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Fonua determined to make a splash for Tonga

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Tom Fordyce | 20:38 UK time, Wednesday, 6 October 2010

It might be that you've loved every minute of these Commonwealth Games. If so, good on you. If you haven't, and you've been wondering whether any of it really matters much, listen to the tale of Amini Fonua.

Fonua, 19 years old, is here representing Tonga in the 50m backstroke, 100m backstroke, 100m breaststroke and 50m breaststroke. That's the least remarkable thing about him.

Tonga has never before had a swimmer at the Commonwealth Games. You might find that surprising for an island race. Then you discover that there isn't a single public swimming pool anywhere in the country.

The only pool of any sort is a natural tidal hollow in the coral, measuring roughly 100m by 100m, but so treacherous are the ocean currents that three swimmers have drowned there in the last three years alone.

Fonua, born in Auckland to a Tongan father and English mother, was forced to learn to swim in New Zealand. But he is proud to act as a torch-bearer for his fellow countrymen.

"It feels great," he says. "I'm really pleased that I've been given the chance to represent the kingdom.

"Dad would make sure we would go over to Tonga at least once a year, and tried to instil lots of cultural value in us. Tonga has had some great athletes - Paea Wolfgramm won Olympic silver in 1996 - but I guess I'm setting a new pattern. We're trying to create a new avenue for Tongans."

When Wolfgramm reached the gold medal bout in the super-heavyweight boxing in Atlanta, Tonga's monarch King Taufa'ahou Topu IV ordered a national day of fasting and prayer to aid his cause.

Fonua could have done with the same. Flying to Delhi from Houston, where he was on a sports scholarship at Texas A&M University, he missed his connecting flight after an airline delay and was forced to spend the penultimate night before the Games sleeping on the floor at Newark Airport.

When he did finally arrive in India, less than 12 hours before his first heat in the 50m backstroke, he found he had missed the chance to join the other 21 Tongans in the national squad at the opening ceremony. Worse than that, his bags had failed to arrive with him.

"That meant I couldn't shave down, and that I made my Commonwealth debut wearing pyjama pants," he says ruefully.

"I also didn't have a swim hat, so I was forced to borrow one from a Jamaican friend of mine and then turn it inside out to disguise the flag.

"I'd probably had four hours sleep that Sunday night. It wasn't good, but you have to stay positive. It was still something to be here."

Amini Fonua in action in 2008. Picture: Getty.

Fonua's achievements so far - he set a personal best in the 50m backstroke and made the semi-finals of the 100m breaststroke - are making a big impact in his home country.

"There's been a lot of positive feedback, and kids are starting to get into swimming which is great. We're definitely trying to establish ourselves as a swimming nation - we're like a baby right now, but hopefully in the next few years we can get something up and running."

"It's on the television back there, three times a day, and we've had some good reports," says Michael O'Shannassey, his mentor here in India. "I think it's a good opportunity for kids in Tonga to see swimming. His success will hopefully motivate a few of them.

"What we need is a few 'learn to swim' programmes. We have got a coach in Tonga - an Australian lady whose husband is working in there at the moment - so she could coach some kids."

O'Shannassey, an Aussie from Melbourne, has been working in Tonga for the past three years. A former medallist in the S8 category at the Fespic Games, he is passionate about improving swimming in the nation.

"The Tongan build is all about power and speed, and I think there's real potential over the sprint distances. Tongans would also be fantastic at water polo - it would really suit the Tongan build and attitude."

So why is there no tradition of swimming in Tonga, when the Pacific Ocean is all around?

"I think it's mainly because nobody teaches them," says O'Shannassey. "It's a very religious country, and the ladies and girls tend to swim in full costumes - they don't like showing off any part of their bodies, so that might not help. The men and boys do enjoy getting in the water, but mainly just splashing about in the waves."

Tonga recently held its first open-water championships, over 1500m - or as O'Shannassey describes it, "from the main island to another island just across the way".

