's only the case for home games, though.
Barrow takes a plunge of a different sort for road
games since the team's closest opponent is 400
miles away.

Whether in a remote town like Barrow or a
bigger city like Anchorage, getting to games is
never easy. Valdez's closest opponent is 116 miles
away and its teams routinely travel more than
350 miles for road games. At North Pole (North
Pole, Alaska), a school outside Fairbanks, three of
its in-conference opponents are a seven-hour
bus ride away in Anchorage and another is a
plane trip to Juneau, a town accessible only by
plane or ferry.

"We had to coordinate everything with the
ferry," Egolf says. "There were no times when we'd
drive an hour and be home. All trips were three- and four-hour expeditions."

And once you arrive, accommodations aren't
exactly four-star. Most teams crash on the home
team's gym floor with air mattresses or sleeping
bags. Sometimes, the home teams host the
visitors. The players get real beds in those
instances, but it can lead to some awkward
moments if they get snowed in (a frequent
occurrence) and have an extended stay.

"The same guy you're talking trash to and
battling on the court ends up being the guy you're
living with for an extra three days," Egolf says.

Five minutes or less

Players like Chalmers and Boozer had no
trouble getting recruited because they were
national stars dominating AAU tournaments and
All-American camps. But for those who are good
but not great, it requires extra work.

Nearly all the recruiting comes in the offseason,
when Alaskan players can travel to the mainland.
Egolf didn't even know if he'd be a Division I player
heading into the summer before his senior year.
But a few good months on the AAU circuit later, he
had accepted a scholarship to Bradley.

Knowing a coach likely won't see you again
(good luck getting Joe Paterno to Fairbanks)
means the pressure is on. Before becoming a
three-time Super Bowl champ, Mark Schlereth was
a student at Robert Service (Anchorage, Alaska)
trying to make the most of any exposure he got.

"There was a football camp held the summer
before my senior year," he says. "There were two
college coaching staffs there -- Idaho with Dennis
Erickson and Hawaii. Being from Alaska at that
point, there weren't many college players."

Schlereth impressed Erickson enough to earn a
scholarship. From there, he eventually became an
NFL draft pick in 1989.

"We tell our kids that they have five minutes or
less to impress a coach," says Pinkerton, who runs
My Game Plan, a service designed to get Alaska's
prep athletes recruited.

So the players get proactive. Pinkerton has
them target schools they want to attend, then
helps them set up highlight tapes and trips to
camps where those coaches will be.

It seems to be working.

When Pinkerton helped start the project for
soccer players three years ago, only a handful of
the state's 400 seniors continued their careers in
college. This year, the number jumped to 42. The
program has since expanded to include all sports,
and the numbers continue to climb.

Only in Alaska

Everyone has a favorite only-in-Alaska story.
For Egolf, it's his sleepless night at the state track
meet. For Kelter, it's shoveling her yard in the
spring to play soccer. For Freedman, it's watching
the Whalers go swimming in the Arctic.

Pinkerton's favorite involves a youth soccer
game that was interrupted by a moose that
wandered onto the field. The only player to notice
was the goalie, who headed for the sidelines while
play continued toward his vacated net. The player
with the ball was so focused, he didn't notice the
moose had taken the goalie's spot. When he
unleashed a shot, the ball deflected off the moose
and out of harm's way.

These stories all speak to the unpredictable
nature of high school sports in Alaska. What is
predictable is how the athletes will react -- by
persevering regardless of the obstacle.

"One of the things that makes an Alaskan
athlete so unique is how they deal with all these
inconsistencies," Pinkerton says.

Egolf certainly qualifies. That sleepless night
before the state meet? The next morning, he went
out and took first place in the high jump.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPNRISE.com.