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Update: The story has been updated to add Native Hawaiian athletes who will be representing the United States in the Olympics, and to provide additional details about other athletes.

Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

Athlete Jillian Weir will be representing more than the Canadian people in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. She’s also representing the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte from the Tyendinaga Territory.

Weir, 28, is apparently the only Indigenous athlete on Team Canada and is one of just a few in North America set to compete in the upcoming Olympic Games, which start Friday, July 23, and continue through Aug. 8. It is her first trip to the Olympics.

“I believe my Indigenous background has instilled strength and courage in me to keep putting my best foot forward no matter the setbacks or challenges,” Weir said. “Mohawk people are fighters and giving up has never been an option. I strive to live up to that and to keep pushing myself to be a better athlete and person.

“I am joyful to have qualified for my first Olympic Games but I am definitely going to continue training for the 2024 Olympics,” she said.

Three Indigenous athletes are representing the United States, all from Hawaii: Carissa Moore, an ethnic Hawaiian competing in surfing; Heimana Reynolds, Native Hawaiian and Tahitian, in park skateboarding, and Micah Christenson, also Native Hawaiian, competing in volleyball.

FILE - In this March 25, 2021, file photo, the celebration cauldron is seen lit on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, northeastern Japan. The Tokyo Olympics are not looking like much fun: Not for athletes. Not for fans. And not for the Japanese public, who are caught between concerns about the coronavirus at a time when few are vaccinated on one side and politicians and the International Olympic Committee who are pressing ahead on the other. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool Photo via AP, File)

Team USA did not provide any details when asked about Indigenous athletes, with a spokesperson saying that Indigeneity is “a self-identifying question” that is not tracked by the Olympics committee.

The New Zealand team this year, meanwhile, will include more Indigenous athletes than any team in the history of the games, fielding 33 athletes of Māori descent among the 211 Olympians on its team, according to the New Zealand Olympic Committee.

The Australian team also breaks the previous record, with 16 athletes competing in 11 sports. Among those is National Basketball Association player Patty Mills, who is of Torres Strait and Aboriginal heritage, and who will become the first Indigenous person from Australia to carry the flag in the opening ceremony.

Athlete Jillian Weir is representing Canada in the hammer-throwing competition in the Olympic Games set to start July 23, 2021, in Tokyo. She’s a citizen of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte from the Tyendinaga Territory and is among dozens of Indigenous athletes participating in the games. (Photo courtesy of Claus Andersen)

Another Australian team member, Brandon Wakeling, 27, Wonnarua, will compete in weightlifting. As with Weir, Wakeling understands he is not just representing his country but also Indigenous people.

“Work ethic, leadership and pride in representing my culture are values held close by me that define myself as an Olympic athlete,” Wakeling said on social media.

Alex Rose, who was born in Michigan of Polynesian descent, will compete for Samoa in discus-throwing and will carry the nation’s flag in the opening ceremonies. He also represented Samoa in the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.

Strong culture

Weir’s Indigenous background comes from her mother, and they both are citizens of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte in Tyendinaga Territory, near Toronto.

“My Native heritage comes from my mother's side of the family,” Weir said. “I was named after my great-great-grandmother, Lydia Brant, and one of my middle names is Lydia.”

Her maternal grandmother, Carol Udall, spoke for the family and other tribal members, saying they are “so proud of Jillian.”

“Jillian loves to hear about her family and her great-great-grandmama on her Mohawk side,” Udall said. “Jillian would tell any young athlete that you get what you work hard for.”

Weir didn’t have to go far to get world-class training for the hammer throw. Her father, Robert Weir — a three-time Olympian and 12-time Great Britain national champion — is a track-and-field coach at the University of Missouri.

According to the Mizzou Tigers coach-profile website, Robert Weir has more than 20 years of collegiate coaching experience, including being Stanford University’s head track-and-field coach from 2004-2008 and the United Kingdom national throws coach in 2009 and 2010.

He competed for Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, where he was a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Association champion and 10-time NCAA All-American. He set a collegiate record in the hammer throw and a world record in the indoor weight throw.

He also played from 1987-1992 in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Ottawa Rough Riders and Toronto Argonauts. It was in Canada that he met her mother, Kim Armstrong, she said.

Weir grew up in California while her father coached at Stanford. She attended the University of Oregon, where she was on the track-and-field team and a two-time All-American, in 2014 and 2015.

Weir qualified for her first Canadian team in international competition in 2012, when she competed in shot put in World Junior Championships.

