From pine trees to palm trees

By Katy Atkinson 17 August 2016, 12:00AM

The name Michigan is derived from an indigenous language of North America. It means ‘large water’ and it’s an entirely appropriate description as far as two members of the Samoan Olympic team at the Rio Olympics are concerned.

The Olympic team from the world’s largest ocean, with just eight athletes and five coaches boasts not just one but two Michigan natives - Discus thrower Alex Melei Rose and Swim Coach Suzie Schuster (née Gwizdala).

It’s an unlikely link, as Samoans are not commonplace in Michigan, especially in Northern Michigan where Alex hails from. Alex qualifies to compete for Samoa through his father. Ross Rose, is from Falealili on Samoa and moved to Michigan via San Francisco at the age of 19 as part of a travelling band called ‘Walked.’

It was a humble upbringing for young Alex. The 24 year old from West Branch attended Ogenaw Heights High School followed by Central Michigan University. It was here that he began to be noticed as a disc thrower. 

In fact, such was his rise to prominence through a natural ability that he was offered a three year scholarship.

It wasn’t his first experience of the Field event, but the university programme has helped his level of performance at the Oceania and Pacific Games of 2015. Indeed, he is currently ranked 23rd in the World and is enjoying his progress;

 “I seemed to have grown into this sport.  I really feel that I am throwing at my best and know that there is more to come over the years.”

Alex is a busy young man. He is attending Aurora University, outside of Chicago on the Master of Business Adminstration program as well as coaching throwers at the University. 

 “It’s a great way to school, coach and keep throwing- all in one.” 

Nevertheless, he is always conscious and rightly proud of his roots whether they be Samoan or West Branch.

 “It is important to me to represent my Father’s homeland and heritage.  I strongly identify with being Samoan. 

I want to be a positive influence for both Samoa and my Michigan community.”

The other positive trait that stands out, when you talk to this athlete, is just how ‘grounded’ he is and aware that he couldn’t have got here alone.

 “I am extremely grateful to be here as there could be 100 other athletes in my position but through the support of my family and my fiancé, I was given these opportunities which paved the way for me to be here”

Coach to the Samoan Swim Team here in Rio, Suzie Schuster, is the mother of four children. 

All swim competitively, although she adds mischeviously, that the youngest prefers fire dancing to early starts in the pool. 

The fire dancing remark is an indication, of the family’s Samoan heritage, which comes via Suzie’s husband, Cedric. Nineteen years married this month.

Suzie, who is known in Michigan by her maiden name of Gwizdala, has responsibility for two international swimmers in Rio including her own 18 year old son, Brandon. Suzie has coached Brandon to his heights since day one. Her Michigan mind is certainly occupied to the limit with all things water and the pool. 

Proud, fun, outgoing and caring are all adjectives that those who know Suzie will use to describe her. However, make no mistake, she is also determined for all those under her tutelage. 

She holds a Silver Level Coaching in Swimming (ASCTA), and this native Michigan girl has guided her young Samoans to Silver and Bronze medals at the Pacific Games 2015 and Oceania Championships 2016. World Championships and Olympic Games since 2012 complete her impressive coaching CV.

Just like Alex, she is drawn into the wonderful nation of Samoa.

 “I’m honored and humbled to be on Team Samoa with such respected athlete and coaching representation. It’s an honor to fly the Samoan flag.”

Suzie, a Bloomfield Hills and Orchard Lake native, attended Albion College earning a degree in Sports Science and the University of Michigan completing a Masters in Public Health before taking the leap to live in the islands.

She takes up the story;

 “After my Masters degree was completed, I wanted to join the Peace Corps and see the world.  I requested on my application to be sent to a country where swimming/aquatics could be utilized and where better to be sent than to a South Pacific Island!” 

Prior to the Peace Corps, Suzie had been coaching swimming since age 17 both in Michigan and Maine.

Suzie moved to Samoa at age 23 and started teaching swimming lessons in the Apia area on Samoa.  At that time there was no pool, so hotel pools and the sea were the place to swim.

The current Aquatic Centre in Apia, was purpose built for the 2007 Pacific Games. This made a real difference to Suzie’s work as she contributed to the development of swimming through swim club developments, running coach education training, and even launching a tertiary teacher education program for swim instructors. 

It’s hard to imagine that she has achieved all this as a volunteer for the Samoan Swimming Federation whilst holding down her day job as a PE and Health Lecturer at the National University of Samoa.

 “I have always volunteered and I have always given all my spare time to swimming.  It’s my passion and there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing every single accomplishment achieved by every swimmer that comes through the program.  They just light up when they excel and the support from the parents and community is second to none.  What I do is for Samoa to have a foothold in swimming, both at grassroots level and internationally.  It’s for the people.”

This year marked a significant moment in her journey. She has now lived in Samoa longer than she lived in Michigan.  She is now a Samoan citizen and deeply rooted in the Fa’a.   However, Michigan will always be her home and something to share with her children as they look to attend University in the US. 

As she thoughtfully reflects, she paints a wonderful picture;

 “Do I miss home?  I will always miss the seasons, the Michigan corn, the summertime of water activities and my family.  Though every time I visit Michigan, I start missing the Samoan sea, the beaches and the unique way of life.   But now I have two places to call home- how lucky is that!”

As they admit – both Suzie and Alex are blessed with their roles. I’m sure that Team Samoa would acknowledge that they are equally blessed by this Michiganian Samoan mix.

It was a positive Olympic bow for Brandon Schuster in the 200m freestyle discipline. He clocked 1 minute 57.72 for the four length discipline, narrowly missing out on his personal best by a tenth of a second.

Alex Rose secured 29th place in the Discus event with a throw of  57.24 Metres.

By Katy Atkinson 17 August 2016, 12:00AM

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