Humans Of The Islands - Pita Taufatofua
Tongan / Australian
My mother's Australian/British. My father's from Ha'apai and Vava'u in Tonga. There's seven of us, but one of my sisters passed away from Cancer when I was about 4 or 5. I'm the 3rd eldest.
I still have memories of it. I still remember the day we had her funeral. At that age I felt the sadness from everyone else around. Because I was so young I didn't have a full grasp of what death was. But what I do remember was the sadness of the people around me, my family and everyone else. She was a student at Queen Salote college at the time, she was only 12.
So you were living in Tonga?
Yes, I was born in Australia but we moved back to Tonga when I was a baby. What most people don't realize is that I did a lot of my growing up in Tonga. Every Saturday I was out on the farm pulling kasava out of the ground, I went to Tonga side school and then Tonga High School. I got a hiding by the Teachers and by my parents the same as everyone else. I had the full experience of the island life. We all lived in a one bedroom house - and there were 9 of us living in that house for years. We were a very poor family.
So how did you end up back in Australia?
My father was studying - I don't know how he managed to do it - but he came from one of the smaller islands called Kotu in Ha'apai, he ended up going across to Australia in the sixties and that's where he got his degree and met my Mother. He eventually went on to get his PHD in Agricultural Science - Growing Kumala in limited water conditions (Kumara/Sweet potato) was his PhD topic. His plan was to go back and help Tonga and that's how we moved back - he ended up working in the Government research farm and he did that for close to 40 years.
The struggles you faced in your upbringing - is that a big part of the motivation behind your success?
It is. It's actually something I'm reallly proud of because it's my family and its what they've accomplished. My father got his PhD from an Australian University and he came from a very poor background. My father's goal was to put all of us through University and to get the highest level of education that we could. You know, growing up I remember we were struggling, we didn't have much. Because we didn't really have material things, he decided his best gift for us was to invest in our education. Even though my parents were poor they managed to get us and themselves through university with 10 degrees, 2 P.H.D's and 3 Masters between us. The youngest, JT was the last of us to get through and all the pressure was on him. He's the genius in our family - he graduated with a dual degree in Mechatronics Engineering and Physics, 1st class honours. I'm very proud of my family.
Can you share a bit about your own journey towards your success?
I did Engineering at University and have almost finished my Masters. I've also been working in Youth Homelessness since I was 18. I am a Youth counsellor working with underprivliged, marginalized, disadvantaged kids. In hindsight, the struggles I went through gave me strength to try and help other people - who in turn, taught me more. The difference in age between me and some of the clients I was taking on at the time was sometimes a year or two. I was trying to give them life experience at 18 which i didn't quite have myself. But through this I learnt a lot.
I remember growing up in Tonga side school and Tonga high school and playing rugby. Jonah Lomu was a big name at the time and I remember going to training 4 years in a row. I didn't miss a single training session, not once. And for 4 years I went to every training and every game - and not once did I ever get put on the field. Not a single game. Each time I thought "oh, it'll be next week. It'll be next week." And each year we had a different coach but I still never got a game. So I learnt quite quickly how stubborn and resilient I was when it came to not quitting. I was a bit of a naughty kid, I wanted things my way so with Youth work -it helped me learn from other people and different problems in the world. It changed my life for the better!
Did you ever experience any racial prejudice in Tonga - being fairer skinned?
At times, yes. I was physically small and people were trying to bully me. And through the fact that your lighter skinned than everyone else, it sometimes made me a target. There's this misconception - people look at you, they know your name's Tongan and they know your fa'e palagi - you know your mother's a palagi so they think 'oh, you're palagi'. And I was much smaller than everyone else - I hadn't hit my taro growth yet. But mentally in my head I was like "I'm Jonah Lomu, I've got this." The amazing thing about Tongans is you can have a fight with someone and then you'll be hugging and crying 5 minutes later. I was small so I got targeted by some of the other bigger kids. Everyone that went to school - most of us were bullied by the older bigger kids, it's school culture. They were bullies and then they were still your friends the next day (laughs). It was character building.
What are some other things you remember about the hardships you experienced?
A lot of people look at me and there's an assumption straight away that we had privilege or we had access to things. We used to get 20 cents a week, that was our special lunch money and back then you could buy an ice block which was cordial in a plastic bag - they still do it now as well. If you saved up for 2 and a half weeks - you could get a 50cents egg burger. Lunch was bread and butter - which a lot of other people had. In Tonga there's a word called 'paki' which means to break and share. So you'd pull out your sandwhich and it would just go (people breaking off a piece) and then you'd end up with this little corner of a sandwhich. And that was year after year. It didn't feel unique at the time - it was just, that was just what life was. It was nothing sad - and it was the normal for other people. We didn't see it as tough times because it was normal.
What are some of the core values that shape who you are now?
I've never drunk a glass, a bottle or a shot of alcohol in my entire life. Never. I've never smoked a cigarette. I've never taken any form of drugs. A lot of people think 'oh you must be boring to be around' and then they see my facebook and see that I've travelled the world and have done some very interesting things in my life. One of my core values is keeping the body the temple - looking after yourself and realizing you can get things like confidence, happiness and excitement - without using any of those things.
