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Lori Piestewa National Native American Games continues growth

A national multi-sport competition for Native athletes continues to grow.

The ninth annual Lori Piestewa National Native American Games are scheduled for July 15 – 18.

The games, held in conjunction with Arizona’s Grand Canyon State Games, have had participation numbers increase every year since its inception.

Last year’s games attracted 2,089 competitors. The athletes ranged in age from 4 – 78 and represented 21 states across the country; some Canadian athletes also took part.

In order to be eligible, competitors must be at least one-quarter Native American.

The games have more than doubled in size since its inception in 2001, when there were 1,010 competitors.

Organizers are anticipating participation numbers to increase again this year. Events will be staged at the Fort McDowell Indian Community, Salt River Indian Community as well as in Fountain Hills and the surrounding area.

One of the main reasons organizers expect their participation numbers to go up is because another sport – wrestling – has been added.

Wrestling was actually a late addition to the lineup of this year’s games.

Erik Widmark, the executive director of the Grand Canyon State Games, which have been running for 18 years, said there was a rather strong Native contingent that took part in this year’s wrestling competition, held in early May.

“They did a good job,” he said of the Native participants. “They wanted to see if they could grow on that.”

After some initial discussion, Widmark said the wheels were then quickly set in motion and wrestling, starting this year, was added to the Lori Piestewa National Native American Games.

Widmark expects about 100 wrestlers to take part this year.

There are now seven sports that are contested in the games. The others are baseball, basketball, softball, volleyball, cross-country running, and track and field.

The games require plenty of organizational details. Just consider how tough it is to stage an event that in 2009 included 78 basketball teams, 35 softball squads, 25 volleyball clubs and eight baseball entrants.

A year ago there were representatives from 72 tribes. Though all athletes are vying for gold, silver and bronze medals in each event, they also are trying to help their tribe win the Jim Thorpe Award.

This award is annually presented at the games to the tribe that wins the most medals. The Navajo Nation won the trophy at last year’s games.

“They come from all over,” Widmark said. “It’s not just Arizona that does well.”

The prospect of winning a medal in a national championship is rather appealing, Widmark added. He believes that is one of the reasons competitors often travel some lengthy distances to take part in the games.

“I think it’s first and foremost an opportunity for the athletes to showcase their talents.”

But the games are not just a competition for elite athletes.

“Regardless of age or ability, there’s something for everybody,” Widmark said, adding the competition level at the games is outstanding, ranging from elite-level to recreational athletes.

And there are plenty of social aspects often related to the games. Most competitors enjoy meeting fellow Native athletes from various parts of the country.

“They really do (enjoy the new friendships they make),” Widmark said. “I think that’s got a lot to do with why they keep coming back.”

Since it is rather time-consuming planning the sporting activities, Widmark said games’ organizers simply leave it up to the athletes and teams themselves to figure out their schedules of what to see and do in Arizona when they are not competing.

The games, which began in 2001, were renamed in honor of the late Lori Piestewa, who was born in Tuba City, Ariz.

Piestewa, a member of the Hopi tribe, was the first Native American woman to die while serving in the U.S. military. Piestewa was killed in Iraq in 2003; she was 29.

Though pre-registration is encouraged for the team sports, some on-site registrations for wrestling, cross-country running and track and field events will also be accepted.

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