Jerry Tuwai

Week 160 (29 October - 4 November 2016)

When Fiji defeated Great Britain in the final of the rugby sevens tournament at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, a whole nation rejoiced in wild celebration as Fiji won its first ever Olympic medal, also becoming the first small Pacific island nation to win an Olympic gold medal.

Despite being the smallest nation in the rugby sevens tournament, with a population of just 900,000, Fiji stormed to a comprehensive 43-7 victory over Great Britain. It was not just a win for the rugby sevens team but for the whole of Fiji. Schools and shops closed as more than 4,000 people gathered to watch the game in the capital's main stadium. The government declared August 22 a national holiday to commemorate the historic win and the team returned home as national heroes. 50,000 people greeted them in the streets. An 80-year-old man walked eight hours just to shake the hand of head coach Ben Ryan.

Jerry Tuwai was one of the players that wrote their own entry in the record books and this week he was the subject of the Olympic Channel's "Against All Odds" programme. Tuwai's episode, aptly titled "Bringing hope from the slum to the nation", details the story of his difficult upbringing in one of Fiji's poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods, where he grew up playing rugby with plastic bottles.

Rugby sevens is the heartbeat of Fiji and head coach Ryan describes being a part of the sevens team as akin to following a religion. For Jerry, it offered an escape route and he used the sport as an opportunity to make himself a better person and to create a better life for his family. Tuwai credits the latter as the source of his motivation.

"When I am down I think of my mother, I think of my father. I think of them working. I think of them trekking. That is something that keeps me going. Gives me something that I can fight for," Jerry explains.

"My father is someone who always told me to be humble. And my mum, she's the motivation for me...from the small budget that she had for our family to survive, she took all that money to buy our food and she bought me rugby boots. And she told me 'this is your knife and fork'. This is what you will do to do something better. So then, I took my rugby boots and wrote on the bottom 'knife and fork'."

Jerry is now using his rugby sevens earnings to pay for the schooling of his siblings. He has also been able to buy a generator and install a toilet for his village.

Jerry Tuwai and his teammates have brought invaluable hope and pride to their entire country; and wide smiles to the faces of those who have heard their inspiring stories.

Photo: Fijivillage