Unlike at the British equivalent, the biggest problem came not from fatigued muscles and lactic in the lats but the exotic local sea-life.

"There'd been a shark attack on a nearby island the week before, and a tourist lost a few toes or something," explains O'Shannassey in relaxed fashion. "But your biggest problem is the blue whales. If they've got a calf with them, it can make it quite interesting."

The dream of both coach and athlete is that a proper pool might be built in Tonga - nothing fancy like a 50m Olympic-sized one (the nearest of those is an hour and a half's flight away in Samoa), but a simple 25m.

O'Shannassey thinks it'll cost £1.25m (US$2m). He's hoping the United Nations might stump up some of that, on the basis that they offer funding to combat non-communicable disease, and Tonga has a high rate of diabetes that might be eased if more islanders could be encouraged into more regular exercise.

"I'm sure they'll embrace the idea," he says, with characteristic optimism.

In the meantime, Fonua takes part in his specialist event, the 50m breaststroke, on Thursday.

"I'm seeded seventh at the moment, and my goal coming here was to make a final. To move up a place in the rankings would be a bonus.

"It can be intimidating coming up against so many top-class swimmers. Cameron van der Burgh from South Africa is the world record holder over 50m, but my coach always tells I should stay relaxed. You have to compete against the best to be the best. It's intimidating but good.

"I can't really worry too much about the other guys - I just have to focus on myself, and getting from A to B and then to C.

"Sometimes you have a few curveballs thrown at you. I've certainly had a few this time."

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Seems yo me that he is a New Zealander who has chosen to represent Tonga because he can't get in the NZ swimming team. Fair enough but don't dress it up to be something it isn't

  • Comment number 2.

  • Comment number 3.

    Paul Henry is a fool and should indeed lose his job. Quite what this has to do with Tom though I have no idea.

  • Comment number 4.

    I agree with the first comment... not good enough for new zealand chose to represent tonga. Should have spent time doing a worthwhile story.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'd love to know what exactly "was forced to learn to swim in New Zealand." means? Was he dragged kicking and screaming into swimming pools or is this merely the result of the inconveninece of where he was born and grew up?

  • Comment number 6.

    You're being a little unfair on Amini Fonua. Being seeded 7th in the Commonwealth at 50m Breaststroke means he would have got in the NZ side if he wanted to, but its the same reason that Mark Cavendish chooses to ride for IoM at the CWG - he is proud to be able to represent his culture and a country that doesn't get much success. Tonga's sporting success can be summed up by 1 boxer and the Rugby team, much like IoM's success is in Cycling, both Motor and Pedal.

    Good Luck Amini Fonua - hope you get to the 50m Breaststroke final and maybe even sneak a podium - the differences are small enough to cause an upset!

  • Comment number 7.

    Tom

    How about this story?

    http://www.smh.com.au/commonwealth-games-2010/comm-games-news/australia-forced-to-defend-two-acts-of-poor-sportsmanship-20101006-167jp.html

    Why are you shying away from posting negative news about the CWG when it comes to your people?

  • Comment number 8.

    fallingTP, Gary - Amini sounds extremely proud to compete for Tonga. I think his story is interesting for two reasons: because he is acting as a path-beater for other Tongans in a country without a single public pool, and because of the problems he overcame to swim here - I loved the fact that he couldn't shave down, had to swim in the wrong trunks and borrow swim-hat, yet just got on with things without moaning.

    Willo77 - as you say, he's proud to represent his country and a culture that doesn't get much success.

    Sabu - sorry my friend, not sure what your point is - I'm not an Australian or Kiwi.

  • Comment number 9.

    Willo

    Fair enough. It was the tone of Tom's article the annoyed me. Amini is of course free to choose but as with a lot of similar articles it fails to acknowledge the impact of his home country on his development and suggests that he has sprung from a Tongan lagoon rather than a council swimming pool in South Auckland. Apartb from a rather ambiguous reference to NZ early on you would hardly know that he is in truth an Aucklander of part Tongan descent.

  • Comment number 10.


