Editor's Note: Ana Tuiaea-Ruud passionately served as the Director of Academic Support Services and the Life Skills Coordinator while I was at the University of Idaho. She positively impacted the lives of many Student-Athletes and now acts as the Opportunity Grant Interim Director at Columbia Basin College, making college education a reality for many students.
Pursuit of An Olympic Dream
By Ana Tuiaea-Ruud
Imagine, it’s 1999 and you are sitting on your couch, watching Days of Our Lives and eating a quesadilla fresh out of the microwave. The phone rings and a man’s voice says, “Hello, would you like to play in the 2000 Summer Olympics?” That is exactly what happened to me 15 years ago. I was 23 and hadn’t played competitive basketball since finishing my college eligibility at the University of Washington almost a year and a half before, in 1998. I was also a newlywed happily nestled in my first apartment with my husband Jason. My daily summer routine included household projects, taking naps, and making the occasional quesadilla. I hardly met the profile of a potential Olympian, so naturally I thought the call was a joke. Being a fan of pranks, I let him talk so the joke could run its course. After further conversation I realized this call was legit. I was being asked to play on the Samoan National Basketball Team, a team that planned to compete in the 2000 Summer Olympics! The call came from a Samoan coach named Viko who lived in the states. He said I was eligible to play for the team since one of my parents was born in Samoa. He had my full attention.
As Viko talked logistics, I was imagining myself walking out during the opening ceremony representing my father’s native country with my new Samoan teammates, surrounded by the world’s best athletes. I had visions of meeting a childhood idol like Cheryl Swoopes or posting up on Lisa Leslie using my patented drop step pump fake move. I knew I was not at their level, but hey, I was no slouch in college and held my own in the Pac-10 at guard and forward. I even made the Sports Center highlight reel once. (The highlight happened to be Tina Thompson from USC blocking my shot down low but none the less, I was on Sports Center.)
Viko explained that since the Olympics would be held in Sydney in the year 2000, Australia had an automatic berth. This meant that another team was going to get a spot in the Olympics from the Oceanic division. There were only two countries that were attempting to earn this spot; New Zealand and Samoa. One single game between New Zealand and Samoa would decide who would represent Oceania in the Olympics. Viko felt really confident in the potential of the players who had committed to our team and thought New Zealand wasn’t going to be able to compete with us. Our roster consisted mostly of former NCAA Division I athletes. I was fired up, immediately ready to trade in my quesadilla days for protein shakes and the chance to feel like a baller again.
At this time I was living in Ellensburg, WA as an Assistant Women’s Basketball Coach at Central Washington University. I had transitioned from player to coach and was enjoying the new challenges that came along with being on the other side of the fence. I was sharing the news with everyone I knew. As you can imagine my friends and family were amazed and so supportive. As many former student-athletes do, I have regrets about not trying hard enough in college athletically and academically. I lost focus my senior year after injuring my back and always felt that I had let a lot of people down that year. My mind still wanders from time to time about “What if?” What if I could go back, do the rehab I was supposed to do? What if I could have been more coachable and given more of myself to my team? What if I had done the things my coach had asked of me? Would I have been able to play professionally overseas? I felt like the Olympics would be my redemption, a second chance to silence the What Ifs in my mind. This would be my time to prove to myself I have what it takes to compete with the best. This was going to be something I would share with my children and grandchildren. This was bigtime.
I began working out and playing as much as I could. I had only about 2 weeks to prepare before practice started in San Diego. I was seriously out of playing shape and gave my body a well-deserved wake-up call. It felt good to get back out on the court with purpose, and I was determined to make a strong impression on my new team. Over the course of the month I had been having phone conversations with my teammate Val. When I first spoke with her, I recognized a Polynesian accent. Val lived in San Diego at her parents’ home and had grown up in Samoa and Hawaii. Val explained that her family was going to house and support our team during our training. What incredible faith and commitment they offered, I thought. The plan was to continue to work with the Samoan government to find money to help with our training after we beat New Zealand. As the day for departure drew closer, my excitement grew. I was amazed that I would get a chance to meet and play with other Samoan basketball players. In early September I kissed my husband-of-only-two-months Jason good-bye and headed to the airport.
When I landed in San Diego, I panned the baggage claim area for any brown girls that looked Polynesian as I had imagined Val in my mind. Out of the corner of my eye I saw this small fit white woman who said, “Are you Ana? I’m Val.” I was totally taken aback. At first glance I saw nothing Samoan about her. She laughed and asked if I thought she would be darker. I nodded in hopes that I didn’t offend her. She smiled and said she gets that all the time, putting me at ease. Val’s mother is white and her father Samoan like my own father. We loaded my bags in her SUV and headed to her house.
Once we arrived I met all the family. Val and her husband and kids lived with her parents and other siblings. Her family was warm and inviting and instantly I felt at home. The family home was beautiful, on the hillside in La Jolla with a view of the ocean from the backyard pool. We waited for more teammates to arrive in the following days. Most of the incoming players were from California, but two I knew personally, Holly and Naomi, were coming from Idaho and Seattle. There were very few Samoan basketball players that I had come across in the past, so it was nice to meet new faces as well as reconnect with familiar ones. Once the team was together we must have laughed for hours our first night. We talked about family life and our basketball experiences. We shared all the little things that kids of foreign parents deal with daily growing up and instantly hit it off. One girl pulled out the ukulele and led us in Samoan songs. There was a strong comradery brewing that evening, and by week’s end we felt like Samoan sisters that were destined to make history. We just knew we were going to take Samoa to the Olympics in basketball for the first time ever and felt honored and humbled for this opportunity.
The newly bonded team practiced twice a day, every day except Sundays. We practiced at a church in the mornings and La Jolla High School in the evenings. We had no trainer so any injuries, aches, or pains we dealt with on our own. Our second coach, Merv, flew in from Hawaii to work with our team. We had some good experience, competitive instincts, and our God-given Samoan aggression, making one tough combination to beat. We played against some local San Diego city league teams, had grueling beach conditioning workouts, and ran hills in the neighborhoods of La Jolla. Val was the clear leader of our group. The eldest of us all at 37 years young, her commitment to basketball and fitness was unparalleled. She would actually jog the 3 or so miles to the practice facility to warm up before practice. I remember getting in the car to leave for our first practice and she starting jogging away and said, “See you there.” As someone who can get winded after stretching, I watched in amazement how she never tired on the court. I definitely admired her warrior spirit. Val reminded us daily of how important we were to the country of Samoa. She reminded us we were doing something that was bigger than ourselves. She thanked us daily for making the sacrifices to leave behind jobs, schooling and our families in the pursuit of this Olympic dream.
Stay Tuned for Part 2 of "Pursuit of An Olympic Dream"
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