When Malia Paseka takes to Japan’s spiritual home of martial arts at the Nippon Budokan next summer, she will be the first ever female taekwondo athlete from Tonga to compete at an Olympic Games.
In February this year, Malia Paseka booked her spot at Tokyo 2020 after winning gold in the women’s 67kg division at the Olympic Qualifier tournament on Australia’s Gold Coast.
"It is a great honour and to be honest, I had so many feelings inside of me that I couldn’t express how happy and grateful I am to represent my country at the Olympics,” she told Tokyo 2020.
However, she also joins another elite list by securing qualification. Paseka will be just the ninth Tongan female to represent the Pacific Island at an Olympic Games.
Even fellow Team Tonga member and dual Winter/Summer Olympian Pita Taufatofua joined in the praises for the teenager.
"Now we also have a female to represent us [Tonga] as well and that's such a big deal for us, not just in Tonga but in the Pacific," he told Radio New Zealand after the qualification event.
"To have a female representing just makes me so happy," he said. "It is a dream come true to see a [Tongan] woman qualify in taekwondo."
Paseka took up the sport when she was 11. It was her brother who inspired her to get involved as he would go to training every evening while Paseka would watch on. The coach asked if she wanted to join in.
And it’s not hard to guess what her answer was. But the teenager, now aged 19, admits there was another reason she decided to become a taekwondo athlete.
"Well from the start [the] one thing I liked was the uniform," she laughed. "I really admired it, along with the kicking and punching.
"I’ve always really wanted to learn self-defence."
While it’s not easy being a taekwondo athlete on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – Paseka only has a handful of matches under her belt – she wants to continue pursuing her dreams because of what the sport has taught her.
"There's so much [lessons taekwondo has taught] that I can’t explain them all. But the most important things that I have learned are self-discipline and self-defence," she said.
"I just love taekwondo, and it's one of my dreams. I chose not to leave because it has changed and taught me so much about life."
Wanting to inspire young Tongans
There is no doubt Paseka story and journey to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will inspire other young women and girls across Tonga’s islands to reach for their dreams.
"I really do hope to inspire young Tongan girls as well as many Pacific young women, not only to take up taekwondo but also any sport," she said.
"I wish to motivate and inspire young girls to live their dreams and make use of their talents. I do wish and pray that girls will gain an interest in sport and make use of their talent."
Women’s sport is still developing in Tonga but as an athlete, Paseka sees herself not only as an inspirational figure but also a role model for all Tongan women.
"Well, it's really important for me because of how this generation is," the young taekwondo athlete explained. "When I grew up here and seeing how these girls are being abused, physically.
"So, for me I'm trying to inspire young women still to be strong and fight for their dreams and live their life the best they could be."
At a recent event organised by the Tonga Sports Association and National Olympic Committee to celebrate Olympic Day, Paseka gave a speech to inspire not only the youth of Tonga but also future Olympians.
"Make use of your talent," she said. "Don't worry about your size, because the size of your heart is what really matters. Winning doesn't always mean being first but perhaps winning means you are doing better than you did before.
"Most of all don't let anyone tell you who or what you are, and can be. Let yourself decide what you want to be."
Provided by athlete
No small goals
With Paseka set to make her Olympic Games debut in Tokyo next summer, she is aiming for the top prize.
"I can try my best to achieve the gold medal at Tokyo," Paseka said.
Last year, she won bronze in the women’s -62kg and gold in the team event at the Pacific Games in Samoa, which kick-started her journey towards Olympic qualification.
"It was a very special day," she recalled. "This was my first time to compete in a Pacific Games and to win a medal for my country. I can't explain how special this moment was."
However, just being able to wear the Tonga flag on her chest and represent the nation she is proud to call home, is an honour for the young athlete.
"It’s the best feeling ever that you have a chance to represent your country," Paseka explained.
"I know for sure there are a lot of people and youth training for their position. For me, it is really an honor. I really [want to] express just how grateful I am to wear my country’s colours.
"I'm just really happy."