    "he's proud to represent his country"


    His country is New Zealand. He has never lived in Tonga from what I can guage. His roots are part Tongan and he is rightly proud of this and he has chosen to represent them at the games. Great.

  • Comment number 11.

    being amini's auntie and him having lots of family in the uk, we are all extremely proud of him swimming in the games no matter who it's for,thanks tom for taking the time to interview amini.

  • Comment number 12.

    Sorry last comment as I wish to moderate what I have just written. The links between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands are very close. Many Samoans and Tongans see themselves as both Samoan and Kiwi or Tongan and Kiwi. But the country that many have been born and chose to live is NZ; thus they are New Zealander. For the 100,000s of people who originate from the Pacific who live in New Zealand it is extremely important in my view to remove ambiguities. We have had this idiot, which Sabu refers to, suggesting that the next Governor General of NZ should be a "real NZer". This was highly offensive particularly given the current holder of the post and has rightly cuased outrage in NZ. For a country which has such high levels of immigration as NZ (23% of population were not born in NZ) it is extremely important to recognise that all who are born there or chose to live there are New Zealanders. It leads to a cohesive society. Rant over.

  • Comment number 13.

    what is so wrong with monkey-tennis anyway ?

  • Comment number 14.

    So many people with chips on their shoulders! Is it that hard to enjoy a story without getting defencive?

    A good story about how the smaller nations struggle without the back-up which the bigger nations receive.

    Even though most competitors from the smaller nations appear to represent their country, this is someone who has a chance of reaching the final...

    Best small nation story from the CWG for me was the Kenyans borrowing bikes in Manchester for their race!

  • Comment number 15.

    Great Blog Tom - this is exactly what I needed to read today, someone who has gone above and beyond to make it to the games! What an inspiration he will be to his fellow Tongans, and anyone with a dream!

    Quote: "When he did finally arrive in India, less than 12 hours before his first heat in the 50m backstroke, he found he had missed the chance to join the other 21 Tongans in the national squad at the opening ceremony. Worse than that, his bags had failed to arrive with him."

    "That meant I couldn't shave down, and that I made my Commonwealth debut wearing pyjama pants", he says ruefully.

    "I also didn't have a swim hat, so I was forced to borrow one from a Jamaican friend of mine and then turn it inside out to disguise the flag.

    I'd probably had four hours sleep that Sunday night. It wasn't good, but you have to stay positive. It was still something to be here."

    Brilliant!

  • Comment number 16.

    "His country is New Zealand. He has never lived in Tonga from what I can guage. His roots are part Tongan and he is rightly proud of this and he has chosen to represent them at the games. Great."

    Would you say similarly of English children who support Pakistan in the cricket but have never lived there? Or how about Amir Khan's brother (I'm sorry, I forget his name) who chose to represent Pakistan at this championship based on his Grandmother's nationality? Do you have problems with that too?

    The world is full of negative, cynical, miserable people who want to bring everyone else down with them, and sadly most of them seem to post on BBC articles.

  • Comment number 17.

    Tom,

    I respect your oppinion as you have written the blog and it is written well and will bring a smile to some people. Not myself though I just think this guy was not good enough to compete for new zealand. I am Scottish and it is like the english born players who get called up for scotland they are going to play for us because they are not good enough to play for England at football.
    Good luck to him but its not anywhere near as good a story as say eddie the eel.

  • Comment number 18.

    "Good luck to him but its not anywhere near as good a story as say eddie the eel. "

    Eric the Eel. And I agree, that was a great story from 2002(?) :)

  • Comment number 19.

    lol mistake!!!

  • Comment number 20.

    "Would you say similarly of English children who support Pakistan in the cricket but have never lived there?"

    England has not been particualrly successful an integrating certain sections of its population but that is another issue. Cleary these people are English of Pakistani descent. How can they be anything other? Who they choose to support or represent is up to them but they are born and raised in England. I think that makes them English.

  • Comment number 21.

