Conquering the wall
The wall stands alone in the center of the Kiana School gym, towering over the bleachers. The kids in line look it up and down, scanning for strategies, anything to help them make it up and over.
Bryton Gregg, 17, takes his place at the front, shifting from one foot to the other. He's wanted to be a Ninja Warrior forever and this is his chance.
"First of all, I didn't really know what the show was. I was doing some martial arts training, trying to get hand-to-hand combat stuff with a buddy of mine," says Nick Hanson, the village kid from Unalakleet whose sojourn up a similar wall led him onto the reality action television show "American Ninja Warrior," and into this gym today.
He's been on this show — one of Gregg's favorites — for the last few seasons, representing Alaska. He's since gained the moniker, "Eskimo Ninja Warrior," which is what many of the students in Kiana call to him from across the room.
"The response is just ridiculous. I think the best part about it is the support I receive. I don't realize it until I come out here and everyone's like, 'Oh, you're the ninja from that show. Man, we cheer for you every time. We're standing up screaming at the TV.' When I hear stories like that, I'm just so humbled that I've touched so many people in a good way. I've gotten the chance to really make an impact in people's lives and you kind of take that for granted," Hanson says. "The more I see it, the more it makes me want to represent us even better, the more it makes me want to be more of a part of those communities."
His success conquering brutal physical obstacles on the show like the wall has earned him a local following, which has in turn pushed him to use his reputation for good. For the last few years, he's been trying his hand at motivational speaking, traveling to rural villages in the state, building backyard obstacle courses based on the famous "Warrior" course, and trying to inspire students to challenge themselves.
"It's gotten to the point where I'm trying to make a career out of doing motivational speaking so that I can find the funding to get out here and visit with the kids and be an inspiration and role model for the youth," he says.
Here in Kiana, Hanson has spent the last couple of days working one-on-one with local students, telling stories, and seeking their help to build this warped wall, which stands more than 10 feet high, from plywood and boards, from the ground up.
Gregg has been by his side since the start. Before the wall ended up in the gym and was still in its bare-bones form, he could be found tightening bolts outside in the chilly winter air, even as the sun was dipping down below the horizon. Knowing it would stay in the community, Gregg had big plans for it even before it was finished.
"I'm going to practice a lot for when I'm old enough to be on [the show]," he says with a smile.
Starting with the foundation and creating the obstacle by hand is fundamental to understanding its challenge, it seems. For Hanson, his own journey from village to television started long ago, when he was an elementary school student.
"When I was a kid, I was beat up a lot, actually. I was beat up every day and one day, I decided I wanted to end it," Hanson says. "So, I decided to join sports because apparently joining sports was cool, especially basketball. Basketball is life out in the village."
He listened to the advice of his coaches ("They're old and know what they're talking about," he says), his parents, and his teachers.
"I turned that into crosscountry running and the next thing you know, it's cross-country skiing and volleyball and basketball and wrestling, and then I'm participating in every sport that our school has to offer," he says. "When I was in high school, I joined Native Youth Olympics and that was the best decision I ever made."
To understand why that is, it's important to understand the personal side of this story.
When he first started doing sports, the physical tussles with other students stopped, but the verbal abuse, the teasing, the boys whispering, "Go home, gussuk," — Hanson says he looks 'white,' — kept on for a while.
"It took a couple of years but you persevere and you deal with it," he said.
By fifth grade, Hanson says he'd become "one of the cool guys." When he made a joke, kids laughed. He was accepted and he stayed accepted through high school.
"The people who made me who I am today are the same guys that beat me up every day as a kid. Axel Johnson was a big part of my life. He taught me everything I know about the Native games. I grew up with these guys. Even though they beat me up when I was a kid and they teased me and ridiculed me growing up, it was because of them I made the choice to be an athlete. It was because of them I know everything I know about the Native games, especially Axel," he says. "They've really been a big part of my life and I think they've helped lift me up and become the person I am today."
Despite finding a place at school, Hanson is candid about the challenges he and his siblings faced at home; his mom was a "pretty severe alcoholic" throughout his childhood.
"There was one time when my mom was drinking, there was one night, specifically, that really changed my life because I've never drunk and never smoked and I owe it to my mother and I owe it to my little brother," he says.
The way he tells it, she was either sad and crying, happy and dancing, or very, very angry when she'd drink.
