By Andrea Arnold

McBride resident Tammy McNally spent six days in March in Palmer, Alaska where she was volunteering for the Arctic Winter Games, a biennial multi-sport and Indigenous cultural event involving circumpolar peoples residing in communities or countries bordering the Arctic Ocean.

She received a call from the Head Official Kim Killion and Holly Odegard Sport Technical Director in December asking her if she would return again this year as a volleyball referee. McNally worked with Killion and Odegard 10 years ago in Fairbanks Alaska and has been officiating volleyball games for 34 years. 

“I loved playing,” she said. “Then when I was pregnant and couldn’t play, I began officiating as a way to keep involved in the sport.”

McNally said she had to dodge a couple of seemingly out of control balls throughout the tournament. Here she is seen leaning back as far as safely possible to avoid being hit. /SUBMITTED

She has covered a variety of skill levels ranging from beginner up to college level. She has been to the Arctic Winter Games six times now, one of which she was head official, scheduling and overseeing the other volleyball officials. In addition to her experiences at previous Arctic Winter Games, she also officiated at an event in Nevada about 10 years ago called the Volleyball Festival.

“There were over 100 courts, and over 10,000 girls between the ages of 12 and 18,” she said.  “It was crazy.”

For a number of years, McNally lived with her husband Terrance outside Mackenzie, off-grid, with their closest neighbour 100km away. Yet, each weekend, she would make the four hour trip (one way) to Prince George to participate in tournaments.

In 2019, she decided she needed a break and took the year off, then covid restrictions stretched that break longer than she had planned.

In 2022, the McNally’s moved to McBride, and in September 2023, McNally found herself back in a gym helping coach high school volleyball.

Once the referee coordinators for the district heard that she was back in the game, she was scheduled to referee every tournament the team attended, and a few extras.

Getting back into the saddle at a local level provided McNally the opportunity to return to the winter games where she was able to catch up with several of her officiating friends from Alaska, Greenland, and the Territories. 

“Being an official at events brings you together with others that share common ground,” she said. “It brings easy camaraderie.” 

The Winter Games is unlike any other competition in that they include cultural events and the camaraderie can be felt not only between the officials, but between everyone: officials and athletes as well as between teams. 

“We even saw teams that had just played against each other taking a big group photo,” she said.

McNally and the other officials participated in the Opening Ceremonies, leading the athletes into the arena, reciting their officials oath and watching several cultural performances.

McNally officiated 10 games throughout the week.

“I really enjoyed watching the girls play,” she said. “This year, the under 19’s were the strongest women’s field I have seen in the six years I have attended.”

While there, McNally got to check out some of the other events.

“I went on a tour to a Muskox farm,” she said. “We (other officials and I) attended some of the arctic sports events and watched the knuckle hop – an Arctic sport where competitors bounce across the floor as far as they can on their knuckles and toes, and the snow snake competition – a competition to see whose javelin length stick slides across a flat, snow-packed surface the furthest.”

“It was neat to watch,” said McNally. “One of the judges told us that if the snow hadn’t gotten soft in the afternoon we would have likely seen one of the participants break the world record for distance.”

There were community performers, and a market setting complete with shops, food and a caribou petting zoo. 

“Pin trading – where participants trade Arctic Winter Games pins representing their contingent – was very popular throughout the six days too,” she said. “I didn’t participate in that event though.”

Throughout the days of play, officials are evaluated and the top are picked to officiate the gold medal game. McNally was one of the crew selected.

McNally does not plan to step back anytime soon. 

“I love the people,” she said. “I love volunteering at a sport I love.”

The 2026 Arctic Winter Games is scheduled to be held in Whitehorse, Yukon, and McNally hopes she can attend, catch up with her friends she sees only once every two years, and likely make a few more.