The following appears in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
On Labor Day night last month, it seemed like everyone in Unalakleet (population 688) showed up for a watch party to see this Nome-area village’s favorite son defy the odds.
Nick Hanson, 28, appeared in the final rounds of the NBC hit reality competition show American Ninja Warrior, in which athletes attempt to complete rigorous obstacle courses that feature everything jumping, climbing and swinging.
Hanson may be the most unlikely of survivors who’d previously qualified in various cities (Hanson completed his course in Los Angeles). Unalakleet can be a dreary and hopeless place for its mostly Native Alaskan population. But on this night, several of the local kids Hanson coaches in various sports were in the audience and watching their hero attempt to finish the course in Las Vegas in the first of a three-part finale.
“A ton of the youth from Unalakleet all came, even without their parents,” Hanson says. “To see it and relive it on my own watching the show, but also to hear everybody’s reaction, that’s when you go, ‘This is really cool,’ because everybody in my village looks up to me. That’s when it really soaks in for me when I know I have so many supporters here.”
The ANW courses, both the one he qualified on in Los Angeles and the one he barely missed finishing in the allotted 2 minutes, 20 seconds in the final round in Las Vegas, are a series of tests – mostly physical but also mental.
Hanson, like everyone else who participates, is clearly an elite athlete capable of doing the extraordinary with his body. But that doesn’t change what a grind this exercise can be with the lights on and the cameras rolling.
“You can’t really (think about) beyond the first obstacle, and if you do, you make a mistake,” Hanson says. “It’s like building a wall, because you’re excited about your (new) house, and then you realize it’s the wrong size wall. You’ve got to measure twice and cut once. That’s the way I approach everything I do. When I’m going up on these obstacles, I kind of have to relate them to stuff that I do in Unalakleet.”
And much of what he does in his hometown is help the next generation accomplish his or her own version of American NinjaWarrior.
“OK, let’s go Eskimo,” shouts American Ninja Warrior analyst Akbar Gbaja-Biamila – as you’ll soon discover, Hanson is referred to as the Eskimo Ninja when he competes – as Nick prepares for some of the most grueling two minutes and 20 seconds of his life. He traverses a series of wobbly steps and then a sharp incline, pauses and channels his inner trapeze artist by flinging himself from a trampoline onto the course’s “Propeller Bar” and then a Tarzan swing. He easily scales a few climbing obstacles. Two minutes to go.
HANSON’S NATIVE BLOOD COMES from his mother Davida’s side of the family; she’s an Inupiaq. His dad, Bret, is a non-Native whose mother and Nick’s “Nona” moved to Alaska years ago when she was battling cancer and worked as an artist. Bret graduated from high school in Barrow but has lived everywhere from Los Angeles to Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories before eventually meeting Davida in Barrow and settling in Unalakleet.
Besides a stable family life, Nick had two major influences in his life: sports and subsistence fishing and hunting.
“The subsistence lifestyle is the way I grew up, I guess. Trying to look at it from an outsider’s perspective, I talked to (fellowANW competitor Kevin Bull, a stock trader from Northern California), and he’s never gone hunting,” Hanson says. “And I’ve known how to treat and handle a gun since I was 5 and 6 years old; that’s when my grandparents were taking me out. I was taught how to handle a gun correctly and how it’s a tool and not a toy. It’s not something you messed with.”
Hanson also learned at an early age to respect the natural environment around his people and how critical the flora and fauna can be to feed the village. There was always a sense of respect and honor to the big game he’d hunt or the salmon he’d catch over the course of the year to fill freezers with meat.
“It’s a journey and an adventure to behold,” he says.
His grandparents on his mother’s side learned how to hunt with a bow and arrow and spear – the tools of past generations – and it’s Hanson’s intention to do the same for his children and grandchildren.
He remembered his first time at sea hunting ugruk, bearded seals that are major component of the Native diet in that far-flung corner of Alaska. These aren’t quite the adorable spotted or harbor seals you can watch frolic around local harbors in Alaska. Ugruk are massive pinnipeds that can grow to 600 or more pounds.
Hanson still hasn’t harvested his first moose yet, having been on five different moose hunts but allowing someone else to fill that particular tag.
