FIJI'S under-19 women's basketball skipper Grace Taito recalls fond memories of her recent tour to Australia. Taito led the U19 women's national team to retain their FIBA Oceania Youth Basketball bronze medal in Melbourne, Australia earlier this month. Fiji lost to Australia and New Zealand but defeated Guam in the bronze-medal play-off to return with something in the bag for Christmas. In a Question and Answer interview with Times Sport, the 18-year old shares some of the team's off-field experience during the tour at Down Under.
Times Sport: What was on your mind when you left Nadi International Airport last month?
Taito: There were many things that were buzzing my mind but one thing in particular was reminding myself that I was the captain and that I needed to lead by example.
I should be the one to help the rest of my teammates achieve the best we can together.
TS: What was the experience of being captain like?
Taito: It was an honour and a humbling experience. I got to know each of my girls, I developed a love for them and it gave me the strength to pull them through because I trusted them and I knew that they trusted me.
TS: The off-field experience?
Taito: Off-field? The entire tournament was hectic, off and on court, in the sense that there was really no free time. We had HIV awareness programs, team building programs, anti-doping awareness, team practice sessions and recovery programs that helped the coaches plan better programs for the upcoming teams. All these sessions gave us a better plan of what to do to improve the training and preparation systems here in Fiji.
TS: What was the mood of the players before they departed Nadi and also when they returned?
Taito: They were all excited. I mean who wouldn't. Some of the players were setting foot out of Fiji for the first time and what made it even better was that they were doing it for Fiji. You could sense the excitement just by looking at them.
Returning home was even better. I mean we set out not knowing what we would expect but coming back with medals around our necks was something worth showing off. It isn't silver or gold but it is the start to attaining the highest.
It was really amazing to see family and friends greeting us at the gates. That is exactly why we worked hard at home and on court.
TS: Did the team have any support from the Fijian community in Australia?
Taito: The support was amazing. Families came to watch us. Fly our Fiji flag in a foreign country, cheer us on. Some even welcomed us upon arrival and said goodbye upon departure.
They fed us on the three days after the tournament while waiting to return. They took care of us and we will forever be grateful for their love and hospitality.
TS: Is there anything special that happened which you will cherish throughout your career?
Taito: The times I got to spend with the girls that didn't involve basketball at all. Having lunch, sharing experiences and secrets, talking about our families and relationships, laughing in the rooms, crying when things got hard, even when we were doing the most disgusting things.
They have become my sisters and that is one bond I never want to lose.
TS: How much fun did you have on the trip?
Taito: There were so many funny experiences and it is hard to be specific. One afternoon the girls were having lunch in our cabin and they were just telling stories. It went to the extent where we included our coach. That was the first time where we all got to laugh, coach included.
It may not seem funny but just watching the girls enjoy themselves with our coach included made all the sweat, stress and tears all worth it.
TS: What is your advice to the next bunch of U19 girls that would compete in the next Oceania Youth event?
Taito: Train and prepare yourselves now. Representing Fiji isn't all for show. It's about hard-work because when you do put on that vest you not only represent yourself, but your families, the entire team, your coaches and managers and the nation as a whole.
Trust your coach, because he or she knows far more than you can possibly imagine, and put all the effort into becoming a better player and a better team contributor.
Above all, trust in the Lord and give Him the praise that he deserves because He will help you during times when you will want to give up.