Many things have been said about the Athletics Fiji team to the Pacific Mini Games in Vanuatu. “Youngest team ever fielded”, “immature”, “under the radar”, “the most well prepared team” etc. partly due to the teams’ “lack of focus” as being observed by coaches. Initially I too was easily swayed by these comments made but after spending the first few days in Vanuatu with the team and getting to know them on an individual level during the one on one sessions I would have with them during meal times or just in the rooms, I came to the conclusion that it was their own unique way of dealing with the pressure of having to represent Fiji for the first time. This conclusion was evidently backed up by the sheer laser like focus you’d see in the athletes’ once they’d put on their competition wear or track spikes.
In the lead up to the games, the team spent one week, prior to departure, training on the tracks in Lautoka as the weather simulated conditions that the team would face in Vanuatu, in addition the new tracks at Korman Stadium had the exact specifications to that of the Churchill Park tracks, down to the track type and material.
Avikash Lal kicked things off for the team with the 10km final at 6am Monday morning and despite having the fastest time in the Pacific, Avikash finished 4th in a time of 35mins 07.06s, 2mins slower than his season’s best which he clocked at the Oceania Area Championships in Suva mid-year, the same season’s best would have seen him win the 10km final if it weren’t for the scorching Vanuatu sun and high humidity in the early hours of the morning that led to his dehydration in the latter part of the race. But it wouldn’t be Avikash to face the intensifying conditions alone as Petero Veitaqomaki took to the tracks in the final of the Men’s 800m mid-day and despite a poorly executed plan, Petero finished 3rd in a personal best time of 1min 57.12s behind Alex Beddoes of Cook Islands (1st, 1min 54.77s) and Martin Orovo of PNG (2nd, 1min 55.77s). Speaking with Veitaqomaki post-race, he had mentioned that if only he had moved with the pack of runners to begin with then he would have been able to out kick them in the final 150m of the race. It was a learning experience and a mistake that he would never want to repeat especially at a regional competition like the Pacific Games. Also up on the track were the Men’s and Women’s 100m heats where Fiji was represented by nationally ranked Aaron Powell (No. 1), Tony Lemeki (No. 5), Kolinio Radrudru (No. 3) and Makereta Naulu (No. 2). Naulu finished 2nd in her heat behind Pacific sprint queen Toea Wisil in a season’s best of 12.04s advancing her to the finals the next day. On the other hand, all three men qualified for the semi-finals later in the afternoon with Powell and Radrudru advancing out of their semifinals into the finals to be contested the next day with Powell clocking the 2nd fastest time, a legal 10.77s and looked to be the one to beat after having shut down about 10m from the finish line.
Simultaneously on the infield, Asinate Kasowaqa, Sovaia Vusona and Miriama Senokonoko were up against the might of PNG’s Rellie Kaputin, Annie Topal and Adrine Monagi in the final of the Women’s Long Jump. Of the 3 Fiji jumpers it would be the Levuka Public youngster, Sovaia Vusona who looked to spoil the 1, 2 and 3 finish of the PNG girls with her 5.56m leap in the 2nd round that would see to her claiming the bronze medal. However Adrine Monagi had the final say when she snatched the bronze medal away from Sovaia’s grasp with a last round leap of 5.59m. In the Men’s Javelin final, Samoa’s Donny Tuimaseve’s first round throw of 63.73m was enough to lead the field and claim gold but was under threat in the 3rd round when Fiji’s Pita Tamani hurled the spear 62.15m which was good enough for 2nd place, a pretty low result to claim first and second considering the absence of the mighty Leslie Copeland. Another 2 Fiji representatives in the spear event was Leslie Tikotikoca and Iosefo Rakesa in the Open Men’s Ambulant Javelin. Based on classification points, Iosefo Rakesa scored 70.51 points to win the silver medal ahead of Manako Aveuki of Wallis and Futuna. The other field event final of the first day was the Open Men’s High Jump final where Malakai Kaiwalu failed to disappoint after his recent success in the Melanesian Championships in 2016 and the Oceania Area Championships earlier in the year. Mala cleared the bar at 2.06m on his second attempt while close competitor, Peniel Richard of PNG failed to clear that height. The bar was then moved up to 2.09m which he failed to clear however he was content with his 2.06m to claim gold.
Just like day 1, Avikash lead the charge on day 2 with the 5k final and looked to be in much better shape than he was in the 10km. However despite taking the lead for the most part of the race, Avikash had no response to Simbai Kaspar’s last 150m final sprint and settled for 2nd place in a time of 16mins 07.56s. The stage was set for a cracker of a final in the Men’s 100m final where no athlete had showed dominance in the qualification stages with the absence of Samoa’s Jeremy Dodson, however all eyes were on Oceania Area Championship silver medalist Nazmie Lee Marai from PNG but it would be Fiji’s Aaron Powell with his lightening start to stun the field when he shot out of the blocks, accelerated to a slight 3 step advantage over Samoa’s Kelvin Masoe and took control of the last 50m with his quick powerful turnovers and stopping the clock at 10.77s. Not to be outdone, Nazmie Lee Marai left it too late to turn on the after burners in the last 20m to claim 2nd by beating Kelvin Masoe by 0.04s. Shortly after, the battle for the fastest pacific woman was to be decided between former training partners Patricia Taea (Cook Islands) and Toea Wisil (PNG) with the inclusion of nationally ranked Makereta Naulu (No. 2). Facing a slight head wind of -1.3m/s, Toea Wisil blasted out of the blocks, left everyone else to battle it out for 2nd and 3rd, and finished in a time of 12.00s while Patricia Taea finished in 2nd in a time of 12.03s and Fiji’s Naulu settled for 3rd place in a time of 12.04s. It was at this point that news had surfaced about Aaron Powell being disqualified due to a break start and because of the lack of equipment the race could not be recalled.