Since then, she has competed on six more teams in the hammer throw. The Olympic Games will be her eighth time competing on the Canadian national team.

Her personal best hammer throw is 72.50 meters, or 237 feet, 10 inches. Her best performances on Team Canada were a runner-up finish in 2014 at the U23 North American, Central American and Caribbean Athletics Association championships and a runner-up finish at the 2018 NACAC championships.

She has been training at the University of Missouri the past year, since her training facilities in Canada were closed because of the pandemic. She will return to Canada in the fall and plans to compete for future national teams.

“I am still developing as an athlete and I believe that I have a ways to go until I reach my full potential,” she said.

U.S. athletes

Two Indigenous athletes representing the U.S. grew up in Hawaii.

Micah Makanamaikani Christenson, 28, will be attending his second Olympics for Team USA in volleyball. The team won a bronze medal in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

His parents gave him his middle name, which means "gift from heaven," after his mother suffered difficulties during pregnancy, according to the Team USA website.

Christenson grew up in Honolulu, and attended the University of Southern California. At 6-foot-6, he is one of the tallest members of the team. 

He comes from a family of athletes. His father, Robert, played basketball at the University of Hawaii, Hilo. His mother, Charlene, played volleyball at UH-Hilo, winning three national championships. She was twice named an All-American. 

Reynolds, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday on Aug. 1 during the Olympics, also grew up in Honolulu. The Tokyo games will be his first Olympics.

His father, Matt, is Hawaiian and Tahitian, and his mother, Samantha, is Filipino and White. His family runs a Honolulu skate school and skate shop at the only indoor skate park on the island, according to NBC sports. 

His love for skateboarding developed from his love of surfing, and he was emboldened at age 8 when his father took him to see the X Games with skateboarder Shaun White competing, according to NBC. 

Indigenous impact

Indigenous athletes have made a significant impact on Olympic sports.

Although the exact number of Indigenous athletes who have competed in the Olympics is not known, at least 43 athletes who identified either as Native American or First Nations had competed as of 2010, senior historian Jim Adams at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., told KJZZ public radio in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2016.

Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox, was the first Native to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States. He won two gold medals in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, in the classic pentathlon and decathlon competitions.

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Cropped to 16x9: Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox, in Carlisle Indian School track uniform, running at Stockholm in Olympic track practice. (Photo courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Society)

Joining Thorpe on the American team in 1912 were Duke Kahanamoku, Native Hawaiian, who won the 100-meter freestyle; Andrew Sockalexis, Penobscot,, who placed fourth in the marathon; and Lewis Tewanima, Hopi, who won the silver medal and set an American record for the 10,000-meter run, according to the Smithsonian Institution, which held an exhibit on Native Olympians in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of Thorpe’s groundbreaking achievements.

Tewanima’s record stood for more than 50 years until another acclaimed Olympian, Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota, shocked the world by winning a gold medal in the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Mills burst past the favorite, Australian Ron Clarke, to break Tewanima’s long-standing record.

Both Thorpe and Mills are members of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, and Mills remains a strong supporter of Indigenous youth sports.

Other Indigenous Olympians over the decades, according to the Smithsonian and other sources, included Clarence “Taffy” Abel, Ojibwe, who won a silver medal with the 1924 U.S. Olympic hockey team; Ellison Myers Brown, Narragansett, who ran the marathon in 1936; Ben Nighthorse Campell, Northern Cheyenne, who competed in judo in the 1964 Olympics before going on to become a U.S. senator from Colorado; and Sharon and Shirley Firth, Gwich’in, twin sisters from Canada who competed in cross-country skiing in 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984.

Also Henry Boucha, Ojibwe, who was on the 1972 U.S. silver-medal hockey team; Angela Chalmers, Birdtail Sioux, who competed for Canada in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and won a bronze medal for the 3,000-meter run in 1992 in Barcelona; Theoren Fleury, Métis/Cree, who won a gold medal in hockey for Canada in 2002; Carolyn Darbyshire-McRorie, Métis, who won a silver medal for Canada in curling in 2010; Natalie Nicholson, Ojibwe, who competed for Team USA in curling in 2010; and T.J. Oshie, Ojibwe, who played on the U.S. hockey team in 2014.

Billy Mills, Lakota, breaks the tape in the 10,000-meter run to take gold in the 1964 Olympics. (Official Marine Corps Photo}

Around the world

This year, at least two Indigenous athletes will be representing their nations by carrying flags in the opening ceremonies.

