The Pacific Swimmers of the 2018 Commonwealth Games reflect on the development of their sport at home
Words: Phil Weller & Lucy Budsworth | Photos: Simon Smith of The Reporters’ Academy.
20 swimmers representing seven nations, from the usual larger nations of Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands to the lesser experienced Solomon Islands and Tuvalu – whose arrival in the pool is one clear example of growth –have made it to the Gold Coast Games. In the past few years, programmes, initiatives and training camps have been launched across the Pacific to make learning to swim easier and more accessible, as well as helping convert more and more passionate swimmers into competitive, elite athletes. For those that have claimed a starting berth at the 21st Commonwealth Games, what do they make of recent efforts to advance Pacific swimming?
“It is definitely growing,” Tonga’s Charissa Panuve says between deep, post-competition breaths. She’s just swam in the 50m Freestyle under a clear blue sky at the Optus Aquatic Centre.
“As you can see from the number of swimmers that have come to these Games the sport is growing in the Pacific. We have strong competition within the Pacific and within ourselves so it’s just about being able to come to competitions like this and raise awareness of swimming in our own countries.”
The idea of these athletes, thrust into the limelight alongside world record holders and household names, like Adam Peaty and Cate Campbell, utilising their opportunity to promote swimming back in their own countries is a common thread woven between them all. For Papua New Guinea’s Sam Seghers, the Commonwealth Games have been instrumental in getting them on this stage:
“I think the Commonwealth Games in general have made a major effort in the last ten years or so to include smaller nations. My friend Wesley Roberts who swam earlier and had a great swim; he wouldn’t have been swimming here 10-15 years ago, he wouldn’t have had a team. So it’s good to see the little countries sending teams to these bigger comps now.”
This is something teammate Ashley Seeto reinforces. He believes that “Pacific swimming is on the rise. These Games, are a great experience for us. Just to swim alongside people like Adam Peaty, it gives you a lot of confidence because you’re in the same race as them. We recently had our national championships and the younger athletes really looked up to us, so hopefully we can inspire them and the kids back home to be swimmers who can do their best.”
Seghers, 23,has been brought up with the opportunity to develop his swimming at the highest level, with quality support both in the pool and with everything else high level sport encompasses. He is one of the first athletes to truly benefit from an increased emphasis on Pacific swimming. It indicates, though, how recent the development of swimming in the Pacific has been. As more facilities were built for the Pacific Games, along with the success of those Games themselves, interest in swimming has blossomed across the islands. The establishment of a Swimming Association in Vanuatu, who were the last hosts of the Pacific Games, stands as testament to the positive impact those events have on Pacific Swimming.
Yet a look to the past will show you that not all Oceania swimmers have been involved in the sport since childhood. A number having only learnt to swim – then moving into competitions – in their mid to late teens. It’s a stark contrast to many of the other nations they line up alongside, who by that point could already have up to 10 years of experience in the pool. Swimmers such as world champion Adam Peaty. Seeto raced in Peaty’s heat, gathering valuable experience in measuring his own progress against the English swimmer who started swimming at nine years of age. It seems the difference in times between the two swimmers acts as a spur to the Oceania swimmer rather than as a barrier to future progress.
“All the swimmers that are coming through at the moment are late bloomers,” he says with passion raising his voice. “Josh [Tarere, PNG] is 18 and this is his second big competition; he didn’t start swimming until he was 15. You look at all the Australians and they’ve all been swimming since nine. “[I’d like to see] more junior programmes. You’ve gotta start young and build up.”
Seghers urgency for more involvement for schools is something the newly established Let’s Swim, an initiative funded by the Australian government through the Pacific Sports Partnerships program, is determined to turn around. The Pacific Ocean takes up almost a fifth of the World’s surface area and so it can be an assumption that most islanders are able to swim, but as Samoa’s Alania Suttie explains, she “didn’t grow up with the whole swimming culture. It wasn’t until I moved to Brisbane, where I live now, that I learnt to swim.”
Indeed Suttie, who began swimming at 11, also views herself as a late bloomer. But a shift in the ‘swimming culture’, with water safety and swimming’s importance branded into the school curriculum, sparks a new, richer era for Pacific Swimming. Right now, while the quality of swimmers the Pacific Islands are producing is increasing – as well as the number of them seen at major Meets – swimming and awareness of water safety is steadily growing across the Pacific islands.