    Tom

    What will it take for you to be a real man? one with some spine? It will be nice to see you actually report on other races with the venom you have been reporting so far.

    Clearly the brtisih, aussies and kiwis own you and you would do nothing to upset them.

    Come one, trying to help. is this about making you get your award? i know indian don't vote for that.

  • Comment number 22.

    point is aussies and kiwis are are your cousins!! why aren't you reporting on the negativity of them at the games.

    was that so hard?

    i know you are careful about your award and want to please your masters.

  • Comment number 23.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 25.

    You stopped people from replying to Tom's previous blogs, why is that? why does he get a free reign to report whatever he likes? and peoples responses are blocked

    is my license fee paying for his hotel and flight? what is it costing?

  • Comment number 26.

    why is there no coverage in the bbc about the roles anglo saxon countries played in selection of contractors to the games?

    why is there no negative coverage about the behaviour of anglo saxons at the games? the two links i provided show clear bigotry and lack of sportsmanship. indian slums are news worthy but negativity to aussies and kiwis aren't. or that english coach who complained about the heat and blamed the organisers for that. why is that not being given the same air time as every thing that tom and his kin want to show?

  • Comment number 27.

    Seriously, mannn im a Tongan decent and i dont give a damn which country anyone choose to represent. At the end of the day Amini choose to represent Tonga period. He have a English mom and a Tongan Father raise up in NZ. Whether he represent Tonga, NZ or Britain i dont care. This is a good story for people who have a dream and stick to it. Go Amini and thank you for representing the Kingdom.

  • Comment number 28.

    FallingTP and Gary,

    I went to school with Amini.
    He is a proud Tongan, and a proud New Zealander, the fact that he is representing Tonga is personal choice and good on him.
    Do you have nothing better to do than pick apart someone elses professional abilities because you feel insignificant.

    Good on you Min... youre doing everyone proud :)

  • Comment number 29.

    From what I've read, Amini is half English, half Tongan descent - born and raised in NZ. He's not "part Tongan" --half's more than "part" :)
    Maths aside, how do you figure that "the country that many have been born and chose to live is NZ; thus they are New Zealander" ?? That's up to the individual. I am of full Tongan descent, living in NZ but do not consider myself a "New Zealander", nothing personal to NZers & their gorgeous country, but I am most definitely Tongan, living in NZ. My children are half Euro, half Tongan, living in NZ. As they get older, they may consider themselves Kiwi or NZers, and that's entirely up to them -- I don't mind whether they choose to play for the 'Ikale Tahi, England, Wales or the All Blacks! (Although, when it comes to rugby - ALL BLACKS ALL THE WAY!!)

  • Comment number 30.

    "the fact that he is representing Tonga is personal choice and good on him."

    I haven't disputed this. If you bothered to read what I have written you would note that I was questioning suggestions that his country is Tonga. His country is New Zealand. He has lived there all his life. He is justifiably proud of his Tongan descent and I assume he associates strongly with his blood lines but this doesn't remove the fact he is a born and bred New Zealander. Oh and your cheap shot about his professional abilites - which I suspect owe more to a US college rather than to Tonga - doesn't come in to it.

    In the UK sports teams have a host of children of immigrants. They are all I assume proud of their roots (Paul Sackey's parents were from Ghana and no doubt he has close links to that country but he is born and bred in England and by my assessment is English). I am a kiwi but my kids are born and bred in Britain; they are English and Scottish; they are not New Zealanders although they go to NZ often and relate closely to the country.

    Sport's journalism thrives on deliberately mis-interpreting reality, on using misinformation for its own ends, on crafting stories of the underdog rising above adversity and to me this is just another classic example. We have a detailed story of the difficulties which Tonga has as a poor nation stuck in the middle of the Pacific (much the result of having a corrupt governmental system and arcane systems of land ownership). The story is based around a Tongan swimmer who has barely spent any time in the Kingdom. Yet it is suggested that he has risen above the difficulties faced by that land to now represent it at the CGs. Its fiction or at least stretching the truth.