I can go out to a club and have an absolutely amazing time without using anything. I think it's really important as Islanders that we look after ourselves - we have incidents of diabetes and heart disease ... and I think it's important that we all have a good understanding of what our body needs and what's good for us.
One of my other values is that I'm a strong Christian. If I didn't have faith, If you didn't believe in something that was greater than yourself than we'd give up so much easier than we should. It's so important. I couldn't have done this without my faith.
You also have a modelling career?
(laughs) Yes I've been modelling since I was 18. I love it. I enjoy it - it's fun. You'd be surprised at the amount of insecurity you see from people who you would think would be the most secure people. You get exposed to that a lot - everyone has their own things they're dealing with. People will always be people. We've all got our fears and insecurities and strengths and weaknesses. You don't have to be the best looking person but I enjoy making people feel good about themselves.
You mentioned there were a lot tests and trials during your Taekwondo journey - which spans 20 years. All those years and now you've finally made it to the Olympics! How did it all start?
In 2003 we had the South Pacific games in Fiji. I had invited my parents - I was asked to fight for Tonga in the Heavyweight division. I was 19 in 2003 and it was my parents first time watching me compete. I was so excited and as we came to do the weigh in - one of the members (who's no longer a member now) came and said 'my son's here from America, you're not fighting. He's going in the Heavyweight division.' I was devastated. My parents had flown all the way to come and watch me and I had taken time off University to fly in. A year later, it was an Olympic Qualifiying year but Tonga had no money to send me to the Qualifier in Thailand. So that was another disappointment. I said to them, "we're going to make it to the Olympics" .... that was 13 years ago.
I went through to the 2008 Olympic Qualifier - I went to New Caledonia and made it through to the final against New Zealand. I was up 1 point, and unfortunately I fractured a bone in one foot and sprained my ankle. I had this huge orange sized lump on my foot. Because I felt the pressure of being a National representative I just decided that I was going to keep fighting. I fought another 2 rounds until a point where it actually burst. The cost was that instead of going to the Olympics in 2008, I was in hospital and Paul (my coach) wheeled me in a wheelchair onto the plane the next day. I couldn't walk for 6 months.
Did you regret fighting after your injury?
I don't have any regrets - I believe all these things I went through made me who I am, they made me stronger People don't realize that after we have a shot, we have to wait another 4 years to get another shot at the Olympics And we don't get younger. So I worked hard to save money so I could go and train with the best in Korea. I invited Paul as well (my coach) and we slept in a pre-school for 6 months, we'd have to wake up at 4 in the morning and pack our bags before the kids would come in. It was a church pre-school but it was connected to our Master. It was uncomforatble as anything.
We went through to the world qualifying tournament in Azerbaijan. I ended up fighting against a European champion and I got injured again. I tore my PCL ligament in my 1st round. I kept fighting - that wasn't the smartest thing to do. I felt like "I can't lose to this guy" but had I stopped, I would've had another shot at the Oceania qualifier. I ended up back in Korea with a torn knee ligament.
I went back to Australia for treatment. I had to fight 8 weeks after that - but a torn knee ligament is a 6month injury. But I wanted to do it, because I didn't want to wait another 4 years. I went to the Oceania qualifier, made it through to the final again. This time I went up against a friend of mine - Kaino from Samoa, he's an amazing athlete. I could only fight with 1 leg. It was a close fight and he took over in the 3rd round with a headkick. After that, I couldn't walk for another 2-3 months.
Then I waited another 4 years - and that brings us to 2016. There was a lot of self-development during the period leading up to this year. We went to Papua New Guinea. Everything was self-funded throughout this journey. I was working full time during the whole period of training. We struggled with certain issues of finance but we managed to get given a ticket to PNG and we were very happy with that. We went there and made it through to the final. It was what we called a golden point. Our scores were 2 all. I was against a guy from New Zealand who had beaten me twice before. Golden point means we had to go through to an extra round and whoever got the next point - that was it.
Paul just knew what to say. He said to me "If you want it, you're going to get it." I said "this is mine." The funny thing is I don't even remember throwing the kick that won the point. Two different coaches saw it differently - one saw a backfoot roundhouse, I thought I didn't throw a kick at all - and when we looked at the video it was actually a front foot roundhouse. I just remember looking up at the board and seeing Tonga :1 - NZ :0.
Twenty years of struggle.
I didn't quite realise till I looked at the screen and then I looked at Paul and he was jumping up and down screaming.
And then I lost it.
We jumped and we hugged everyone we could find. We were crying and laughing. It was just this feeling of relief and joy.
As a kid I waited on the side of the road when the boxer Paea Wolfgram had come back from the Olympics with his silver medal. There was a procession in Tonga - I held the letter P - I was one of those little kids holding up the letters of his name while he passed by us on a float.
That's where the dream started for me, for all of us. Twenty years from the inception of the dream to now, and we've finally made it to the Olympics. It was a lifetime of pain and struggle but it was worth every moment, I am an Olympian.
By Indira Stewart