Competing on the Olympic stage is not a dream everyone has the chance to fulfill in their lives. For Derek Sua, he was just one of eight athletes to represent the small Pacific Island of Samoa at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“It was unbelievable when I qualified for the Olympic Games because not everyone can go,” the 2017 Oceania Champion told Tokyo 2020.
As Sua headed out for his Olympic debut in the +100kg men’s competition, he spotted a familiar face speaking to his coach (or sensei as he calls him).
“The best memory I had was the time when I walked in when I was ready to compete and one of the former Olympic champions, he had a chat with me and my coach.”
That former Olympic champion was none other than Japan’s INOUE Kosei. The three-time world champion not only congratulated Sua for making it to the Olympics but offered words of encouragement to the Samoan athlete to not give up no matter what the outcome or result is.
While Sua lost in the first round to Beijing 2008 silver medallist and former World Champion Abdullo Tangriev of Uzbekistan, just competing at the Olympics would encourage new judo athletes back in Samoa to take up the sport.
From rugby to judo
There is no denying that rugby union is a popular sport across the Pacific. In fact, it is the main sport in Samoa and is played everywhere on the island. Sua was himself a rugby player before he, by chance, came across judo.
He was asked to take his younger brother to class since his father was busy with work and that’s when he saw a group of ‘bigger’ judokas', as Sua described, training on the other side of the room. Intrigued, he asked the sensei if there was a chance someone his size could join.
“They said in judo there are no weight limits,” said Sua, who started training the next day.
“My sensei told me that it isn’t about the size, it is just about the courage of a person to fight.”
After all, this is an essential part of judo, which originated in Japan in 1882 by KANO Jigoro, since it is possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.
“My favourite part of judo is doing all the exercise that big guys can't even do. And also the throwing,” the 2019 Pacific Games bronze medallist said. “Throwing each other on the ground if there's a possibility to get points on the ground.”
Struggles of being a Samoan judoka
It’s not easy being an athlete living in Oceania.
Sua is currently the only judoka in his weight class in Samoa so finding people to compete and train against isn’t easy. His sensei and himself know that on the international stage and being in the +100kg division, that the 32-year-old is likely to face opponents who are bigger and stronger than him.
“I'm the only big guy here. I have other friends but they're a bit lighter and it can be pretty hard to fight with someone really small,” he explained.
Even if there are opponents in his weight category, they have generally been white belts and it's not easy for him to train against someone who is just a beginner.
But that isn’t the only barrier facing Sua. Being able to earn the qualification points he needs to qualify for Tokyo 2020 means travelling overseas to competitions. So it comes down to funding. If there is funding for him, then he can compete abroad but many times there isn’t.
While this could be disheartening and discouraging to hear, Sua remains positive as he aims for a second consecutive Olympic appearance next summer.
“It's not easy, but now it’s just looking at what I have in front of me and just not trying not to focus too much on those kinds of things,” said Sua, who also does weightlift training to keep his fitness up.
“If there's no competition, most of athletes won't train anymore but I still keep training myself.
“When I have a chance to go and compete and do the training camp, I am just focusing on the judo. The weightlifting part is when I come back home when there's very little chance of getting an opponent who's my size."
“If I win or lose, I make the most of it. Keep it in my head and come back… think what went wrong and then try to correct those mistakes.”
Inspiring the next judokas and Tokyo 2020
After competing at Rio 2016, Sua explained it was a bit of a wake-up call for athletes in Samoa and others from overseas, that they had the chance to compete on the biggest sporting stage too.
“They asked me if I'm going for the Olympic Games [Tokyo 2020] and I said ‘yes’, and we're all aiming for that target.”
“So one of us will get qualified, and that person will deserve to go.”
At the moment, Sua is battling for a qualifying spot with his teammate Peniamina Percival, who is in the -81kg division and currently has one of the five continental quotas for Oceania. Only one athlete per National Olympic Committee can qualify through continental qualification across all weight categories and genders.
“I just need to improve my own techniques and cut down a little bit of weight so I can move faster and get a lot of training with some big guys. The only way to make me stronger is fighting opponents who are much stronger than me.”
Whatever happens in the coming 13 months in the lead up to the Olympic Games, Sua hopes he can continue inspiring the next generation of judokas and not just in Samoa.
“I hope I inspire a lot of other Pacific Islanders as well.”
“I want to tell them to come down and try judo. Just see if they are willing to take the challenge because all sports are different, but I hope they come and take this challenge and they want to go far in the sport.”