  • Comment number 31.

    " the country that many have been born and chose to live is NZ; thus they are New Zealander" ??"

    Subfan what do you think of Paul Henry's comments about the Rt Hon Sir Anand Satyanand when he suggested he was not a "real New Zealander"?

  • Comment number 32.

    fallingTP I agree with you that the tone of the story is stretching it... but on the other hand, some people might argue that "the difficulties faced" in Tonga are minute compared to the struggles & difficulties faced in South Auck :)

    Funny how you think the land ownership system in Tonga as arcane? Have you lived there? Are you Tongan? I think it's quite simple...for Tongans perhaps?

    Paul Henry's comments - typical of Paul Henry? Rt Hon Sir Anand Satyanand didn't seem as offended as everyone else seems to be about it.
    I suppose my view is, if you're going to persecute Paul Henry, why not do the same to people like Hone Harawira? That guy says equally offensive things, as often as Henry but he's still there. I thought it ironic when Willie Jackson & John Tamihere were on Campbell Live the other night, standing up for Harawira, saying that it's different for him 'cos he was voted in by his people etc etc where as Henry is employed by a state-funded broadcaster and was therefore being paid for by tax payer money etc etc ?! Last time I checked politicians were living off tax payer money too..... One thing that stands out for me is how so many pakeha seem outraged by his comments (directed at a different race) - which is awesome - but why not stand up for yourselves & get all outraged when such comments are directed at your own "people"? eg Harawira's comments that he would not be happy if any of his children brought home a pakeha partner.

    Why do you ask, what are your thoughts on it?



  • Comment number 33.

    Just read your thoughts up there ^^^

    To be honest, I don't think his comments about being a real NZer are nearly as bad as his mockery of Delhi Chief Minister's name.

  • Comment number 34.

    "the difficulties faced" in Tonga are minute compared to the struggles & difficulties faced in South Auck :)"

    Yes good response my friend. I didn't mean to be offensive towards Tonga but I followed closely the debate over land reform which I saw a crucial for change there and vested interests virtually saw to it that there was no change.

    Question re Henry was little loaded. His comment - as was the one with regard to Mr Dik---- (only cos it will probably be blocked) seemed highly offensive to me but like the affiable and highly astute character he is Anand Satyanand didn't say too much. I agree with you in terms of how your kids see themselves is up to them (although doesn't change the fact they are kiwis) but I also think that if NZ is going to integrate its very diverse population then its important that they share a vision for a better NZ and if they are not seeing themslves as part of that society it makes for a rather fractured society (as we see in parts of the UK where some people may not see themslves as being English (although being born and bred here). I'm no great nationalist but I do want to see societies function well and I think this is vital. And I think in NZ this is generally the case. You know guys like Jonah and Michael jones are yes proud of their roots but you are never in any doubt that they are kiwis (kiwi Tongans and Kiwi Samoans yes but kiwis also) and want the best for the communities they live in. Michael Jones I know is passionate about this. I have cousins who are are Kiwi Samoans (via my mum's sister) and they very much see themselves this way which is cool. I went to a powhiri few weeks back which I spoke of my pride in terms of my Danish, English, Irish and Scottish roots but also foremost of what shaped me and that was NZ and its people and I think that is what pulls a people togther.

    Hone Harawira is little other than a showman in my view. He loves to bring the spotlight firmly on himself. He has an ego big enough for the whole country. But as you know such guys have to some extent be handled with kid gloves.

    Po'uli a

  • Comment number 35.

    just because he is representing tonga doesn't mean he couldn't make it into the NZ squad.
    im an australian born tongan, i chose to represent the tongan u20's rugby union team instead of playing for the wallabies u20's. I was originally meant to play as left wing for the wallabies but i chose to play for tonga instead.
    even though we lost to the wallabies (23-22) in the semi finals im am still proud to say that i represented tonga and i am sure amini is also proud that he is representing tonga too.
    goodluck amini, ofa atu tokoua.