“But I’ve been there to carry out those 250-pound hindquarters,” he says. “But I think the coolest thing we do here is egg hunting. We’ll go out on the 100-foot cliffs, climb up and gather eggs from the nests of seagulls and murres and bring them home. That’s our egg source. We just have to go rock climbing for them.”
“It’s like a natural farm. If you think about what a farmer has to do – get up early in the morning and take care of the (crops), feed the horses and the pigs. Farming is a full-time job. Up here, we have certain specific seasons that we have to follow. Right now (mid-September) it’s the end of berry season, so you see a lot of people gathering, gathering, gathering. You go to work, and as soon as you get off work you’re gone until the sun goes down getting berries. Right now it’s moose season, and we’ll even skip work and take a day off. Our administration (at the school where Hanson teaches and coaches) will say, ‘Alright, you’re going moose hunting? Thanks for letting us know and we’ll see you when you get back.’”
Salmon runs – usually kings, chums and especially coho and pinks – are obviously also a big deal when they come through. But what Hanson gets out of the notion that you can sustain yourself via the outdoors more so than rolling a shopping cart up and down the frozen food aisle is just how his people hunt.
Rather than stalking an animal, Hanson says waiting for it to come into shooting range is the proper way to hunt.
“We go to a certain spot where we know they’re around, and if it presents itself in the right way, then we’ll take it. When we’re out hunting we’re definitely going with a purpose. We want to make sure that we provide for our family and bring food home. But we also respect that if a seal isn’t giving itself to us, we can’t change that.”
Hanson clutches a cylindrical-shaped log tethered to a rope and glides over the water hazard below, a potential swim no ninjawarrior who has survived this far wants to take. “Well, shoot; now he better hold on here,” Gbaja-Biamila, a former NFL defensive lineman, says as Nick swings back and forth on the log, then lands safely on a mat, then stumbles ever so slightly before jogging across a small bridge where he can catch his breath again; 1:34 on the clock.
ATHLETICS HAS ALWAYS BEEN one of Hanson’s outlets to escape the vices that take down so many in Unalakleet, but it was initially more out of revenge than any kind of competitive juices pushing him.
“To be honest, I’m going to get a little deep here, and that’s the only way I can tell the story,” he warns. “I’m an Alaskan Native and my mom was born and raised with bloodlines coming from Unalakleet and Barrow. But my dad’s side has Italian in him, so I look white. Only if you look into my eyes and nose and facial hair, that’s where my Native comes out.”
Hanson says his culture is rather young in the eyes of Western civilization.
“The racism is still strong from both angles, and in my generation it’s only starting to heal, and that’s why they call us the Healing Generation,” he says.
So here was young Nick Hanson, who was every bit the Native to those he grew up with in Unalakleet, but he looked like an outsider from the big city. That created tension and teasing within his tiny community.
“A lot of the kids looked at me and they laughed because I was talking Native but was white. The first thing I experienced was these two girls – and they’re really close friends now who I love dearly – came up to me and said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here.’ I was getting beaten up, the other kids thought I looked funny and was weird because I did my homework and wore rubber boots to school on a rainy day when all the other kids were so used to rain they just wore their tennis shoes.”
The bigoted razzing got to be too cruel one day in third grade when Nick hit rock bottom. He sobbed all the way on his walk home, but for some reason had an epiphany. He was not going to put up with this anymore.
“As a third grader that’s a big step to take. So that year, I started to play basketball. All I did was not care about anyone else and turned everyone else off except my coach. I listened to my coach, Steve Ivanoff, and did what he wanted me to do. And I did it.”
By seventh grade, his court skills were so advanced he was practicing with the older kids from the high school. By then, Hanson was running cross country and playing volleyball. These days, besides his athletic TV prowess on ANW, Hanson has excelled competing in the Arctic Winter Games – he currently holds the world record in the scissor broad jump and has won multiple medals – and the World Eskimo Indian Olympics.
