There are many stories at the Olympic Games that lay bare tales of sacrifice of athletes who put their lives into achieving their dreams in their quest to become sporting legends.
This is one of those stories, but it is also so much more. It’s a story of determination and drive, and one that ultimately changed the status quo and inspired a nation.
Just one tournament stands between Vanuatu’s women’s beach volleyball team and a historic berth at the Olympic Games this summer at Tokyo 2020.
Since Vanuatu’s first appearance on the Olympic stage at Seoul 1988, they’ve sent a total of 31 athletes to the world’s premiere multi-sport event, but no team has ever qualified. That could all change if the pairings of Miller Pata/Sherysyn Toko and Loti Joe/Majabelle Lawac win the AVC Continental Cup Final set for 25-28 June 2021.
The journey to this moment has been 15 years in the making with Vanuatu Volleyball Federation president Debbie Masauvakalo as the driving force. After arriving as an Australian volunteer to Vanuatu in 2004, she quickly recognised the potential Vanuatu had in beach volleyball and worked to establish a national federation and a programme over the next two years.
“The National team programme commenced in 2006 - seeing the growth of the programme is incredibly rewarding, however for me, the aspect that resonates the loudest is seeing the personal growth of the girls,” Masauvakalo told Tokyo 2020.
“Over generations watching them become more confident [and] as time progressed, each new generation of player has an easier pathway to follow... this is a result of the people and players before them, having carved a way forward.
“And that is exactly what we wanted to achieve, not just [to have] champions and award-winning players, [but] we wanted to build a strong community in Vanuatu. That excites me, and that is how I measure our progress and success.”
It isn't the first time Vanuatu have come close to qualifying for the Olympics. After narrowly missing out on Rio 2016, for Miller Pata, who has been a long-standing player within the national team, there's still a chance to fulfill the Olympic dream.
“If I qualify it’s like my dreams have come true, it’s my dream,” said Pata, who was part of the Rio 2016 qualification campaign. “If we qualify for the first time it will be big things for us.”
Pioneers of the game
Since Pata started playing beach volleyball on Mota Lava (the fourth largest island) in 2006, she has become a leader and role model for the sport in Vanuatu.
For 14 years, she has represented Vanuatu in tournaments around the world, winning medals and awards like the World’s Most Inspirational Player on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour in 2015 and Vanuatu’s first-ever team medal (bronze) at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
In fact, the Commonwealth Games saw Pata and teammate Linline Matauatu – who has since retired – make global headlines after being dubbed the “Super Mums”. Pata had given birth to her second child, Tommy, just eight months before the tournament.
“Beach volley is wonderful,” Pata, who is also considered one of the foundations of the national team, said of her decision to continue playing for as long as she has. “It’s my sport, I enjoy it and it’s my job. It keeps me healthy and strong; I think those are the most important things.”
Throughout her time as a professional athlete, Pata has been breaking cultural norms by helping change views on women. The 32-year-old stepped out of the traditional role of being a mother and wife – something that can be hard to break in Vanuatu where traditional roles still play a large role – to enter the world of sports.
“As a mother, sometimes me and my husband used to argue a little bit but now he understands why I’m playing and involved in the sport, so now we’re good,” she laughed.
It’s not always easy – she agreed with her husband to keep the house in order with the help of her sister, who stays with children while Pata trains. But in doing this, the mother of two is helping lead the way for more women in Vanuatu to follow their dreams.
Pata has been an inspiration to a number of young beach volleyball athletes including Sherysyn Toko, Pata’s partner since late 2018 in Vanuatu's number one team. Since the age of 18 Tinny, as she is affectionately known, has been representing Vanuatu after initially switching from indoor volleyball at the suggestion of a friend.
“Miller is a role model in my eyes because I think she inspired us a lot,” Toko, who hails from Ambae Island said. “One thing she does is encourage us a lot and even when we are down, she helps us.
“Now we travel together and know each other well so I was really glad because we all know she’s the best player and I’ve learnt everything from her.
“She’s quiet and I was glad we got to work together. For me, I was glad other girls, when they see us, feel they want to become like us so that’s a good thing that can inspire them and now we see many children are coming over for our programme every Friday.”
The countdown is on
When speaking to Pata and Toko during their break from training in Port Vila, they still had over a month until the Continental Cup final.
“Yes…” laughed Toko when asked if she was excited about the upcoming qualifier. “Our families might be a little afraid because of COVID-19 and are worried about that but we also want to take part in the competition so it’s important for us.
