Takayawa sisters’ euphoric golden feat

Both judo and the family whose name has been synonymous with the history of that sport were honoured when Shanice Takayawa carried Fiji’s flag at the closing ceremony of the 2019 Pacific Games in Samoa on July 21st.

It was a privilege she had jointly earned with her sister, Nathalyn – also visible in the procession of the Fijian contingent marching proudly behind her.

The siblings’ right to be there had hung in the balance months before as they battled to regain form after dislocating their shoulders and elbows. Their steely determination propelled them to attain what had seemed almost impossible. At stake in the duo’s struggles was not just the glory of victory but the preservation of the Takayawa family’s legacy.

Their triumph in Samoa – with 3 gold medals between them – was cause for celebration not just by them but for their family, the sport and the nation.

Shanice, aged 21, picked up 2 gold medals in the Under 70 and Senior Women Heavy-Weight Open categories, outmuscling seven others including the favourite Poerava Temakeu of Tahiti, a member of the French Junior Squad. Nathalyn, 20, beat two Tahitian opponents and a New Caledonian judoka in the Under-63 category to win her first gold medal.

Their father, Nacanieli (“Naca”), won gold at the 1995, 1999 and 2003 South Pacific Games. Their grandfather, the late Viliame Takayawa Snr was Fiji’s first judo gold medalist in 1979. Naca’s younger brother, Nemani won gold at the 2007 Pacific Games.

Naca is also one of only four Fijians to have won gold at the Commonwealth Games. The proud father said: “I felt what my father must have felt, and I was like wow! This must be the feeling my Dad got when I was winning.”

His wife, Michelle felt nostalgic about their daughters’ triumphs:

“It brought back memories of Naca on the podium years earlier. Seeing them standing there, and thinking back to where they started, to come through their losses, their sacrifices, their injuries and just to see the Fiji flag flying higher than the others – and knowing that it’s your child there. I became emotional.”

With his phenomenal record, Naca’s influence in his children’s lives and judo career is deep and pervasive.

For Shanice, the gold medal feat was a childhood dream come true. She had won 2 gold medals in the same category at the Mini Games 2 years earlier, but it was the Pacific Games where she had wanted to make her mark.

“She was 5 at the 2003 Games when we won the team event. She was sitting on my lap when we took the family photo. At 5 years old, she said she wanted to be fat like me because she wanted to win gold,” Naca laughs.

At the peak of his sporting career, Naca competed regularly for over 10 years (including 3 Olympic Games) notching numerous firsts. He was the first Fijian judoka to win gold in the Oceania Judo Championship and the US International Open. He won the 1998 Fiji Sportsman of the Year Award – and with his father, Viliame, recorded a milestone as the first father and son to be inducted into the Fiji Sports Hall of Fame in 2018. Viliame had been inducted in 2006.

However, Naca insists that he will be content with the girls’ best whether or not they match or eclipse his record:

“As a parent, I just love them the way they are. Nothing to do about beating my record. I just love them. If they do it, it’s okay; if they don’t, it’s also okay. For me, I just love them the way they are. If they can, I’m happy; and even if they don’t, I will still be happy. “

When the couple’s only son, Viliame Jnr opted for rugby, Naca and Michelle respected his wishes despite knowing that their son was “a natural in judo.”

Likewise for their daughters, as much as they are proud of their achievements, Naca and Michelle prefer to leave it to Shanice and Nathalyn to make their own marks in their own way and at their own pace – whether it is in judo or another sport.  

Naca contends it is more important to inculcate the values of determination, sacrifice, endurance and self-discipline in sport. He and his wife witnessed their daughters’ appreciation of those virtues in the lead up to the Pacific Games.

Shanice dislocated her shoulder in 2018 and had to sit out of the Auckland National Championship that year. As much as she wanted to compete, Shanice “had to be patient” knowing that any further injury could eliminate her from this year’s Pacific Games.

Around April, just months after setting for herself the target to win gold at the Pacific Games, Nathalyn dislocated her elbow. She was in constant pain and suffered anxiety about being back in top form in time for their month-long training in Japan during June. At the same time, Nathalyn was also put on a strict diet regime to be able to compete in her Under-63 weight category.

Two weeks before they were due to travel to Japan’s Ryutsu Keizai University, Nathalyn’s elbow managed to heal and she was deemed fit to travel, train and compete.

The sisters made a lot of sacrifices. They took a break from their university studies, reduced their social media use, cut back on chocolates and trained for long hours.

“It was a lot of sacrifice. We also ensured that we allocated ample time for our bible reading and prayers.  That is something our parents had taught us,” Shanice revealed.

Preparing for the Pacific Games has brought Shanice and Nathalyn even closer. Shanice felt her sister’s pain and anxiety when she dislocated her elbow, and was equally delighted when Nathalyn won her first gold medal.

“Looking back, I can say that all the sacrifices we have made were worth it,” says Nathalyn.

The Takayawa girls are keen resume their university studies, but in the meantime, they will take a break before continuing with their training for the Oceania Open in November this year.

Their dream to persevere and keep the Takayawa family legacy alive is what continues to motivate them. They’re both an inspiration for all Fijian judokas.


Originally published in the Fiji Plus Magazine

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