The more islanders who can swim means more opportunities for elite level athletes to come through the ranks. But learning to swim on the islands isn’t easy, and that’s why, in Fiji, the Let’s Swim initiative was launched in April 2017. Focussed partly on increasing water safety knowledge across the country, the programme also sets its sights on introducing swimming concepts to school teachers through the training of more swimming instructors as well as a drive to add swimming to the school curriculum.
Samoa’s Brandon Schuster, a towering but friendly figure in the interview zone after his race says: “The Samoan youth are missing out on opportunities, but if they learn to swim then it will open thousands of doors for them.”
Despite swimmers from the Pacific Nations still being relatively small in number, those that do make it to the world stage establish a strong bond together that creates unforgettable memories. The competition encourages each athlete to push themselves to perform at their full potential and be competitive across the group. They have become a hard-working, dedicated, fun-loving family that is out to showcase the best of their nation’s abilities. Constant support is offered for each other, even during our interview Seghers keeps one eye on the TV screen in the mix zone, watching to see how fellow Oceania swimmers, regardless of their nation, are performing. Indeed, the support shown by the Oceania Swimming family to each other, oozes positivity: A great example for other youth on the islands.
In that regard, Cheyenne Rova of Fiji is quick to talk about “going out and having fun to show the kids back home”, to help encourage more islanders to start swimming.
Cook Islands’ Wesley Roberts meanwhile is trying to use his status to improve the situation back home: “We don’t actually have a training pool in the Cook Islands, so we’re trying to push for one.”
Indeed, how to promote the sport within the Pacific is a recurring focus for the swimmers, who believe they can play a big part. All the Oceania swimmers here are well aware of how pivotal an aspect they can play in inspiring their nations’ youth, given that this is how many of them were inspired to dive into a pool in the first place.
“Seeing the top performers is what motivated me” Fijian swimmer Taichi Vakasama tells us.
Samoa’s Brandon Schuster also views being a role model as vital. Even now, after competing at several global events, he still marvels at lining up alongside his personal idols. “I feel like it’s only pushing me further,” he smiles. Samoan swimmer Lushavel Stickland is also smiling at the same thought. She’s just emerged from racing alongside Games’ golden girl, Australian Cate Campbell.
“If I’m going to come last in a heat it’s with world champions,” laughs Lushavel Strickland.
Potential future swimmers can’t just ‘spring up’ on the Pacific Islands if provision is lacking. Even those islands with existing resources can often face challenges.
Says Seghers: “Many of the islands don’t have the facilities other countries do, Solomons don’t have a 50m pool. They’re having to do two 25m lengths and ocean swims. Any representation for their country at this stage is a good thing”
Panuve claims: “It’s not a question of commitment or passion, so if we were given more facilities and coaching experiences it would be great.”
For an example of their commitment, you only need to look as far as Finau Ohuafi: “In Tonga we don’t really have a pool facility, but there is a hotel that has a 25m pool that’s far away from where I live. I have to wake up at 4am to travel there. Training in the ocean is really hard because you don’t have starting or finishing blocks so I have to practice my turns and finishes in the pools.”
Nevertheless, opportunities are starting to arise for the potential athletes of Oceania swimming that aren’t just in the pool itself. All encompassing training camps are starting to be delivered across the Pacific, opening up the athlete’s eyes to the other elements outside of training that can affect performance levels. As Seeto explains, positive efforts to take Oceania swimming to the next level are now being made, but their sporadic nature still leaves a taste for more.
“We recently ran a camp for our lower tier swimmers,” he reveals. “We had lecturers come to the island and give them support on nutrition and how to eat to become an elite athlete as well as talks on sports psychology. They seemed to really enjoy it.”
Camps like that suggest that the future for Pacific swimming continues to progress down a brightly lit path. However, the swimmers are keen to point out the importance of the sustainability of these valuable programmes.
“It can’t just be one programme once, it has to be one programme every six weeks or so” Seghers underlines, his hopes set on building on the momentum of that successful first camp. Drafting in experts to help athletes improve their diets and give them an insight into game-changing sports psychology puts them a step closer to the levels of support the bigger nations get week in, week out, but further benefits will come from sustainable development programmes which will reduce uncertainty around progress.
At this stage it is clear that, speaking to the athletes, good progress is being made to take Pacific Swimming to higher peaks. But while the skyline of the future of the sport here is soaked in sunshine, there is a deeper collective want to further enhance the sport they love and enjoy together.