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Fiji Friendship fuels powerhouse para-athletics performances

ABC – Aaron Kearney

One suffered such horrific injuries he should never have survived.

The other was too shy to come to training.

But Fiji’s new para-athletic aces have found strength in unity and are now aiming for the stars.

Iosefo Rakesa is clearly emotional as the medal is placed around his neck, but no more so than his close friend Leslie Tikotikoca, a familiar, beaming face amongst the hordes of cheering fans.

“He was really a shy boy,” Leslie says, nostalgically.
“He didn’t really get along.
“When we called him to train, he usually came up with excuses.
“But through sport, you can tell he has changed.
“He has changed as a man.
“He is no more a boy, he has really grown up.”

But there is much more change ahead, because Iosefo now has a Pacific Mini Games para-athletics javelin silver medal.

Teammates hug him, competitors shake his hand and the fans in a packed grandstand clap and cheer.

He appears equal parts delighted and bewildered.

Leslie finishes outside the medals, notching a new personal best.

But everything about this experience has been a new personal best for them both.

“It has really given us confidence and courage to use our abilities instead of staying home and thinking about our disabilities.

“It has totally improved our lives – in the sense of confidence, getting around, knowing people.”

Iosefo still can’t believe that a few javelin lessons from his “cousin’s brother”, would lead to adoration on the international stage.

“I liked it immediately,” the 21-year-old, who was born with dwarfism, says.
“It’s opened doors.
“Now, there will be some feasting and singing.”

Emotions were already high before the first javelin throw in Port Vila.

Fifteen years before competing in the Vanuatu Mini Games, Leslie suffered horrific injuries after stepping on a fallen power line.

Then 13, his leg was so badly damaged, it had to be amputated.

The promising rugby player was in a coma for a week, couldn’t talk and suffered memory loss, heart damage and severe skull and cheekbone damage.

Simply standing, let alone competing in international athletics, seemed impossible.

“Here I am standing.”

And thriving, thanks to the support of family and friends, changing attitudes in Fijian society and the Australian aid-supported Fijian para-athletics program.

Despite his remarkable recovery, he too, finds the grandeur of international competition daunting.

“It’s still really new to come to a competition with other para-athletes,” Leslie says.
“It’s really opened my eyes to how this competition is.
“It has awakened something in my mind to go back home and train harder for the future.”

Leslie wants more – for himself, and others.

 

Iosefo, for one, is out of his shell for good and won’t need to be enticed to training in the future.

He has a two-word plan for hurling himself, and the javelin, to new heights.
“Paralympics 2020,” he grins.

Don’t be surprised if his ‘brother’ Leslie is a face in the crowd, or perhaps even standing alongside him on the winners’ dais.

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.