Biathlete from Greenland proud to represent Inuit at her first Olympics

Inuk athlete Ukaleq Slettemark is competing for Denmark at the Beijing Olympics, but says she feels like she’s representing Inuit from around the circumpolar region. (Submitted Ukaleq Slettemark)

Ukaleq Slettemark’s uniform at the Olympics won’t include the flag of Greenland, but the 20-year-old biathlete from Nuuk, Greenland will represent her Inuit heritage and homeland as a member of Team Denmark.

Slettemark designed the race suit for the Danish biathletes, integrating Inuit tattoo lines, or tunniit, into the look.

“I’m really proud of it and I’m really proud that this is what I can show off at the Olympics,” she told Cindy Alorut, host of CBC’s Qulliq.

Arctic Winter Games alumna

Slettemark got her start back in 2016 at the Arctic Winter Games in Nuuk. The Greenland team needed athletes to compete in ski biathlon and because she had a bit of experience in the sport she started training, she said.

She brought home a gold in the biathlon four kilometre sprint.

Ukaleq Slettemark designed the race uniform for Danish biathletes. She included Inuit tattoo lines, or Tunniit so the uniform would reflect the culture of Inuit in Greenland, which is part of the Danish Commonwealth. (Submitted by Ukaleq Slettemark)

Since then the sport has become her passion.

“I don’t think I will ever give up this sport even if I stop being an athlete. I don’t think I can stop the sport because I just love it so much,” she said.

Eating, sleeping, training ‘and not much else’

Slettemark said she puts in around 650 hours per year of physical training and has fired around 10,000 to 15,000 shots in target practice this year alone.

Her life is pretty much eating, sleeping, training “and not much else.”

Slettemark said she’s felt huge support from people in Greenland.

“It’s such a small place,” she said. “People tell me that ‘I would watch you on TV, even though I never watch sports.'”

A big motivator for her are the small kids who watch her and tell her they want to try biathlon.

She said she’s mostly excited but expects the nerves will hit a day or two before competition.

Inuit athletes excelling

Jesse Cockney, who competed in cross-country skiing at the Winter Olympics in 2014 and 2018, said he’s excited for Slettemark.

Cockney is Inuvialuit and his dad, Angus Cockney was a national champion who trained In Inuvik with the Territorial Experimental Ski Training program in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The program produced high-performance skiers like Cockney’s dad, and Gwich’in skiers Sharon Firth and the late Shirley Firth — who went on to the Olympics.

Jesse Cockney, born in the Northwest Territories, competed in the 2014 and 2018 Olympics in cross-country skiing. (Photo: Aryn Toombs)

“It’s great to see Inuit athletes from wherever they are in the world excelling in their sport,” Cockney said. “It’s not like there were arbitrary lines over the ice and snow historically.”

Cockney said he’s been checking out Slettemark’s results from other competitions

“And she looks like she’s excelling, really excelling,” he said.

“She’s really good, she’s got a lot of promise and it’s great to see another athlete coming from the North and taking the international scene by storm.”

Hoping to see Inuit from Canada at future Olympics

Slettemark’s pleased to represent the Danish commonwealth, the political term used to describe Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

She’s also pleased to hear Inuit in Canada will be watching.

“I think Inuit have some sort of common understanding of each other. I’m really glad that so many people are following and I’m excited for the Olympics.”

Slettemark’s hoping her performance in Beijing will also inspire young Inuit in Canada to pursue high-performance sports — especially biathalon — so she can compete against them at future Olympics.

With files from Cindy Alorut

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: 2021 Yukon Quest to split in two: one race in Alaska, one in Yukon, CBC News

Finland: Recycling snow in northern Finland for October skiers, Yle News

Norway:  Dogsled race in arctic Norway cancelled over COVID-19 fears, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: How Sweden plans to pay if it hosts the 2026 Winter Olympics, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska borough plans to bid to host 2024 Arctic Winter Games, The Associated Press

Joanne Stassen, CBC News

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