The Fiji quarter milers were up next and with a weakened field in the Women’s 400m heats, Miriama Senokonoko and Elenani Tinai finished the heats 1 and 2 in a season’s best time of 57.99s and 58.26s respectively with Serenia Ragatu finishing off in a 7th place overall ranking in a time of 59.92s qualifying her for the final on day 3 as the fastest loser in her heat. It was a slightly varied result in the Men’s 400m heats with PNG’s Benjamin Aliel clocking an impressive 47.99s ahead of Sailosi Tubuilagi (49.18s) and Samuela Railoa (48.61s) and 8th place Kameli Sauduadua (50.79s) who also qualified for the final as the fastest loser in his heat.
In the field, Sireli Bulivorovoro had to settle of silver, in a jump of 7.00m behind PNG’s youngster Roland Hure (7.08m), due to an injury he sustained a week earlier. On the infield, Fiji giants’ Mustafa Fall and Setareki Matau were up against the might of Debono Paraka (PNG), Ryan Valao (Wallis and Futuna) and Erwan Cassier (New Caledonia). Fall settled for 4th place with a throw of 45.89m while Setareki Matau settled for 6th place with a throw of 39.34m.
Probably the major highlight for Team Fiji on the penultimate day of competition would be Miriama Senokonoko where, within the span of an hour, she managed 2 gold medals and 1 silver medal in the Women’s 400m final, 4x100m final and the Women’s Triple Jump final respectively. Her and Asinate Kasowaqa (4th, 11.23m) teamed up in the triple jump to challenge Rellie Kaputin and before the 4th round jump she was forced to change spikes after being called to the start of the Women’s 400m final where she breasted the tape in first place with a season’s best of 57.34s, 10m ahead of close rival Elenani Tinai (2nd, 57.90s). However she was not able to complete her last 3 attempts and settled for silver with a season’s and personal best of 12.46m that has moved her up to 2nd best female triple jumper in Fiji All-Time behind Milika Tuivanuavou. In the Men’s 400m final, Railoa (48.87s), Tubuilagi (49.59s) and Sauduadua (50.83s) finished 4th, 5th and 7th respectively behind PNG’s Benjamin Aliel (1st, 48.01s), Bradly Toa (2nd, 48.15s) of Vanuatu and Ephraim Lerking (3rd, 48.20s) of PNG. Half an hour later, Miri was back on the track teaming up with Ragatu, Elenoa Sailosi and Makereta Naulu in the Women’s 4x100m and despite failing to get the baton around during numerous training sessions, the lady flyers finally executed well with precise baton changes that allowed them to have a 5m lead on rivals PNG who had Toea Wisil on their anchor leg but still failed to catch the powerful Naulu.
Fiji would again have the last laugh as Lemeki, Bulivorovoro, Radrudru and Powell took to the track and just like the ladies they executed clean smooth baton passes however Powell had to make up for a 10m deficit after the PNG men too had clean changes all the way round. It was a nail biter of a race as officials took the electronic times down to the 100th of a second and awarded the gold to Fiji, much celebration in the Fiji camp after the disappointing decision yesterday to strip Powell off of his 100m gold.
The final day of Athletics competition was one mixed results and there to lead the charge of the day was Mustafa Fall (14.60m) and Eugene Vollmer (15.30m) in the Open Men’s Shot Put and Open Men’s Triple Jump finals respectively but both Mustafa and Vollmer only managed second place finishes. Due to a heavy down pour most of the track events had to be delayed but the soggy and wet conditions did not stop Coke Games’ High Jump sensation, Shawntell Lockington (1st, 1.70m) from dethroning PNG’s jump queen Rellie Kaputin (1.65m) in the final of the Women’s High Jump and winning her first ever regional gold medal, another Coke Games champ that, after a bronze medal on the first day in the 800m final, took everyone by surprise was Petero Veitaqomaki (4mins 19.10s) in the final of the Men’s 1500m. Petero sat in the back of the pack for the most part of the race and slowly worked his way up to 3rd place at the 300m mark of the final lap then at the very last 120m he kicked into gear and no other runner had the response to his final sprint down the straight away. Just like Senokonoko the day prior, 30mins later Petero was back on the track to run the 3rd leg of the Men’s 4x400m final with Sauduadua on the 1st leg, Sailosi Tubuilagi on the 2nd and Railoa at anchor (3mins 17.88s) but it just wasn’t meant to be as PNG’s Ephraim Lerkin powered past Railoa on the last 100m to claim gold making up for the gold lost in the Women’s 4x400m when Ragatu, Naulu, Senokonoko and Tinai (3mins 54.43s) proved too strong for PNG and Vanuatu. Team Fiji’s God Child Errol Qaqa would be the one to close off the day with his impressive 2nd place finish in a time of 15.21s in the Men’s 110m final and a rather dramatic whip of the head at the finish line which sent the team in frenzy.
Team Fiji finished 3rd on the Athletics medal tally with 7 gold medals, 10 silver medals, 4 bronze medals and a total medal haul of 21 medals. Team managers Maurice Erasito and Litia Senibulu expressed their gratitude at how the team handled pressure so well given that most of them were first timers. “Most of you are first timers, straight out of the coke games and you’re returning with medals. That’s impressive, I myself didn’t even win a medal on my first outing,” said head coach Jone Delai.
The team now have their sights on the Melanesian Championships in May of next year and the Pacific Games in 2019 in Samoa but for those who had made the training squad for the Commonwealth Games, Joseph Rodan Jnr has strongly advised them to continue training and to continue performing at competitions to solidify their spot on the team to the Gold Coast in April next year.
Click here, for full results and athletics medal tally.
Story by: Eugene Vollmer