“My competitive drive just grew and grew. And the roots were deep. I was trying to fit in with the other kids, and when they saw how good I was at sports and how athletic I was, that’s when they would start to say, ‘Hey, Nick, how’s it going?’ And I thought, ‘This is my in.’ Then it took over, and that’s been my lifestyle ever since.”
By the time he’d reach adulthood, Hanson wanted to be on the other end of the spectrum and help others get out of their shells.
In Unalakleet – as Hanson painfully discovered – kids there often can’t get the help they desperately need.
The course is unrelenting as Nick defies gravity and any semblance of Newtononian logic. Another launch brings him to a narrow space between two walls, known as the “Jumping Spider.” Only the strength in his appendages keeps him from falling into the pool. He must work his way across the walls, all the while climbing higher in the process. Host Matt Iseman: “Not a lot of spiders up in Alaska, but no problem for Nick Hanson.” Again, a chance to exhale, but only as precious seconds tick away before contesting “Sonic Curve,” a set of six angled steps and then right into another swinging rope. The clock is under a minute now and the Eskimo Ninja knows he’s got to pick up the pace a little.
It’s becoming clear that all the working out he’s done back in Unalalkeet – not to mention his successful completion of his Los Angeles qualifying course – has served Hanson well. Next is running down a slope and running up a ridiculously steep wall to grab the top of and continue his quest to move on. His upper arm strength is somehow enough at this point to get up and over rather smoothly. The reward? A harrowing journey across “Broken Bridge,” something of a sprint through spread-out steps A few nervous steps later and finishing in the allotted time is looking feasible. “It seems like a lot of time left,” Iseman theorizes at the 32-second mark.
HANSON STUDIED CIVIL ENGINEERING at the University of Alaska Anchorage, but he knew all along that teaching and coaching other Natives in his hometown was a chance to make a difference through sport.
Turning on that lightbulb above someone’s head is not easy – especially in Unalakleet. Kids here are terrorized by the demons of temptation and vice. Drug and alcohol abuse can be chronic issues. Depression is widespread. The Alaska Dispatch Newswrote a profile of Hanson and reported that six teammates he played high school basketball with committed suicide.
“We had 12 players, so we’ve lost half. It’s tough to think about because I can look at those athletes and I won’t say any names, but some of these guys were the top basketball players in the state,” Hanson says. “One had the potential to be a point guard in college. He was the best player I’ve ever met. I played right alongside with him and was excited to be his shooting guard. And I was excited to get an outlet pass from him every time because it was on-point.”
“It’s tough to see these guys make the choice to take their own life. It’s just like, ‘Why? You had such potential and you’re so smart. I grew up with you and know how smart you are.’ Why would you make a choice like that? You start thinking about it, ‘What’s going on?’ You look back and try to read between the lines with those guys and what made them make that choice. Obviously alcohol was involved, but, man, it just really sucks.”
Of the substance abuse – drugs and especially alcohol – that has affected so many young people in tiny Alaskan villages, Hanson makes a valid point about the Native population. Again, it’s a young culture, one that just can’t handle the effects of being under the influence (a fitness fanatic, Hanson abstains from alcohol and tobacco).
This is not other societies, where taking a few – or more – drinks is almost acceptable behavior and in the DNA of younger generations. But the vices did irreparable damage to Native teenagers.
Hanson feels fortunate he had responsible parents – Davida is a recovering alcoholic and hasn’t gone to the bottle in years – and the Hanson residence became something of a halfway house for Nick’s troubled friends.
“I’ve had kids coming over to my house all my life – sometimes three at a time. We’d have kids sleeping over and we’d all just pile into my bed; we’d all just sleep head to toe, even on school nights. They would just come over because their home wasn’t working.”
“That’s just kind of a normal thing out here in Unalakleet, where it takes a village to raise a child. That statement really does mean something, because my parents have helped raise quite a few kids. I know plenty of other parents in this community that are really great parents and they’ve helped raise (troubled children). It’s not the kids’ fault and it’s not even the parents’ fault because they got sucked into it and the trauma that they had in their own life.”
