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Niko changes track spikes for rugby studs

Sera Whippy
Monday, April 12, 2010

Whenever one hears the name Niko Verekauta, the first image that pops up in our minds is that of a slim, young boy burning up the tracks and leaving a huge margin behind him and his adversaries.

Wouldn't you agree?

Everyone starts somewhere and Verekauta started off with his athletics when he was a Class Three student at Suva Methodist Primary School.

From the beginning he was always gold bound. The eight-year-old ran in the 50m and 75m Under-9 grade and won the gold medal. This was back in 1995.

The next year he won a gold medal in the 75m again and in the relay. 1997 was the same.

At 11 and in Class Six, Verekauta won gold in the 100m and in the 4x100m relay.

The next year schools began to recognise the potential this young boy had and he was transferred to Suva Primary School and in the 1999 Games, he won his new school a gold medal in the 200m and silver in the 100m.

"I was supposed to go to Dudley but then the Suva One schools wanted to keep me in their area so I was transferred to Suva Primary because there seemed to be more competition," said Verekauta.

The Kadavu lad, from Nabukelevu-i-ra village has two sisters and a yong brother. He is the oldest and is followed by his sister, Kalesi who won the FASANOC sportsperson personality competition to travel to New Zealand. His sister Elenoa is the third child and then his youngest brother Ratu Josefa. His mum hails from Nadaro Village in Tailevu.

Verekauta has lived most of his life in Lami where he was born and raised.

From the beginning, Verekauta was on a path to a sensational future, but his rise to fame was dulled because of the political upheaval of the 2000 coup where there was an abrupt stop in everything.

Like every other young aspiring child, Verekauta had no patience to wait around for athletics to start rolling so he turned to the best sport every Fijian boy is crazy about, rugby.

From 2001 to 2004 he played for the Suva Grammar rugby team where he found his calling in the sport. He even went as far as getting into the Digicel training squad for the Dubai and George Sevens in 2008.

However, back to his high school days Verekauta would not even consider getting back into athletics until when in Form Six, his rugby coach said that in order to make to a rugby New Zealand school tour, the boys were to first participate in the Coke Games.

"I only joined the athletics team because I wanted real badly to go for the New Zealand tour and since that was our requirement, I went along with it," said Verekauta.

Verekauta has not looked back from athletics since.

His athletics career

Verekauta attended high school; he was swept away by the constant rugby tides that Suva Grammar rolled upon. Athletics was at that time a non-entity to the young boy, however after the request made by their coach, Fala Wainiqolo and Ilikimi Kunagogo, Verekauta had no other choice but to return to the tracks in what was a turning point in his life.

"I told myself that I would be part of the squad that went on the New Zealand tour. And when our coach said that we had to join the athletics team, I just did it for the fun of it and because I badly wanted to go to New Zealand," said Verekauta.

This was back in 2004.

However, a much deeper reason resides behind his switching back to athletics and that is that his grandfather had requested him to return to the tracks.

"My grandfather said that if I had stuck to athletics I would have made it to the national squad but when it was only when I was in Form Six that I set foot on the track again and it felt great," said Verekauta.

It looks like his grandfather was right all along. It is amazing how the elderly seem to know a lot of things and are almost always correct, especially when it comes to reading human behaviour.

After a few weeks of training, Verekauta was back in great form and then the Coke Games came. He snatched gold in the 200m and 400m and his relay team won silver.

"I was very happy and honoured. After the games we took off on our tour to New Zealand. We played against Wesley College, St. Kentigern College and Mount Roskill Grammar College."

The tour was for two weeks.

The next year, 2005, after being recognised for his athletic potentials, Verekauta again represented his school at the Coke Games where he again won gold in the 400m and in the 4x100m relay. Not only did he win gold but he also broke the senior boys 400m record.

The 18-year-old was on fire. He took off to Palau for the Mini South Pacific Games and won the country a silver in the 400m and gold in the 4x400m.

Verekauta would return to Fiji after representing the country to play rugby for the Suva Grammar team. This was during the off-seasons of athletics. Verekauta was a part of the rugby team from his first year in Suva Grammar and never left the team until his athletics took off.

