She won triple gold at last year’s Pacific Games, broke the championship 100m metre record and ended the year with the award for Best Female Athlete of the 2019 Pacific Games. But Toea Wisil’s road to success has been lined with challenges. Tokyo2020 caught up with the fastest woman in the Pacific to talk about her career so far and hopes for the Olympic Games.
In many ways, Toea Wisil’s career has been remarkable. Growing up in the Western Highlands of Papua New Guinea, she didn’t have access to the facilities that many aspiring athletes take for granted today.
“I come from the islands of Papua New Guinea. There’s no track or anything like that. We just run on the grass,” Wisil told Tokyo2020 matter-of-factly.
As a sporting pioneer in PNG and one of the country’s most successful athletes, she didn’t rely on role models to look up to when she was growing up. Toea Wisil looked closer to home for the inspiration she needed to propel her career forward.
“Back in the day I didn’t know a lot of [athletes] at that age. When I started running, I came out of this small town and then started my career. But my role model was myself,” Wisil says with the type of steely determination that has come to define her career.
Even though she came from challenging beginnings, the 32-year-old never let those difficulties get her down. Her self-belief has seen her rise to the heights of her sport, making a strong name for herself on the international stage.
“Coming from nothing, coming from a small country, there are so many challenges we face,” says Wisil. “It’s never put me down, I know that you can’t bring all that negativity into your life, so when challenges come it just makes me stronger, to push more and try to do something better. Trying to achieve more.”
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From strength to strength
By 2010, Wisil had established herself as one of the fastest sprinters in the Pacific region. At the Oceania Championships in Cairns, Australia she placed first in both the 100m and 200m, before just missing out on the medals at the New Delhi Commonwealth Games with a fourth place finish in the 100m.
In 2011, she went from strength to strength. At the Pacific Games in New Caledonia, Wisil won every event she entered to secure five gold medals, including the 100m (11.96), 200m (24.61), 400m (54.94), 4x100m (46.30) and 4x400m (3:45.32).
So when the 2012 Olympic Games in London came around, Wisil entered the Games in the form of her life. It led to her being given the honour of carrying her country’s flag into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony.
“Going to the Olympics was a proud moment. It was my first Olympics and I was so excited to represent my country and run with the top athletes in the world. It was the best Olympics and carrying the flag into the stadium was amazing.”
When the Olympic competition began, Wisil stormed through the preliminary round heat, taking first place by almost 10m in a time of 11.59.
In the Round 1 heat, Wisil lined up in lane three, directly adjacent to USA legend Alysson Felix. Wisil flew out of the blocks, leading Felix and the rest of the field up until the 50m mark. But as Felix got into her stride, the pace caught up with the PNG athlete, as she slowed and finished the race in fourth place.
Her Olympic journey was over. But her place in the pantheon of the great Papua New Guinea athletes was secure.
Today Toea Wisil holds 14 of the 15 fastest times ever set by a female 100m runner from Papua New Guinea. Over the 200m distance she has posted the top nine fastest times.
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A role model at home
Wisil’s efforts in London and her ongoing dominance of sprinting in the Pacific led to her acquiring the nickname of the “Pacific Sprint Queen”. But, more importantly for her, it also led her to become a role model for aspiring young girls in her home country, who may face prejudice in a traditionally male-dominated society.
“All the girls in PNG, I’m a role model to them and I want to set an example to young girls in sports and in the workplace.”
“We come from the background where men want to dominate everything, but we broke those barriers and now, with what I’m doing, back home they’re all proud of me.”
Last year proved to be a prime example of why the people of Papua New Guinea should be proud of Wisil. During the Pacific Games in Apia, she won gold in the 100m (11.56), 200m (23.45) and 400m (53.90) over a three-day period in July.
It was a stunning set of results for the 32-year-old and cemented her position as the fastest woman in the Pacific.
Accolades soon followed, including the award for the Best Female Athlete of the 2019 Pacific Games, which she accepted at the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) Awards 2019 in Doha.
It was a moment the athlete continues to cherish.
“It was so amazing and a proud moment to go and receive those awards. And being able to see all the big people in the IAAF. It was a great achievement after 16 years of my career. It was really great.”
Looking ahead to Tokyo
Now with Tokyo on the horizon, Wisil is looking forward to the next challenge in her life, starting with Olympic qualification.
“For next year’s Olympics, my goal is to run the qualifying time and the time is getting quicker and quicker. My goal is to qualify and to make the finals or get bronze in the Olympics. That is going to be my real goal.”
Should the Pacific Sprint Queen reach her target of a medal, it will be the first time that anyone from her home country has achieved that feat. It will also be a result of the hard work and dedication she has shown throughout her life – personal qualities that continue to make her a role model for the next generation of young people from Papua New Guinea.
“I always tell them that when you dream about something, nothing in life comes easy. You need to work hard to achieve your dreams and goals. In sports, in school, at the workplace, whatever you do, it doesn’t come easy. You need to work hard to achieve those things.”