Commentary

Tough climate produces tougher athletes

Updated: February 5, 2009, 1:51 PM ET
By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy | ESPNRISE.com

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

[+] EnlargeAlaska Golf
AP Photo/Anchorage Daily News, Marc Lester Between sleepless nights and moose interruptions, everyone has their favorite only-in-Alaska moment.
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.

Take A Bow

The five best athletes raised in Alaska:

1. Carlos Boozer
A two-time NBA All-Star and 2001 NCAA champ at Duke, Boozer started his hoops career at Juneau-Douglas (Juneau, Alaska).

2. Mark Schlereth
Schlereth, a three-time Super Bowl champ from Robert Service (Anchorage, Alaska), was one of the first Alaskans to hit it big in pro sports.

3. Mario Chalmers
A rookie with the Miami Heat, this Bartlett (Anchorage, Alaska) product was the hero of the 2008 Final Four while at Kansas.

4. Hilary Lindh
A Juneau native, Lindh won the silver medal in downhill skiing at the 1992 Winter Olympics.

5. Trajan Langdon
This East Anchorage (Anchorage, Alaska) two-sport star was selected in both the 1994 MLB Draft and 1999 NBA Draft.

"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

The Real Frozen Tundra

ESPN.com traveled to Alaska to get a first-hand look at high school football in the town of Barrow. Check out our E-Ticket series:

The Real Frozen Tundra: Pigskin meets polar bears as high school football comes to the arctic

Save the Whalers: They went from the top of the world to the edge of existence

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.