"I love rugby and I hope one day to make it to the Fiji squad," he said.

In 2001 his team won the Under-14 title but in 2002 they lost in the final to Marist Brothers High in the U15 category. And in 2003-04 their team fell to the might of the Lelean ruggers. However these losses never dampened Verekauta's spirit to play rugby.

By 2005 he was already knee-deep in athletics that he had to make very difficult choices. He had to choose between the game he loved or an athletic future.

At this time Verekauta and his friend and fellow athlete Iliesa Namosima-lua were practically the talk of the town.

In 2006 he finished fifth in the 400m at the Commonwealth Games in Sydney which was also the World Junior Qualifying Championships and clocked a best time of 46.22sec for the event.

And then in 2007, he was surprised when he was awarded a scholarship to attend the High Perform-ance Centre in Auckland, New Zealand.

Verekauta won gold in 200m and 400m events during the 2007 Pacific Games in Samoa after he returned from his Europe tour where he raced alongside some of the world's best athletes.

He won the Belgium National Title for the 400m and came second in the A-League competition where he ran 300m. He made a personal best time of 32.54 seconds.

He flew to Lille, France where came second in his heats for the 400m race. He returned to Liege, Belgium and won gold in the 400m.

From the huge European continent, Verekauta travelled half-way across the globe to represent his beloved country in the SPG which was being held in Samoa. He grabbed gold in the 200m, 400m, 4x100m and 4x400m relays. This was in September.

He made a new personal best of 21.26s. And he won the men's 100m race there in 10.82s.

"Competition was getting tougher," he said.

"I still had a good chance of qualifying but have not ruled out qualifying in the 200m as well," he said.

His next event was the 400m race in Waitakere, Auckland.

The IOC Olympic Scholarship recipient trained under Marlon Devart at the High Performance Training Centre (HPTC) in Auckland.

Verekauta was up against New Zealand's Olympic qualifier James Dolphin and fellow scholarship holder Jeffery Tuma in the 200m.

Verekauta was part of the Pacific All Stars team that took part in Canberra alongside scholarship reci-pient Makelesi Bulikiobo and Namosimalua.

In 2008, he took off to Australia where he raced at the Australian Champion-ships in March. He won silver in the 200m and 400m. And again he accompanied his HPTC squad to Europe in June for the Belgium Championship where he took silver in the 400m sprint.

The Auckland-based spr-inter had set a personal target to become the first Pacific Island athlete to run the 200m in under 21 seconds.

The former Suva Grammar School track star set a new national record of 21.05s in the 200m at the Capital Classic held on Waitangi Day (New Zealand's national day) in Wellington.

And last year, Verekauta was transferred to the newly-established Oceania Athletics Association High Performance Training Centre on the Gold Coast after a lay off since attending the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Verekauta was to continue with his Olympic Solidarity Scholarship and train at the High Performance Training Centre through 2009 and 2010 with the hope of looking forward to the London Olympics in 2012.

Verekauta teamed up with the 1984 Olympics Games heptathlon gold medallist Glynis Nunn Cearns.

Glynis, herself the Olympic gold medalist in the Heptathlon at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, had a squad of young talented athletes, including Australian World Youth competitor Alex Beck.

Verekauta was selected by FASANOC to represent Fiji in the Beijing Olympics making it the third time Verekauta will compete in the Chinese capital. He ran a season best and a personal best time of 46.32 seconds.

The soft-spoken lad shattered a 10-year-old 200m record of 21.36s set by Soloveni Koroi in 1998 at the Mini South Pacific Games.

The 22-year-old's career had been significantly boosted by training with top athletics coaches in New Zealand and Australia. He participated at two IAAF World Champion-ships.

His new time of 21.33 seconds edged him closer to the qualifying time for the next Olympics. Verekauta's other gold medals came from the 100m, 400m, 4x100m and 4x400m relays.

Now, 23-year-old is FASANOC's Sports Personality of the year, but instead of athletics, Verekauta has other things on his mind.

A change of speed

Verekauta is bound to break many hearts in Fiji

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