“I think we have to support each other when we go.”
Pata echoed Toko's words, saying: “For me it’s the same as Tinny. We have to be strong and work together to support each other so we can go to the competition. These are very important things for us to do because that’s our last qualification.”
The countdown clock was reset after defeating New Zealand’s Francesca Kirwan/ Olivia MacDonald and Julia Tilley/Shaunna Polley in a “golden decider” at the Asian Continental Cup's Oceania Qualifier in March 2020. In a best of three, Pata and Toko won the first match before their Kiwi counterparts forced a "golden match" after defeating Matauatu and Joe. It was then back to Pata and Toko to secure Vanuatu's path to the Continent Cup final.
With their spot secured for the final stages of Olympic qualification, which was originally scheduled for June 2020, every opportunity Vanuatu had to hit the court until then was important. The team were set to fly to Australia for an FIVB World Tour event with plans to return to Vanuatu for six weeks before looking at tournaments in Europe in May.
But with tournaments already being cancelled across Europe due to the pandemic it was all up in the air.
In fact, just a day after their victory against New Zealand, the event in Australia was postponed before everything came to a halt as all subsequent FIVB and AVC events were cancelled.
In Vanuatu, after a brief state of emergency that saw the players training while in isolation and being restricted to their homes and local communities, the national team members were able to train together throughout the remainder of 2020. And while the road to Tokyo became a little longer, the disruptions didn’t disrupt their plans.
“We’ve been training hard during COVID-19 and we are prepared,” said Pata.
Late last year, after the departure of Michael Bargmann, who had been with the national team for the past 18 months, the Vanuatu Volleyball Federation were able to secure the appointment of former Italian international Federica Tonon with support from FIVB’s coaching support programmes.
After arriving in the South Pacific in early March and undertaking two weeks of quarantine, Tonon got to work right away.
“We are very happy she is here with us,” Toko said of the former team manager of Italy’s U20s. “She helps us a lot and I think it’s better she’s staying with us so she can give us drills and help us to be strong. I think she’s very good.”
“I’m glad Federica is here with us because we didn’t have a full-time coach with us,” Pata explained, talking about the departure of Bargmann. “We are really happy, and we are glad that she is training with us a lot to make us stronger.”
While the World Tour returned to play in June 2020, Pata and Toko have not been able to compete internationally since March last year and currently don’t have plans to participate in events ahead of the Continental Cup Final, which will be held in Nakon Pathom, Thailand.
But it doesn’t mean they haven’t been able to compete.
“So we can play against the boys, which will help us compete against other countries. I think it’s better to have competition against the boys, it’s a challenge,” said Pata.
And of course, they win too.
It’s more than a sport, it’s a community
Every time Vanuatu’s National Women’s Beach Volleyball team take to the court, they represent a population of just under 300,000 and wear their national colours with pride.
However, it’s also what they do away from the international stage that helps to grow and develop the sport back in their home nation.
With the team active in the community, they participate in games with children and after-school sessions, along with the national federation's strong community programmes including Volleyball4Change, which has received recognition from the International Olympic Committee. This is the reason it isn’t hard to see why beach volleyball has a strong sense of community in Vanuatu.
“The work that has been done by the players leading the way, it has given the next generation the opportunity to excel in life and on the court,” said Masauvakalo. “The pathway for the players is clearer, so they can dream big because they can see what is in front of them.
“I’m confident our teams can keep inspiring the next generation, we already have a strong pikinini (children) afternoon here at our headquarters where over 200 children join us to train and play.”
This past April the team were in Tanna Island, a 45-minute flight from Port Vila. During their visit to a village in an area called Sulphur Bay, children greeted the players along with the chief and pastor, who is very passionate about beach volleyball.
After playing with the children and having an exhibition match, they left the village but not without leaving their volleyballs and the spirit of the sport with the locals.
And with one eye on the future, something bigger than just having the chance to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is brewing for Vanuatu's beach volleyball team.
The Vanuatu Volleyball Federation’s ambitions to make a difference serves as a message of inspiration that bodes well for the future of the sport.
“Who knows, if we qualify for Tokyo and come home with a medal, we might need more sand beach courts in Vanuatu to keep up with the demand,” said Masauvakalo.
Vanuatu will head to Thailand for the Final of the AVC Beach Volleyball Continental Cup from 25-28 June with the winners qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.