The sun looks bright at 5 a.m. in Unalakleet in May, but it provides little warmth against the chill on this clear morning. Nick Iligutchiak Hanson heats up a different way – by navigating an obstacle course that tests his agility, speed, power and endurance as he leaps and reaches over and up stumps, logs and walls.
On this day in May, he was doing the course for a Play Every Day PSA to promote the importance of daily physical activity. Play Every Day has partnered with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to show how people in communities across Alaska are helping families get more active for the best health.
Most days, Hanson hits his homemade course on Unalakleet's beach to prepare for American Ninja Warrior, an obstacle course competition show that airs on NBC. Last year he almost made it to the city finals. This year, he was the first to successfully complete the course in the first round.
After nailing the warped wall, hitting the buzzer, and howling triumphantly, Hanson told the show’s sideline interviewer, “I’m just so glad I have had so much support from my family and my community.”
The feeling goes both ways. The kids he coaches prodded him to try out for Ninja Warrior in the first place, he said, and they continue to play with the 28-year-old Ninja all year.
Hanson coaches basketball, volleyball and Native Youth Olympic games during the school year, and leads a running club all summer. He mentors other Alaska athletes vying for a spot on Ninja Warrior as well.
For Hanson, staying active means staying connected with his body, his community and his culture. As a teacher’s aide, coach, mentor and motivational speaker, Hanson wants to help kids do their best and guide them toward healthy option, he said. He wants to be someone they can turn to when they need a hand or need someone to listen.
And if some of these kids start a game of hide-and-seek using the whole village as a playground, Hanson is definitely playing.
Though now in the national spotlight as the American Ninja Warrior from the small Alaska community, Hanson has already made a name for himself as an athlete, coach and community leader. In March, he won gold in the Open Men’s Two-Foot High Kick during the Arctic Winter Games
in Nuuk, Greenland, and he has won over 30 medals in the World Eskimo Indian Olympics and Arctic Winter Games since 2013.
In the past few years, he has received several notable recognition awards, including the 2015 Native Youth Olympics
Healthy Coach award and the 2015 Bering Straits Native Corporation Young Providers
award. Just month ago, he received a 2016 Alaska First Lady’s Volunteer of the Year Award for his dedication to youth and his community (view his video about receiving the award in Juneau here
Now, as Alaska’s Ninja Warrior, Hanson heads to the show’s regional finals
and is that much closer to the show’s Las Vegas finale and $1 million Ninja Warrior prize. That hardly seems to matter on this clear spring night in May.
As sunlight clings to the horizon, Hanson keeps moving from corner to alley, beach to river bank, in a hide-and-seek game that plays on into the evening sun.
Find out more about the obstacle course Hanson and friends built and the work he does on his You Tube channel, The Eskimo Ninja
, and look for him and the community of Unalakleet again in an upcoming Play Every Day PSA that will air statewide in August,