Best of the West: Western states’ athletes center stage at the Olympics; New Mexico expands its wilderness; Alaska sees a historic salmon run; local governments use data to improve services

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting July 19, 2021. (Photos courtesy of kovop58, Jay Holland, and Bill Roth)

The world’s top athletes are in Tokyo for the 2021 Summer Olympics. Without fans allowed in the stadiums and new events such as surfing, karate, skateboarding and sport climbing, this year’s global celebration of sports will be unlike any before. Nevertheless, the focus remains on the competitors – and the western U.S. will be well represented on that front. 

Of the U.S. Olympic team’s 613 members this year – the second largest Olympic delegation in U.S. history – 215 are from states within WGA’s footprint. California (126) and Colorado (31) lead the way in terms of total athletes, but nearly every state has at least one representative, many with inspirational stories.  

Lydia JacobyMore than 400 of the U.S. athletes are first-time Olympians, including Lydia Jacoby, a 17-year-old from Alaska competing in the breaststroke. Jacoby is the state’s first swimming participant and only the second to represent her state at the Summer Olympics. The Sandpipers of Nevada wound up qualifying four swimmers to their first Olympics this year, including 15-year-old Katie Grimes, the youngest U.S. Olympian this year. Not only did Brandon McNulty, a 23-year-old cyclist from Arizona, recently compete in his first Tour de France, helping his teammate seal the overall victory, he will also be competing in his first Olympic time trial and road race. 

Jordan Chiles, a 20-year-old from Washington, was considered a prospective Olympian from a young age. After failing to make the Olympic team in 2016, however, she thought about quitting elite gymnastics. That’s when superstar gymnast Simone Biles suggested that Chiles move to Texas to train at the World Champions Centre. Despite a wrist surgery in 2019 that kept from competing for nearly two years, she has returned in 2021 to achieve her lifelong goal of qualifying.  

For many of those in new events, the goal of becoming an Olympic athlete always seemed far-fetched. Nevertheless, Colin Duffy, a 17-year-old from Colorado, used his love for math and analytical thinking to propel his 5’9’’ frame onto the first U.S. Olympic sport climbing team. Mariah Duran, a 20-year-old from New Mexicotold The Paper, “I never thought skateboarding would bring this,” soon after she was chosen to represent the U.S. on the first Olympic skateboarding team. 

Not all of the athletes representing the West are youngsters; several are proving that age is just a number. Nick Mowrer, a 32-year-old staff sergeant in the U.S. Army from Montana, who is making an Olympic comeback eight years after competing in the 2012 London Games, became the first U.S. Olympian to qualify in both the 10-meter pistol and 50-meter rifle. Allyson Felix, a 35-year-old sprinter from California (and new mother), will be competing in her fifth and final Olympics. She already has 9 Olympic medals, 6 of which are gold, making her the most decorated Olympic runner in U.S. history. Abdi Abdirahman from California will compete in the marathon at 44 years old. Despite not making the team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, he stuck with it and is the oldest U.S. runner to ever make an Olympic team, regardless of country. Jacob Gibb from Utah, 45, is set to become the oldest Olympic volleyball player ever, surpassing the previous record of 41. 

A WILD DONATION: A 15-square-mile donation from The Trust for Public Land will increase the size of the Sabinoso Wilderness Area in northeastern New Mexico by nearly 50%. The wilderness land donation is the single largest ever to the U.S. Department of Interior and includes part of the ancestral homelands of the Jicarilla Apaches and northern pueblos of New Mexico that spanned rugged canyons, mesas covered by piñon and juniper woodlands, pockets of ponderosa pine trees and savannah-like grasslands. The Trust for Public Land donation also provides a second access point into the wilderness area and permanent protections for a tributary.

E-FISH-ENT MANAGEMENT: The sockeye salmon run in Bristol Bay, Alaska this year is the largest ever recorded, with 63.2 million fish returning to the bay. That breaks the 2018 record of 62.9 million and represents only the fourth time since 1952 that the bay’s run has exceeded 60 million. “I think it’s a shining beacon of sustainable management,” said Tim Sands, an area management biologist for Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We’ve been prosecuting the commercial salmon fishery management since 1884 and we are still able to set records on total runs, and I think that speaks to the management that we use.” 

DATA FEVER: According to a report from the Monitor Institute by Deloitte, effective use of data by local governments led to reduced emergency response times and increased public transit options, fiscal support for vulnerable populations, housing stability, and broadband access. Furthermore, 70% of localities surveyed said they are using data to inform decisions about their response to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, which the report says illustrates the importance of “building foundational data skills and practices that enable a city to respond quickly in the face of disaster.” Learn about the Western Governors’ work to support data sharing by reading the WGA policy resolution Utilizing State Data in Federal Decision Making.  

AHEAD OF THE PACK: Buttercup the pack donkey in 2019 became the first miniature donkey to win a Triple Crown race in the Western Pack Burro ASS-ociation (yes, that's what they call it), in which both team members (one human, one donkey) run anywhere between 10 and 29 miles through the mountains in homage to 19th-century gold miners. After winning in Leadville, Colorado the following week and again in Buena Vista the week after that, she became the first min i— and only the seventh burro in the sport’s 72-year history — to win the men’s Triple Crown outright. “She’s 250 pounds soaking wet and taking these 900-pound donkeys to task,” said Brad Wann of the Western Pack Burro Association. Buttercup will be trying to repeat her feat starting with a July 25 race in Fairplay, Colo.

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