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
On our Sundays off, the family let me cruise in their car with my teammate Holly, and we explored our Southern California surroundings. Holly and I were big Junior Seau football fans as most Samoans are, and especially here in his hometown. I even chose #55 as my jersey number in college to represent my Samoan sports idol. Through some minor detective work, Holly and I found his house not too far from Val’s house in La Jolla and took pictures out front. We contemplated ringing the doorbell but realized that would elevate our stalker status too much and chickened out. I have so many great memories cruising around San Diego with Holly, and we are still good friends to this day. My team and I even took the 17 mile trip to Tijuana to celebrate my 24th birthday, but that is another story…
Val’s dad Bill was an important and influential Samoan business man. He was in the loop with Coach Viko about all the happenings of the team, kept in contact with the Samoan government and communicated with the Oceanic Federation. It had been already determined that the qualifying game on October 2nd, 1999 would be played in New Zealand. As a team we had just one month of training time to prepare. Once word got out that Samoa was fielding a team with Samoans from the US our eligibility came into question, and New Zealand become very nervous. New Zealand protested our eligibility to the Oceanic Federation causing a gauntlet of red tape. Under FIBA (International Basketball Federation) regulations all of us were eligible to play for Samoa. We had to send passports, birth certificates, and licenses immediately to the Secretary General of the Oceanic Basketball Federation to prove our Samoan nationality or that of our parents. Once we proved our Samoan heritage we received a fax saying we were eligible. Whew! Ticket arrangements to New Zealand were being made and we breathed a sigh of relief. I called my husband and told him to fly to San Diego; we would be leaving for New Zealand soon.
Within the next week things had changed drastically. The Secretary General went back on his original decision and ruled all of our team ineligible except for 2 players who were born in Samoa, or we could show documentation that both parents were born in Samoa. After further back and forth discussion the next few days, he deemed only 6 of our 10 players eligible. We then submitted a document signed by all the chiefs of the villages we came from, the legislative body, the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate, and the Governor of Samoa endorsing all 10 players as the legal and rightful representatives of the Samoan Islands. The Secretary General still didn’t budge. It’s ironic all of us were Samoan enough to hold an official title, own land, and run for Governor in Samoa if we ever chose to, but we were being told we weren’t Samoan enough to play for the team. Feeling the sting of this political injustice, we contacted the USA basketball federation for help and advice. We were then referred to the FIBA headquarters in Germany to appeal our case. We were told whatever decision is made by the Oceanic Federation is supported by them. Appeal decisions would only be made by the Oceanic Federation.
Even though it was a long shot, we appealed again to the Secretary General of the Oceanic Federation, desperate to continue our dream. Finally on Friday September 24, 1999 at 11:30pm we received a fax from the Oceanic Federation saying all 10 players are allowed to play BUT under appeal. This meant we could play but we weren’t all eligible, and more investigation was needed. It was now one week away from our October 2nd game date. As a team we decided to play under appeal, since we had nothing to hide and only a game to win. Our biggest hurdle would be getting to the game on time. The Oceanic Federation was supposed to provide funding to pay for the team to travel to the game. However since we were now playing under appeal, we learned to our dismay they no longer were going to provide travel funds. Without this funding we lost our previously reserved airline tickets. My team didn’t care at this point; this game had to happen. We were willing once again to find a way ourselves to cover our costs and book new flights. Unfortunately with such short notice, there were no flights available to get our team to Auckland until October 3rd. We called the presidents of airlines about making special arrangements to no avail. We figured the game could be moved a couple days back to allow us the chance to make it. We contacted the Secretary General again and explained the situation with the airlines. He basically told us too bad, and kept the game time scheduled as planned.
In a mad scramble, we called everyone we knew that might have a private jet to get us there. A Samoan gentleman had one, but it only held 8 people and he needed some crazy amount like $40,000 to make it happen in time. Bill contacted everyone he could think of. A few of us even tried to stalk Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) at a WWE event in San Diego that week. We never got to meet him but left an envelope with a Samoan security guard who said he would get it to him. No reply on that one. We attempted to contact Junior Seau and any other Samoan pro-footballers we could think of. There was just not enough time to make this happen. The dream was over. On September 30, 1999 we notified New Zealand and the Secretary General we would not be able to make the game on October 2, 1999.
After a month of training we were packing up to head home, feeling emotionally drained and disappointed. We should have been flying to New Zealand to win, and then heading to Samoa to celebrate with our families and plan our year of preparations for the 2000 Olympic games. I say win, because if given the opportunity we would have won- no doubt. Yes, there was a chance the underdog might have won, but our only mentality was to win and we expected nothing less of ourselves. Instead of New Zealand embracing competition we faced unnecessary resistance. I’ll never forget one of my teammates while packing saying, “So what am I supposed to say when I get back to work? It’s embarrassing. I told everyone I was going to the Olympics and now what do I say? Never mind?” A New Zealand newspaper actually had the nerve to print an article that read, “American Samoa, a No Show at Olympic Qualifier.” In the article, the New Zealand team manager said that we didn’t show up because either 2 of our players were ineligible so we decided not to come, or that we never really intended to show up in the first place. Wow, what a joke. A friend of Val’s family who lives in New Zealand claims that had we made it to Auckland there still would have been a protest against the game. This source also said their team had not been practicing for the game at all.
The fact of the matter was it was not embarrassing. We got screwed bigtime and that’s it. I find satisfaction knowing we did everything within our power and left no stone unturned. It was incredible during those last couple of weeks to see us pull together as a team on and off the court; we were a tight Samoan family. We stayed positive and optimistic to the very end. Our team showed a lot of faith, heart, and character, which are key ingredients to being a championship team. I will forever smile when thinking of this experience. I became more connected with my heritage and made lifelong friends which enhance my life greatly. I know that New Zealand may have its own side to the story, but whatever that is doesn’t interest me. I hold no hard feelings against anyone and whole-heartedly wish the best for all Polynesians to succeed in sports and life. After 15 years I am still incredibly proud of what we accomplished and am honored to have been a part of the Samoan National Basketball Team in 1999.