NBA player Patty Mills, Nunga, who is no relation to Billy Mills, will take the spotlight by carrying Australia's flag at the ceremonies Friday. He told The Ticket and ABC Sports that it is an honor.

“It was an easy decision. I am very proud of who I am. I am very comfortable in my own skin," Mills said. "I get thrilled and excited about the opportunity to be able to tell people who I am and where I'm from.

"At the end of the day I imagine little girls and little boys, whether they are at home or at school … I can picture them and what they might feel or how they'll react when they see someone like me being a representative of them.”

Mills, 32, plays for the San Antonio Spurs and is headed to his fourth Olympics.

Rose, 29, will carry the flag of Samoa, the home country of his father, Robert. Rose has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Samoa, and represented Samoa in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

He is ranked seventh in the world in discus throw this year. He was a gold medalist in discus and silver medalist in shot put and hammer throw in the 2015 Pacific Games. 

Alex Rose, who was born in Michigan of Polynesian descent, will compete for Samoa in discus-throwing and will carry the nation’s flag in the opening ceremonies for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. He also represented Samoa in the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. He is ranked seventh in the world in discus throw this year, and was a gold medalist in discus and silver medalist in shot put and hammer throw in the 2015 Pacific Games. (Photo courtesy of Alex Rose)

While training for the Tokyo Olympics, he underwent surgery for a torn abductor, but came back to set two Samoan national records. His farthest throw is 67.48 meters, or 221 feet, 4.7 inches.

"I am so privileged for the opportunity to be the flag bearer during the opening ceremony," Rose said. "I am proud to represent a small 'underdog' nation, and I hope to make history for Samoa."

His parents watched Friday as their son carried the flag.

"At a time when there is so much conflict and heartache around the globe, to watch my son represent my husband's small country of Samoa by carrying the country's flag makes our hearts just glow," his mother, Laurie, said. "It is such an honor."

Other international athletes will also be in the spotlight. 

Wakeling will be the second Indigenous Australian weightlifter to compete at an Olympic Games, according to the Australia Olympic Committee. Anthony Martin was the first and competed at the 2000 Sydney games, when Wakeling was six years old.

Wakeling has been reporting his progress with pictures and videos on his Facebook page: Brandon Wakeling.

In a June 22, 2021, Facebook post, Wakeling announced he is TOKYO BOUND.

“Very proud to announce my childhood dream came true today and I have officially qualified to compete at the Olympic Games this year in Tokyo,” he posted. “Opportunities like this are ... once in a lifetime and I’m forever grateful for those who have been in my corner or shown support through this journey.”

“I can’t wait to step on the competition platform, wearing the green and gold, and do everyone proud.”

His path to the Olympics faced challenges. He initially played in the rugby league and used weightlifting as a way of staying fit. He soon became hooked on his gym training time more than playing rugby.

“Changing sports late in life at the age of 21 from rugby league had given myself the limiting belief that I started too late to achieve my Olympic dream,” he said. “But I overcame through hard work to make my dream come true within six years of starting the sport.”

Wakeling offers words of advice on social media for today’s youth.

“Follow your own path instead of joining others down theirs,” he said. “Do what you honestly want to do and don’t be afraid to commit yourself completely to the process. There’s no harm in failing if you have it your best shot.”

Looking ahead

Weir is likewise ready to face the competition in Tokyo. She arrived July 17 at the Team Canada training center in Tokyo after traveling for 36 hours. Weir is updating her fans on Instagram.

She was edged out of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics, but is feeling good this year after recovering from a foot injury.

“Like most athletes I have overcome the obstacle of injury,” Weir said. “This year as I was getting ready to start competing, I injured my foot and I had to take six weeks off of throwing, which is a major setback, especially in an Olympic year. I had to work diligently to return to full health and training.

“I am proud of the perseverance that it took for me to overcome that recent obstacle,” she said. “I have a great support system that I was able to lean on during that tough time as well.”

Team Canada Coach Larry Steinke had high praise.

"Jillian has been improving and doing well, despite the many challenges this year," he said. "The fact that she has persevered shows her ability to adapt and cope with change and challenges." 

Weir is determined to press on.

“I narrowly missed qualifying for the 2016 Olympics and not once did I think about retiring from the sport,” she said. “I knew immediately after not qualifying that I was going to continue working hard and showing up every day with my best effort to make the next Olympic team.

“To have stayed the course and fulfilled my lifelong goal of becoming an Olympian,” she said, “shows that hard work pays off and dreams do come true.” 

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