Dream Chasers & Future Makers

Words: Phil Weller | Photos: Simon Smith of The Reporters’ Academy
 
As waves crashed against studded rocks and golden sand along the picturesque Coolangatta coastline, four thousand people watched on as Miller Pata and Linline Matauatu stepped up onto the podium with bronze medals glistening under the glare of spotlights and phone cameras. But there was a third, smiling face too. Cradled in Pata’s arms was her seven month old son, Tommy. Such was the determination of this mother to live her long-standing dream of competing for her country at a major Games, she was back training just two months after Tommy was born. When she wasn’t feeding her son and changing diapers, there was a tenacity burning within her to make up for lost time on the court. It was one final obstacle to overcome. After over seven years of trials and tribulations, of tears of joy and setbacks in equal measure, everything they had worked towards was tangibly close.

In 2011, they were training on a makeshift court on a farm in Crewe in the North West of England. They barely spoke a word of English and they were far away from home, separated from their families. They’d left their families at home to look after their babies, something previously unheard of in their culture. They had been invited by London 2012 to a Pre-Games Training Camp to acclimatise in preparation for their possible qualification for the Olympics. It was too good an opportunity to turn down and it underpinned a frantic tour of countries across the world, trying to rack up enough points to put themselves in Olympic contention. Only then, did they truly learn what it takes to become an athlete consistently working at a high level, as well as having to handle things like press responsibilities for the first time. When one of their children got sick, things got really tough and the distance between them and their families felt cavernous. They had to find ways of being away from their children when they needed their mothers the most. Their families were more than willing to support them by taking on what was, traditionally, a mother’s role. In truth, they were being realistic and the role reversal was the only way the volleyball pair could push forwards towards their common goal. And so, instead of staying at home raising their families, they hopped on a plane to the other side of the world, quickly learning how to use Skype to stay connected to their life back home, which would prove pivotal when the separation from their home lives got too much. They were ready to embrace new experiences with London 2012 on the horizon.
  
 
With a tractor and barn for their backdrop, and the hum of the motorway that wrapped itself around the trees that surrounded the farm as their soundtrack, it was a means to an end. They kept their heads down and worked on their game. They never lost their focus and though London 2012 was a stretch just a little too far, they had shot up the world rankings. Though they fell agonisingly short of qualifying for London 2012, their hard work still bore plenty of positive results. They went from unknown, rank outsiders rapidly climbing over 200 places from their lowly 350th ranking in 2009 to become a proposition teams were starting to be wary of. In 2008 they had joined the world tour circuit, pitting themselves against some of the world’s best, even going so far as beating the world number one pairing Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas of Brazil. In the face of constant funding challenges they’d organise fundraising events, held raffles, shipped in second hand clothing from Australia; they did whatever it took to raise their funds to continue their journey.   
 
In 2011, as the Olympics in London approached, all they wanted was qualification; just to be there. However, at Gold Coast 2018, they entered the competition as serious medal contenders. Their fortunes had changed dramatically in just a few years and, as Team Manager Debbie Masauvakalo reflects, the team of today is in stark contrast to the team she first took charge of.
 
“They’re more mature, they’re more experienced and more professional,” she says. “Now they know they can beat anyone on the day. They’re very resilient and persistent; when you’re persistently persistent at something you’re always going to get better at it.” 
 
The heartbreak of failing to make it to London made falling at the final hurdle on their quest for a place at Rio 2016 even tougher to swallow. Just weeks before the Games they found themselves in Sochi for the FIVB World Continental in Sochi, which acted as one final qualification tournament. Victories against Ukraine and Columbia had put them through to the quarter final, where a shock defeat to the Czech Republic in three sets, who then went on to beat top seeds China in the semi-final, brought their Olympic dream to an end. Narrowly, painfully missing out on the Rio 2016 Olympics hardened the duo; it toughened their resolve and amplified their determination to continue to grow and develop as players.
 
It was a moment that impacted upon the beach volleyball family as New Zealand’s Shaunna Polley reinforced.
 
“I felt so sorry for them I actually shed a tear.”
 
But they didn’t want sympathy, they wanted success. The Commonwealth Games then, was their golden chance and they were going to seize it with both hands. 
  
“I think missing out on Rio was a very good learning experience, what we went through was very hard but we were able to get back up again and be here today. It didn’t make us stop playing; it just made us stronger mentally and want it more,” remembers Debbie.
 
And now, they arrive at their first major Games with high expectations of themselves, which speaks volumes of just how far they’ve come in such little time.
 
 “For these games,” the manager tells us with confidence, “is to win a medal.”
 
Speaking before the Games, the New Zealand team of Kelsie Wills and Shaunna Polley – ranked 34th in the world – identified Vanuatu as one of the best teams in the pools. After their match against them, they were quick to praise their performance.
 
Says Wills: “Vanuatu have been a top world tour team so we’re just really happy to come out and get a good result against them. Our previous games have challenged us here and defensively they gave us limited attacking options which really forced us to up our game.” 
 
Their story is inspiring, of that there is no question. Were a Hollywood producer to look at their lives, they’d see a timeline dramatised and coloured by plot twists, challenges to overcome and dogged heroism – a scriptwriter’s goldmine. In reality this ‘film’ would come to a wonderful crescendo at the 21st Commonwealth Games where beach volleyball was making its inaugural debut. However, as inspiring their story may be, what is even better still is the legacy for women and sport they have forged through everything they’ve done; while they get the glory of having a bronze medal draped around their necks, it is the symbolism and power of change that their victory heralds that is most important here. During their journey from nowhere to Commonwealth medallists they learnt to understand that, while valuing and maintaining their own culture and traditions, they had to embrace other cultures as part of the sport.  They still face the financial challenges – “to continue after these Commonwealth Games we’re going to have to find a sponsor,” says Masauvakalo.From the shadows, they had earned their place in the spotlight. Juggling parenthood with training and competition, they emerged on the world’s competitive stage.  And so, while their sporting achievements are historical, it is the manner of the journey that has got them to this stage that will mean more to the happy islands of home than the medal triumph itself. 
 
Back in 2011, as their adventure was only in its infancy, and when their ascent was only modestly gaining momentum, their eyes were already casting towards the future, after their own story was over. This isn’t just about personal glory; this is about sculpting longevity, a legacy to leave their mark on the island that will benefit generations to come. The now-famous pair, smiling, under the stadium spotlights of Coolangatta tell us that they now have their sights set on qualifying for Tokyo 2020. They are also putting further focus and investment into creating a lineage that will last long after their retirement. In the little village of Mele, there is an established youth development programme, now in its seventh year, to get more young women playing volleyball, with the aim of making sure Pata and Matauatu will not be the nation’s only successful women’s volleyball team. Instead, they could very well be the first of many.



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