  • Comment number 36.

    "I am sure amini is also proud that he is representing tonga too."

    I'm sure he is too as you were to represent Tonga in the U20s (seems like you must be pretty good whichever way you went). Jay I don't think this is in dispute. Tell me how big is the Tongan community in Oz (Sydney?)

  • Comment number 37.

    FallingTP, GAry

    Not all people think like you! im a full Tongan Descent and born in NZ! proud to say that Amini Fonua is my First cousin in his Tongan side! and to have him represent our beloved country is a great honour! but to hear you question his rights of representing Tonga! pisses me off! he has the right to choose whatever country he wants represent! let me tell you a little fact about this boy! he grew up with his tongan family in Auckland NZ! He's been to Tonga more times then he's ever been to his mother's country England! so what if he's not representing the country he was born and raised in! it's totally up to him! as everyone else we are free to decide and choose what country to represent! That's pretty selfish of you to suggest that he should swim for nz because he was born and raised in nz.! there are many talented unique competitors who are representing New Zealand, but to have one person represent this little island TONGA, known as a dot in the map means alot to our PEOPLE and family!

    Amini we are so proud of you! and we will always support you Cuz! Held your head up high and seek the heights ! we watched the 50breast final! dangg boy you did so well! gosshhh everyone here are so proud of you! GO TONGA!!!! CHEHOOOOOOOOOOO loads of love from your cuzzies in New Zealand!

    OFA ATU

    DAizy!

  • Comment number 38.

    DAizy

    "That's pretty selfish of you to suggest that he should swim for nz because he was born and raised in nz"

    I don't recall having said this and a fully respect his right to choose. Good on him either way. And as you know Tongan people in NZ will throw their weight in behind Tongan rugbt etc. That's great and long may they link back to their roots. It is something to be proud of. I am not questions this.

  • Comment number 39.

    Michael Jones has spoken a lot these issues (needless to say I’m a great fan) and he sums up what I’m trying to say far better than I can. I have extracted few bits from a speech he made few years back He says:

    “I didn’t have a typical kiwi upbringing, except maybe in a Polynesian sense. There was a huge amount of love, we were close knit – I had a very strong Christian upbringing, the foundation, the values and principles were installed in use at an early age. This held me in good stead, to honour people, respect other people, and practice compassion - my mother always lived that out……….

    As a Pacific Island male, I think there is a void of leadership. I’m very passionate about leadership and my generation needs to pick up the baton. A lot of the true champions for the advancement of Pacifica are women. I’m very mindful of that as a Pacifica man, and as a role model. I take leadership very seriously and want to mobilize more men to be positive influences, to be change agents in their families and communities, in terms of our contribution to our nation. As Polynesians we will be at least one third of the population [New Zealand] in 50 years time, and the youth component of that will be nearly 50%. We need to raise a generation of leaders who will be the decision makers for the needs of the broader NZ multicultural family but also be able to lead on behalf of their own community, and in every aspect of society – as a consumer, and in education………

    We need to have a society that is inclusive, whilst celebrating our diversity…….

    I’m really privileged, I’m proud to be a kiwi, of being born and shaped by this nation. The best thing about going overseas is coming back. We have some great things going for us, and because we are a small nation, we can go against the grain, and turn around those statistics and those greater forces that are influencing the very essence of our lifestyle. This is a great nation!”

  • Comment number 40.

    Hmmm this is the power of the media -a single report gets thousands of people across the globe thinking - but mind you what we see and hear is not always the truth -consider this as if you are eating a bunch of grapes -you throw out the rotten and sour ones and eat only the juicy ones .please dont get provoked by any comment from any tom dick or harries of the media world. tc

  • Comment number 41.

    "Oh and your cheap shot about his professional abilites - which I suspect owe more to a US college rather than to Tonga - doesn't come in to it"

    Amini's professional abilities have been around since he was very young - hence before he went to a 'US College'. If you go to the NZ Herald Website and search his name you can find that out for yourselves .

 

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