"This night was one of those nights," he recalls. "She was beating my dad up. My dad raced to the room, basically had to lock himself up so he didn't get hurt. My brother's crying, cowering scared in the corner, and he's just bawling and I've never seen so much fear in anybody in my entire life and it was my little brother. So, I took all the hits that night for everybody. I stepped up and kind of said, 'This needs to stop.' I toughed it out."
He told his sister to take his little brother to a different room. He stayed with his mom. Eventually, she calmed down.
"She ended up passing out. I had to carry her upstairs, put her in bed, and it was that night I decided I wasn't going to let anybody else see this. I didn't want to let anybody else witness what I just witnessed and have to live through what I just lived through and I wanted to change that," he says.
It's a hard story to share, and a hard one to hear, but he shares it for a reason, he says.
"If I could, I would do that in everybody's lives out here in the villages. That's what I want to share and help the younger kids know," he says. "They don't have to put up with it. They can be the change. If they know who they are and they're strong enough to make a positive choice in their lives, they'll be able to go out there and do great things and be a positive influence and a positive light in other people's lives."
Moving forward to today and the situation "is like night and day," he says. In Kiana, he's selling "Warrior" shirts to help fund his trips to the villages and make some extra income. He's on the phone with his mom several times over the course of the evening as she helps him with his business.
"She quit drinking about five years ago now," he says. "She started baking a lot. That's kind of her muse now. She's always baking something new and that's kind of her way to escape and man, there's no other person I would want there at the top. When I'm on the TV show, she's the first one I want to hug. I love my girlfriend more than anything but I want to hug my mom first. She's done amazing things and regardless of the hard times we've been through, she's still been there positive, except for those dark times. She's my best friend. She's everything. Moms are everything and she's my everything."
It's something he sometimes doesn't even have the words to tell her, he says. But that's alright.
"You can't really tell people stuff, sometimes. You can't just blatantly say it," he says. "Other times, you watch a movie with her. You say, 'Hey mom, let's watch a movie.' And she says, 'OK.' So, you lay on the couch with her and you put your arm around her and that's enough. That little action changes everything."
As for the guys he tussled with as a child, Hanson says he has no regrets. It was hard at the time, but as he got older, he forged friendships and mentorships with a few of them. Now, when he competes, he says he does it for them.
"If they were here today, I'd be able to not say I'm doing this for them, but that I'm doing this with them," he says.
Of his classmates from school, he's one of the only ones left as many have died by suicide in the years since. He pauses, talking about them.
"If we start thinking about all the negative things in our lives, we can go downhill real quick. Even a guy like me has thought about what would happen if I wasn't here. Suicide's not something we can joke about. It's legit," he says. It's why he's incorporated suicide prevention into his message to kids when he visits the villages now. "When you have a situation like that you have to focus on the positive and what kind of difference you can make if you're still here. If we all try to make a positive difference in someone else's life every day, we won't even consider those kinds of things because we'll see every day how we're changing."
On this particular day, back in the gym, Hanson is cheering on Bryton Gregg, who is about to give the warped wall his best shot.
He looks down at the ground, looks back up at the wall, starts with a jog, breaks into a run, hits the wall with his feet and seems to climb up it vertically, effortlessly, until his hands reach the lip at the top. He pulls himself up, up, and over the lip. Once his whole body is on top of the wall, he stands up tall and puts his hands in the air. The gym erupts in applause and cheers.
"It feels amazing," Gregg says, of being on top of the wall, and the world, for those few minutes. "Words can't describe it.
"The slightest thing can change who you become," Hanson says.
For kids like Gregg, he hopes they'll take the time to learn about their families, their history, to take the time to challenge themselves, and work past the obstacles they find in their own lives, no matter how daunting.
"The biggest thing you can do is to know who you are. The most important thing any kid can know is who they are — not their name, not their last name, not where they're from, not the village they come from," he says. "I'm Inupiaq. On my dad's side I'm Italian, Irish, and Scottish. I know that and I think knowing that gives me foundation. It gives me strength. It gives me roots like a tree. Roots dive deep. They're just as big as all the branches on top if not wider and those roots that you need to create are what keep you standing every day."
As for today, Gregg is the only kid who makes it to the top, though others come very close. They've all vowed to try again. As for Hanson, he plans to travel to as many villages as he can, bringing his stories and his obstacle courses with him. He'll also continue to face the wall himself on the show he's come to be known for.
And, as for Gregg, he says he'll try to help other kids face the wall and conquer it, all while he goes up it himself again and again and again, until he's the next Eskimo Ninja Warrior — the first from Kiana, he hopes.