Later this month, over 2,100 athletes, coaches and staff will gather for the Arctic Winter Games. The international sports competition for northern athletes happens every other year, with Alaskans representing the United States. As KCAW’s Katherine Rose reports, a Sitkan will coach this year’s gymnastics team.
Trisha Bessert learned how to backflip like so many 90s kids, on a trampoline in her Wisconsin backyard.
“My dad bought me a trampoline to get my energy out,” Bessert said. “So I just started playing around. I had four older brothers that were flipping around all the time, so it was more like a copycat kinda situation,” she added. “It gives you some bravery when you see your older brothers doing it, and then just kind of join in on the fun.”
Bessert grew up watching icons like Shannon Miller, Shawn Johnson, Nastia Liukin and Chellsie Memmell. At school, she played basketball, but she found herself drawn to the gymnastics team at 13.
“I already had a lot of skills that I had taught which just needs to be kind of tweaked to actually look nice,” Bessert said. “Backyard gymnasts tend [to not] have the the finesse, when you’re self taught, so [I] learned that pretty quickly, and a coach noticed that after I learned a skill, I was pretty good at, then, teaching.”
So she started coaching younger students, and by the time she was 15 she was coaching competitive teams. And she kept coaching gymnastics as a side hustle when she was studying at the University of Wisconsin.
She moved to Sitka a decade ago. One morning in 2014, she woke up to a bunch of Facebook messages asking if she was interested in starting a local gymnastics program. She’d been tagged in a Facebook post in the local group, Sitka Chatters.
“It was my, now, husband that said, ‘Oh, Hey! Trish used to be a gymnast, and she’s also a gymnastics coach. Maybe she would start something.’ Then people in Sitka kind of took that and ran with it,” Bessert said.
At first she agreed to coach a couple of classes. But she ended up quitting her job and coaching gymnastics full time, leading the Sitka Gymnastics Academy for seven years. Though the business didn’t survive COVID, coaches across the state thought of her when it was time to nominate someone to lead Alaska’s gymnastics team in the Arctic Winter Games – an international sports competition that happens every two years in the Northern hemisphere.
“I think the best way to describe it is like a mini Olympics at a more amateur level for some Arctic countries,” Bessert said. “So Canada, and then Alaska as the United States representation, Greenland, Finland and Sweden are all a part of this. And there’s 20 different sports that are played…everything from gymnastics, and I’m pretty sure there’s dogs dog sledding and hockey, to Native Youth Olympics.”
Bessert’s job as coach goes beyond her work at the mat. She had to design everything from the leotards and warm-up routines to the composition of the team itself.
She selected four gymnasts from across the state to compete – two are from Anchorage, one from Fairbanks and one from Wasilla, chosen based on both their athletic abilities and their work outside of the gym.
“What else do they do outside of gymnastics? Who are they as people? And how does that represent the state? We want to have people that give back to their communities,” Bessert said of the criteria she considered. “So I have a great team, and I’m really excited.”
She said it’s an honor to be chosen, and especially to be nominated by the other Alaska gymnastics coaches.
“Alaska gymnastics has a very, very tight community, and a very supportive community. So a lot of sports, you’re gonna see this, almost this rivalry between different teams. And gymnastics just isn’t like that,” Bessert said. “Of course, you have kids that…want to win, they want to take, you know, gold medals home. But, all in all, they want other gymnasts to be at their best at every competition.”
Bessert says gymnastics has stuck with her for all these years because of the precision, dedication and grit it builds. She says the skills kids gain from gymnastics help them in all aspects of life.
“Case in point, I have some kids that are now on an eighth grade basketball team, and they are dominating. All five starters were gymnasts. And it’s pretty cool, because watching them, they’re fierce, and they’re confident, and they’re strong,” Bessert said.
“That’s what I love about it…when you do gymnastics, it never really leaves you,” she adds. “The lessons that you’ve learned from it stay with you for the rest of your life.”