And now that he’s an adult and coaching every sport that’s offered to the kids in the village, Hanson hopes his brush with American Ninja Warrior fame can make him a built-in mentor for struggling youth. He’s become heavily involved in an Alaska Department of Health Services organization, Play Every Day (dhss.alaska.gov/dph/
The ninja course Hanson and his buddies built along the waterfront in Unalakleet – a nephew convinced Nick to build it and pursue the show – is also a safe haven for many in the community.
“You definitely have those moments where there’s one kid that you just say, ‘Come on – work with me here.’ And you get frustrated because that’s the way life is. You’re not going to have a perfect day every day. But on the day that they do click and you see that moment of ‘A-ha!’ in their eyes, you know it when it happens more than once that week; you made it click in that moment. And it’s that moment that I live for every day.”
When you have to deal with something called the “Flying Squirrel” and time is ticking away, you know the degree of difficulty is ratcheting up. Holding on with both arms, Nick meticulously rolls back and forth, leaping from one set of bars to another, a climbing net waiting on the other side. He makes it, but with less than 15 seconds remaining, Gbaja-Biamila reminds that Nick has “to get high on this cargo net! He’s already staring to get a little tired.” A little tired? When he makes it onto the net, he has just over 11 seconds left to climb up and over and then reach a small catwalk, where a button must be pushed before the final buzzer.
THE TERM ESKIMO HAS become a taboo subject for how to describe Native North Americans who settled in Alaska and Canada. To many, especially in Canadian circles, the term is a derogatory one and has been replaced with the term Inuit to describe Natives of the far north. The movement includes the U.S. as well.
In May, President Obama went so far as sign HR 4238, legislation that officially replaced Eskimo with the term Native Alaskan.
The controversy has not gone unnoticed for Hanson, who embraces his American Ninja Warrior nickname, the Eskimo Ninja(two of his cousins came up with the moniker).
“But I am an Eskimo. Granted, it can be a derogatory term, but only if you use it in a derogatory way. The derivative of it is eaters of raw meat, and I’m not going to deny that; I’m in the muktuk (bowhead whale blubber) contest of eating raw whale blubber (at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics).”
“But being offended by something, that’s all internal. When I’m introducing myself on the show I say I’m the Eskimo Ninja but I’m Inupiaq Eskimo. The term Eskimo Ninja caught on at the show. But (host) Matt (Iseman) did say on the show that I was an Inupiaq from Unalakleet. And we’ll slowly get to the point where we’ll be Inuit people and we won’t be Eskimo anymore. But right now it’s just a slow transition and it’s not going to happen tomorrow.
But tomorrow is what Hanson is looking toward. He’ll surely go back to American Ninja Warrior, but he has a higher calling than the bright lights of the obstacle courses and TV land.
Besides plans to get a master’s degree in math so he can teach the subject, Hanson is also pursuing a bachelor’s in Native Alaska studies. He can understand the Unalakleet dialect but wants to be able to speak it fluently with the few old-timers who still speak it and then introduce it to the village’s youth.
“It’s been an honor to represent my culture, and that’s the biggest wow moment for me,” he says of his celebrity status.
“Another thing I wanted to show with my ninja thing is I want (village youths) to see that they can do something positive in their lives and do something amazing. All they’ve got to do is set their minds to it. And if I can make that difference in maybe five or six kids per village and they can look up to me and change their ways, that’s going to turn into 10 or 15 in the next generation and then maybe everybody in a few generations.”
The final countdown is on. As the Eskimo Ninja climbs up the rickety net the seconds are evaporating … five … four … three … two … Coming from a place where the statistics don’t favor the locals, when he pulls himself onto the runway he’s just a few feet from achieving what seems like a statistical improbability. But then the buzzer sounds as he’s on his knees trying to get up off the mat one last time. “Noooo!” Gbaja-Biamila screams, his hand on his head in disappointment. Hanson’s agonizingly close to moving on but going home instead. Nick rests his head against the pole. But he smiles. Surrounded by what seems like his entire hometown of supporters (his family, his girlfriend Joanne Semaken, friends) he chats with sideline reporter Kristine Leahy. “I was just like, ‘Ah, frustrating.’ But I was there; I had it,” Nick says calmly. “If you fail, keep working – keep working hard.” Someone is listening to those words back home. Nick is sure of that. ASJ