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Fiji Time: 11:58 PM on Saturday 19 April

/ Front page / Sport

The ability to inspire

Arin Kumar
Friday, December 27, 2013

NEARLY everyone in Fiji now knows who Iliesa Delana is and what he has achieved. But not everyone knows the man behind Delana's success.

Meet Fred Fatiaki, the coach who helped an amputee win Fiji's and the region's first ever gold medal at the Paralympics.

Many would be surprised to know that Fred himself is a person living with a disability.

But, he did not let that disability restrict him from dreaming and achieving big.

Yes, he did face a lot of challenges to get to where he is but he did it by standing up to those challenges rather than giving up

The early years

Originally from Motusa in Rotuma, Fred was born a normal child. An accident when he was still a baby left him with a limp.

"I fell when I was around four or five months old," he said.

"So my growth was slow and when I was old enough to turn over, I would still be on my back and when the time came for me to walk, I would walk by tip-toeing on my right leg and with a bent back.

"But it was the acceptance of my family that made me feel like nothing was wrong with me.

"I was the firstborn and then I had four younger brothers.

"I went to Ba Special School first and then to Hilton Special School when my family moved to the Eastern Division.

"It was halfway in Class Three the teachers found out there was nothing wrong with my brain, just my body and that I could attend a mainstream school."

It was at the mainstream school that he faced his first obstacle.

"I went to Dilkusha Primary School and my first challenge was other students staring at me.

"So I asked my mother why they were staring and she told me it was because of the way I walked.

"And by Class Five I was accepted at school and was included in all activities including soccer.

"They made me goalkeeper because of my situation but I didn't mind. Actually I liked to play keeper because I would love to dive and save the ball."

Fatiaki went to attend Lelean Memorial School where he would fail his Fiji Junior Certificate Exam in Form Four.

It was then that he decided to quit school so that his younger brothers could go to school.

"It was hard to pay for school fees for five children so I told my parents not to worry about me because I wanted my younger brothers to get good education."

That sacrifice opened another door for Fatiaki to improve his life.

"It was in 1995 that doctors came from Hawaii and told my parents that they could operate on me and make me walk better than before.

"So we agreed and I went to Hawaii where they operated on my right leg muscles and on my left leg because it was on the left side that was getting pretty worse.

Fatiaki came back to Fiji in 1996 and went to his mother's village in Rewa to learn to walk again.

The lure of sports

He stayed in the village for over half a year to complete the recovery process.

"That was when Josefa Verevou, a disabled athlete, originally from Rewa, came back to the village.

"He asked me if I was into sports.

"My father's father, my namesake, Fred Mua Fatiaki was a cricketer and my mother's father, Jonetani Baba was a member of the Fiji 15s team that toured Australia in 1954.

"So sports was in my blood and I told him I loved sports but back then we had no idea what Paralympics was.

"So he encouraged me to take up sports and we had a table tennis table at home so I started playing table tennis.

"In 1999 I went on my first international tour as an para-athlete to Bangkok in Thailand.

"When I played, people stared but I didn't mind because I was used to people staring at me by then.

"After that I switched to track running and ran in the 100m and 200m events."

It was his stint on the tracks that caught the attention of former national sprints champion Albert Miller. Other coaches who were there were Bola Tafo'ou, Joji Liga, Henry Elder and Samu Yavala.

"Albert Miller told me about a coaching course and a staff of the Fiji Sports Council, Ifireimi Waqanibete, who I attended the same church with encouraged me to attend the course so I did but afterwards I continued training."

Fatiaki says competing in Para-sports made his self-esteem and self-belief stong. It taught him discipline and humility and he would have loved to continue competing.

The switch

But he decided to switch to fulltime coaching because he realised he would be able to make a better contribution from the sidelines.

"In 2005 I decided to become a fulltime coach because during my time as an athlete, we had no qualified disabled coaches.

"So I would know how to coach disabled athletes because I was a disabled athlete and a disabled athlete would be able to respond better to someone who understood their disability.

"A year later, I went on my first international tour as a coach with two athletes who were also making their international debut.

"They were Rajesh Prakash and Iliesa Delana and we went to Malaysia in 2006."

The two are Fatiaki's most successful elite athletes having competed at the highest level at the Paralympic Games: Prakash in 2008 in Beijing, China and Delana in 2012 in London.

The wonder years

Success doesn't come overnight and Fatiaki knew that. He had to put a lot of hard yards in preparing the right training program to suit his athletes with disabilities.

The most difficult being Delana, who with one leg was competing in the high jump.

Before the 2012 Paralympics, Fatiaki had helped Delana win 16 medals of which 13 were gold.

One memorable silver medal win was at the IPC Athletics World Championship in 2011 in Christchurch in New Zealand.

The second place finish would signal the rise for the Namara, Tailevu lad and it would make Fatiaki's work even harder.

It would also contribute towards their success at the 2012 Fiji Sports Awards where Delana walked away with the Sportsman of the Year award while Fatiaki would be honoured with the Coach of the Year award — the first for Para-sports in the country.

Their work was not done for Delana had qualified for the 2012 Paralympics and both men would have to dig deep to compete in front of hundreds of thousands of people, against the best athletes in the world.

"After he (Delana) had won the gold medal at the Paralympics, the media from Fiji called us in London and asked us so many questions.

"One such question I remember that they always asked was: 'What were some of the challenges you faced?'

"And I remember, from watching TV and hearing on the news and reading in the papers that when someone is asked that question, they start complaining about the problems they faced.

"So instead of complaining, I just told the media that facing challenges was a good thing for both of us because challenges teach us a lot of good things.

"I am sure everyone faces a lot of challenges and it really brings out the best in us so the gold medal was a result of facing those challenges rather than giving in to it.

"Challenges made us dig deep and believe in ourselves and look what it gave us — success at the highest level of competition.

"That was the pinnacle of my coaching career."

But the story does not end there because that gold medal win would, for the first time in the history of the Fiji Sports Awards, allow Fatiaki and Delana to win their respective awards for the second straight year in 2013.

The future

Fatiaki's rise to fame has helped him gain recognition as one of the top athletic coaches in the country.

He is now coaching able-bodied athletes as well and was recently appointed to the position of president at the Fiji Paralympics Committee.

"I am being made chief guest at events. I had never been a chief guest before. But in my speech I would say that my success started at home.

"Everything starts at home. If a child is given love, acceptance and respect, he or she would grow up to be successful and humble.

"You get the right treatment at home and give the right treatment at home, you develop the right attitude towards life.

"I am so thankful to my family for giving me the right treatment to make me the person I am today.

"I am so glad I was a good role model to my younger brother, Ravai who went on to play for Fiji and is now playing overseas in Worchester in England.

"The path that I have chosen has given me a lot of satisfaction, happiness and strength.

"Not everyone will be able to reach the highest level in sports but the fact the you tried is good enough because success comes from trying and failure comes from not even making an effort."

Fatiaki looks forward to continue coaching and he would like to encourage the people of Fiji to make a positive change in their lives.

"I would like to thank everyone who has contributed towards me becoming a successful coach and I would like to encourage everybody to come out of their comfort zone and make a difference, if not anywhere else, at least make a difference to yourself.

" I will continue coaching for as long as I can and I hope to inspire as many people as possible in the process."

If Fatiaki's story has taught me anything, it's to never ignore those with disabilities because you don't realise how much they can inspire you.