A grateful team gave thanks at the end, because something very special had just happened on Tuesday afternoon, 11th April last week. Our very own Sitivi So’oa’emalelagi, 16 years of age had just won Apolima Strait swim, 22.3km race from Mulifanua Upolu to Salelologa, Savai’i in an amazingly quick time.
It was unexpected, a little surprising but no surprises there. Sitivi’s open water talent was not unknown, and now even more evident.
His time of 5hrs 37mins 27secs is a fast one, considerably so. Considering too his late coming into the race and qualifying for Apolima Strait on Saturday, 25th March with only three weeks to race day. Not that he was not going to qualify. Sitivi was always going to go under 4hrs for the 10km qualifier. He did, at 3hrs 13mins. Not spectacularly fast but he had qualified.
To then swim 22.3kms to Savaii, an extra 12kms in just over 2hrs of his qualifying time is something truly amazing.
The issue with Sitivi’s Apolima ambitions was, if any, had to do with long distance swimming. Up until his qualifier three weeks ago, Sitivi’s longest swim was 4km in the Samoa Swim Series at the Sinalei Resort swim in August 2015. He was fast then too. Sitivi had been competing in SSS races since 2012 and regularly podiumed against older overseas swimmers.
Going to 10km for the qualifier might still be relative to his pool sessions with Tanifa o le Vai national squad but 22.3km in the open sea? That was the unknown factor.
I was with him that day on the kayak beside him. The focus I told him, was strength, not speed. Still, when the clock clicked beyond the 3hr mark in the qualifier, I was silently disappointed. Sitivi is fast, and even with toning down the speed I still expected a sub 3hr 10km qualifier swim for him.
That was the unknown factor. How much can his young shoulders carry Sitivi beyond 4km and 10km without diminishing returns per kilometre beyond that?
The answer is now clear and obvious but it is unexpected. Sitivi had not done the long lead in preparations other swimmers did.
Swimmers for the race had prepared well in advance of six months. Getting shoulders and bodies used to handling that distance is a matter of calculated evolution of movement.
You cannot expect the body to perform at a level it is not used to. Sitivi’s shoulders, no matter how fast he is, have not turned over at speed beyond two hours of swim training at best. That was the unknown factor. To then continue at 14mins per km in the open sea for five hours is the most incredible part.
In Sitivi, Samoa has a very special talent. He is the best open water swimmer we have. His pool ambitions may have to give way to his true talent. National coach Suzie Schuster is no doubt mulling over Sitivi’s results and how best to re-direct her swimmer.
Sitivi’s race time is the second fastest in the two years of the race. Only Philip Ryan who won the inaugural race last year is faster. Philip was on his way to the Rio Olympics and he was finely tuned. He swam the distance in 5hrs 03mins.
Last year’s race was very different to this year’s race. Philip was on his way to recording 4hrs 30mins for the distance when the Apolima Strait current intervened and carried the swimmers far right of the destination finish. Then, the five swimmers and two teams spent a lot of time trying to swim left to reach Salelologa without success. Instead, the decision was made to finish in the Salelavalu lagoon.
There were no such trials this year. Moving the race away from a high full moon tide to a non-full moon swim made a lot of difference. The Strait water did not move in volumes, and we were able this year to guide everyone to the finish at Salelologa.
For the race on Tuesday, we had anticipated the same shifting to the right away from the finish, and so compensated by moving the race line quite a lot south of the ferry line. Except the shift did not happen and there was no tidal correction that was anticipated. The result was lost time, in Sitivi’s case, perhaps 20 minutes.
His pace and stamina was truly amazing. He kept on, his own support crew of swimmers of Teofilo Molio’o, Clinton Mauala and sister Fanaafi could not keep up with him when they took turns to swim alongside.
Sitivi’s time in the end was an hour faster and some to second placed Paul Feltoe of New Zealand. He was faster than Team Tonga who finished first in the Teams’ race. Team Tonga was made up of Tongan national swimmers, Sitivi’s time is 58mins faster than the Tongan total.
He was the second to last to start. Paul Feltoe was the last starter at 6.45am, Sitivi started at 6.30am. First starters was a further 90 minutes ahead at 5am. Still, Sitivi kept passing swimmers at will on his way to his desired haven in Salelologa. He was relentless. There was not a slowing down. The fatigue factor expected beyond 10km at around Apolima Island did not happen. It seemed he was immune from those trials.
Sitivi’s crew consisting of legendary swimmer Mailata Iosia Leau, himself the first man to swim to Savaii in 1988, he was Swim captain guiding Sitivi’s race. Dad Steve Brown was on the kayak, as was aunty Vaimasanu’u Zita Martel who was on another kayak. Clinton and Teofilo were there too. Sitivi’s sister Fanaafi and younger brother Mautofu completed the support crew.
What a sight it was as they guided young Sitivi to the finish at Lusia’s Lagoon. At the finish and before any celebrations amongst themselves and others, the team got together on the water, kayaks and support boat all in one. They joined hands and sang a song of Thanks – Faafetai i le Atua – and said their prayer.
The Almighty had guided everyone safely to their desired haven. And they gave thanks to the Lord.
Sitivi So’oa’emalelagi, 16yrs SAMOA 5:37:27
Paul Feltoe, 43yrs NZL 6:48:10
Christina Harris, 53yrs NZL 6:53:11
Tony McLean, 47yrs NZL 7:18:38
Robin Rose, 56yrs USA 8:31:55
Tiffany McQueen, 44yrs USA 9:35:00
Team Tonga 6:35:00 (Mixed team x 4 swimmers)
Team Jo Armstrong 7:39:01 (All female x 3)
Team Paid for by Mexico 7:45:00 (All male x 4)