Fiji's Olympic gold medallist wants to use rugby to inspire others

Jerry Tuwai of Fiji carries the ball during the USA Sevens Rugby tournament against Japan. PHOTO: Getty Images

He was once rejected by his national team for being too small in stature. Instead of giving up, Jerry Tuwai became the heartbeat of the team that guided Fiji to Olympic gold in rugby sevens last year in Rio, Brazil.

Tuwai is in Singapore with the Fiji rugby sevens team which will be participating in the Singapore Rugby Sevens this weekend. He was speaking on the sidelines of a rugby clinic organised by the Singapore Rugby Union in support of SportCares Foundation on Wednesday (12 April). The team was brought in by Fiji Airways.

The 28-year-old was born in Newtown, Nasinu, a place which Tuwai describes as “difficult” because of its high crime rate. When he was younger, Tuwai admitted that he mixed with bad company and often stole things. However, a message from his father changed his mindset, and became a guiding principle in his life.

“My father told me, ‘Jerry, you should change and try to put the name of our settlement, make it into some place that people can look up’,” Tuwai said. “So from there, I put away all those stupid things I’ve been going around doing with the boys.”

Jerry Tuwai signing a rugby ball for a fan (Photo: Nigel Chin/Yahoo Singapore)

Journey to the national team
When he was 17, he left school and worked as a gardener while trying to make it into the Fiji national team. His workplace was far from his home, so Tuwai took it as an opportunity to train himself by running to and fro from work every day.

“I think that was about 5 to 6km,” Tuwai recalled. “That was my everyday routine. I was trying to get picked in the squad because in Fiji, for rugby, there are lots and lots of talent… it’s really hard to get in.”

He was eventually selected for the squad in 2009, but was dropped because he was considered too small – Tuwai stands at 1.70m, while rugby players are typically at least 1.80m tall. It was something that hurt him deeply and he almost gave the dream up, until his parents intervened.

“I came back home feeling down and didn’t feel like talking to anyone. I sat outside, kept thinking what did I do wrong – I was fit, have skills,” Tuwai said.

“That was when my parents stepped in. They came and hugged me, reassuring me that it’s not the end of the world and there is going to be another chance. So I looked away from there and continued working hard.”

Things finally looked up for him in 2013, when former England rugby coach Ben Ryan took over the Fiji national team, and recalled Tuwai.

Now, the speedy playmaker has been described the “heartbeat” of the Fiji national team by many. But Tuwai is quick to shoot down this notion. “No one is above anyone, we are all the same. That is our motto,” he asserted.

Jerry Tuwai poses for a photo with a fan after a rugby clinic at the OCBC Arena on Wednesday (12 April).

Giving back to community
Rugby has certainly changed his life, but rather than bask in his success, he has been trying to give back to the community to try to improve the lives of those who live there. Tuwai has donated money to improve infrastructure in his settlement, and even set up a rugby team in his hometown to help boys who have the same dream he had.

“It has inspired them – boys from different backgrounds, doing silly and illegal things. They want to be part of the team,” Tuwai explained. “From last year, we sent about 52 boys to Australia for six months to play and gain experience. It’s a way of giving back to community… everything has changed, everyone is trying to be better.”

While Tuwai has achieved what his father asked of him – which is to bring fame to his hometown – he isn’t done just yet. Instead, he is banking on bringing more success to his home nation, starting with this weekend’s rugby 7s.

“I’m thinking about the next Olympics, but right now, the first thing on my mind is the Singapore 7s. We’ve never done back-to-back wins, so my aim, and the team’s aim, is to win this weekend,” Tuwai said.

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