NZ-born Tongan looks to make Olympic mark


He is competing in the Olympics for a country where there is no public swimming pool and many people can't swim.

New Zealand-born Amini Fonua, 22, only learnt to swim himself because his mother worried about him falling out of his fishing boat.

Tonight, he takes to the pool in London for Tonga, aiming to finish among the top 30 in the 100m breaststroke.

He says politics at Swimming New Zealand and the need to promote the sport in Tonga led him to compete for his father's country.

''It's a really big honour to be the first swimmer for Tonga. I'm hoping to not be the last,'' he says from London.

Fonua, who was raised in Auckland, trained for the Olympics at Raumati, north of Wellington, and developed his talents as team captain at Texan A&M University in the United States.

As flag bearer and one of only three Tongans to qualify for the Games, Amini Fonua's record as Oceania champion and Olympic athlete has given Tongan children a goal to aim for.

With no public pool on the Pacific island however, youngsters in Tonga have more of a struggle. Only two years ago, they started swimming classes at the Naval Base in Nuku'alofa where high coral walls form a 100 by 50 metre pool in the ocean.

Line ropes are placed across, and with no platform the children have little room to dive from.

Fonua's proud uncle, Semisi Fonua says swimming on the island is not usually considered a sport - it's only associated with fishing.

Swimming is something islanders should be leading in because they are surrounded by water, but many people don't know how to, he says.

''We joke about it. I found out that a lot of my friends my age don't know how to swim,'' Semisi Fonua says.

''I said 'aren't you afraid that you'll go out and the boat sinks, do you think you can survive?' They just laugh and wave their hands.''

Semisi Fonua says talk of swimming as a competitive sport only reached Tonga when Tongans overseas, like his nephew Amini, began to take it up.

On the streets of Nuku'alofa, people look confused when asked about the London Olympics. Some can't believe they have a swimmer competing.

''I don't reckon there is a Tongan swimmer. We don't have that sport here,'' Vakaloa Tuima says, while Misi Vinoa thinks he may have read about it in a newspaper, but isn't sure.

It's is the sort of reaction Semisi Fonua expects.

''If you talk to people, maybe they'll say 'I've never heard of it' or they'll say 'I have heard about it - and that's it','' he says.

''If we are doing well, then everyone will be excited.''

He adds that it is the Tongan way. People get excited quietly; the rowdy fans such as those seen at last year's Rugby World Cup have only emerged among Tongans who have moved to live in New Zealand or other countries.

But his nephew's accomplishments have not gone entirely unnoticed and are clearly having an impact on some aspiring young swimmers.

When Tonga Swimming was launched in 2009, founder Michael O'Shannassy says it had no local swimmers - only Amini Fonua and another swimmer overseas.

But with the help of volunteers, the learn-to-swim programme was launched and there are now almost 100 members.

''We are growing by the day. It's a lot of word of mouth. We are not a big country here,'' he says.

Calina Panuve, 15, always considered swimming a hobby, but started training to ''hopefully compete''.

''I want to win gold,'' she says.

Tomasi Fineanganofo, 12, says he would go to the Olympics if he is asked. Seeing Amini Fonua at the Games is ''pretty cool'' he says.

''But I still need to beat Sam over there,'' he says, referring to his friend.

O'Shannassy says he is looking into building a platform for the ocean-pool, or negotiating with Scenic Hotel to use theirs.

He wants to start up more classes and get swimming on the school curriculum.

Offering intermediate, adult and squad training, Tonga Swimming has already had swimmers qualify to compete in Fiji and New Zealand.

''Tongans adapt to most sports,'' O'Shannassy says. ''They just need the opportunity.

''Most of them will only be competing in short events. They'll be fast in the first 50m, but they sort of die out over 100m.''

Competing in the 100m break-stroke, Amini Fonua's chances of making it to the podium are slim with his best time being 1min 3 sec. But he is hoping to complete the race in 1min 1sec.

Whatever happens, he is hoping to visit Tonga and the young swimmers during a visit in December, in what will be his first trip back since 2010.

''It does feel good for people to look up to me,'' he says.

''It's just promoting the sport of swimming in Tonga - that's always been the No 1 priority, the No 1 goal.''

His parents and two sisters are in London cheering him on, while his uncle and family back in Tonga are ''supporting him from the distance''.

''We are happy about it. My children, his first cousins, speak proudly of him,'' Mr Fonua says.

''We are keeping our fingers crossed.''