SPENDING time with Vanuatu’s leading judoka Nazario Fiakaifonu, one is reminded of the 14th century English proverb – ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’.
This is because 29-year-old Olympian Naz, is big in every sense of the word.
Standing 190cm tall and weighing in at 133kg, he is every centimeter the epitome of a solid oak tree.
But there is much more to this consummate athlete than just his size and bulk.
Despite the obvious Polynesian surname, Naz is in the middle age bracket of six kids whose family goes back three generations on Wallis and Futuna, and he is very proud of his Ni Vanuatu heritage.
He will be one of the poster stars of the Van2017 Pacific Mini Games, despite his chosen sport of judo not having a high profile in Vanuatu.
His charisma coupled with his natural talent in the 100kg-plus division will make this athlete a natural draw card for the games in December.
Like most Vanuatu athletes, he will be performing in a major sporting event for the first time on home soil.
“I’m both nervous and very excited by the prospect and honored to be able to represent my country in front of my people,’’ he said.
So far his biggest claim to fame is he qualified for the 2012 London Olympic Games on his results alone and not as an invited athlete from a developing nation.
It is a feat very few from Vanuatu have done.
Naz is realistic about his chances at the Mini Pacific Games, but promised he will give his all for his country.
“There are some very good judoka from Tahiti and New Caledonia, because many of them get to train in France which is the top judo nation in the world,” he explained.
“And there will also be tough competition from Fiji and Australia, so I will have to be on the top of my game.’’
He expects there to be maybe 8 or 10 athletes in Vanuatu’s judo team –including two women.
“It’s very tough for us we have no sponsors at all and we work hard just to make ends meet,” he said.
Naz grew up in Nambatu area in Port Vila and described his family then as very poor.
“We slept 12 in one room, but we were a happy and close family despite the poverty,” he recalled.
Naz took up judo at the age of eight under the training of Ted Drew because his older and bigger brother Iano was into it.
“We used to do it at the French school where I was able to go to school because I won a scholarship and I enjoyed it, but I also tried other martial arts like karate,” he said.
“My brother left judo and went on to represent Vanuatu in shot-put, but I drifted back to it. I think it really suited my body shape and when I went back I really fell in love with it.”
He started to train seriously in 2011, up to five times a week, in preparation for the London Olympics. And he also went under the wing of expert training and conditioning Coach Brett Wright.
“Under Brett I went from zero conditioning to something far more reasonable and that helped my judo performance enormously,” he said.
“Sport in general has been very important in my life and I feel strongly that it has helped in all other areas, including my studies and business as well.
“It taught me such important things like self-discipline and being really motivated to achieve new levels.”
Naz received a degree in Noumea in economics and business management and worked for AJC –Chartered Accountants and Business Advisers, for four years as an accountant.
Now, before his thirtieth birthday, he is the owner of three local companies – Guard Island Security, a security company with more than 150 security staff on his books, Fonu Constructions which has 10 to 15 staff and T-Concept and Design.
“The third is for money for my daughter and her education and I love doing marketing and making up brochures and logos on the weekends,” he said.
The number of unemployed youth around the country troubles Naz and he is a firm believer that if more of them became properly involved in sport, their lives would improve enormously and for many of them jobs would follow.
He would have loved to be in Budapest, Hungary for the Suzuki World championships which are on at present.
When asked why he is not there, he answered simply.
“I have to put food on the table.”
So again, another of his oak-like strengths shines through – his responsibility to his wife Magalie and their 21-month-old daughter Tahlya.
“I cannot afford to be away as much now, although judo has been good to me and I have trained and competed around the world which is another area where sport has helped develop me as a person,” he said.
Naz feels like he can continue competing until he is about 35 and is keen to help judo grow in Vanuatu.
He said at present there is only one club with about 20-25 adults and 60 to 70 kids involved and he is involved in teaching the young ones.
“We desperately need a sponsor – or ideally more than one – to help us grow and improve our facilities.”
There are many ‘branches’ that make up this wonderful oak-like character where family, business and sport all have their responsibilities and place in his life.
But with people like Nazario Fiakaifonu involved, then sport in general is heading is a safe and positive direction in Vanuatu.