SPORTS PEOPLE OF 2020: Vaimasenu'u Zita Martel

Vaimasenu’u Zita Martel needs very little introduction.

Mention the name and people immediately refer to her as the legendary fautasi skipper. Never mind that she is quite an accomplished businesswoman as well as many other hats she wears including one in the diplomatic corps.

But then for Vaimasenu'u, if people will only remember her for her legacy in fautasi racing, she probably would not be too bothered. She is immensely proud and passionate about it. 

What people do not see though, and it is a story she will happily tell, is her struggles in a male dominated sport where she was opposed, ignored and where men literally tried to stop her.

Her journey began in  2001 when she was unanimously chosen to be the skipper for the Segavao longboat by her church congregation. 

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, she said the decision was made exactly three weeks before the Teuila Festival that year.

“None of the men wanted to captain the boat because it didn’t have very good ratings,” she recalled.

Her name was suggested by the women of their congregation because at the time, she had a canoe club called “Atafa Canoe Club” with her family members.

“We were winning all the regattas and races for the outrigger canoe club and then the women said that since I’m a winning captain for the outrigger canoe club I could be the captain because none of the men in the church wanted to be the skipper," she said.

“They all voted unanimously for me to be the skipper but I said no because I just couldn’t do this, it's taboo to women and I was really going to be crucified by the country and there are no women in the sport, even the phrase to describe the sport, “fa’agatama i le tai” or the sport of men on the ocean was enough to scare me into turning down the vote. 

“But then our Chairman said that it was a unanimous vote among the church, ‘so are you saying you don’t have the guts or courage to be the skipper of a fautasi.’”

She eventually agreed but said “okay, I’m going to do it but I’m not going to be the only woman on the boat.”

“I picked 12-15 women from our church to be part of the crew but not all of them were able to make it in the final team I only had eight left," she said.  “So that was the first time in the history of longboat that it had a mixed team.

It was skippered by me, a woman for the first time so that was my maiden voyage - I had eight women from the church and the rest of the crew was filled up with the men from our church and the Nazarene church, Methodist and EFKS [Congregational Christian Church of Samoa] churches around the Siusega area.”

The mother of four added that news of her being the skipper of a longboat was not easily accepted by others in the sport.

“I walked into a room full of high chiefs and skippers of the nation for the first meeting for all the skippers that the police commissioner had called for.  Everyone introduced themselves and they thought I was the secretary of our church which I was, and that I was coming in to represent our skipper, but I said no I’m the skipper.

“There was absolute silence in the room and then I was just completely ignored and that’s when I started to feel, the burden of being the only woman and being a woman that was in a sport only for men.”

Vaimasenu’u relayed that they were not ready to accept her into the sport because it is a traditional sport for men.

“After that first meeting there was a letter delivered to our church priest signed by all the skippers of Samoa to have me removed because its taboo to women.”

But the church priest declined their decision and told them that Vaimasenu’u has already been blessed in the church and received blessings from her congregation.

“That’s how it started, it was a challenging and difficult time for me especially the first three years in my skipper career but the simple fact that my church congregation really supported me in the role as a skipper, made me really rise to the occasion to be the best there is in the sport.

“It is because they had that belief in me including my mother, brothers, sisters and those who were really close to me and those I loved dearly. I just felt that wall of protection and that shield of courage that was given to me by those who were really close to me and the fact that I was blessed that was a comforting thing for me in those early days.

“It was hard because mixed with the silence from the men, there was also talk - they were trying to belittle me and say not very nice things about me as a way of getting back to me and also it’s a psychological thing to undo you.”

However, she felt like it was a game all about testing her whether she was able to handle it or to see how long she last.

“It was a test, so I was tested like crazy not only in the meetings but also on the ocean. I never said anything in the meetings, I just observed which was good advice given by my mother to just listen, observe and absorb everything and learn as fast as possible.

“I studied and found out who were the good skippers in Samoa and American Samoa and I got any footage on TV1, or old newspapers or radio 2AP, that I would look at them and study the way they are on the boat.”

She also studied all the skipper’s close-up and became good at reading people and how they are, what they are like and their personalities because it shed light on how they are on the boat.

“We came last on that race because we only had three weeks and it was a mixed team but our church got so fired up under my leadership and being a skipper and in the way that I bring people together that they wanted to build a brand new boat after that first race.

“So, the Segavao 2 became like a quest for a design that suited the race and lagoon here in Samoa and American Samoa - because their races are done out in deep ocean and so that actual design had to suit the deep and lagoon.

“I was the custodian and skipper then, of our longboat and I learned a lot about myself and also a lot about people because you have to choose form 80 people who goes on the boat and I have been doing it for 20 years and you know it’s a great way of learning the intricacy of how people react and think in a group or teamwork situations.

“Because in longboat you can’t do it on your own you have to have a really good leader - one who is able to pull people together and be patient because there are so many personalities you have to deal with.

“But at the same time be able to pull the best from each person so that they are able to work together with love, courage and kindness and those are the three pillars that I base my teachings for the last 20 years on the longboat.”

She explained that without love and kindness you do not have a team but we get the courage from the energies of all these people on the team and people who support us from outside and that’s where we get our courage from.

“So, in 2002 I trained the police for the Segavao 2 from 2002-2004. I trained them  all and we came first in one race and 2nd and 3rd in three years I trained the police force and a lot of my team members became so fit that they were posted on peace keeping missions in places all over the world to Liberia, Sudan because we achieved the purpose and the team was called Segavao Police.

“By the end of 2004, we didn’t have a team because they were all posted to missions.”

While one journey came to an end, another one began with her leading one of the most undefeated champions in longboat racing - the students at Don Bosco Technical College from Alafua.

“It was towards the end of October 2004 that I got a visit from Father Mosese the principal of Don Bosco - he was a complete stranger but he came in to look for money or financial assistance for the school under my role as the consul of France.

“He wondered if there was money from the Government of France because he was really tired of fundraising for the school and it wasn’t a lot of money.

“He was so tired of begging for money and no one wanted to give money to a school that was so violent [the school at the time had a reputation for getting involved in school brawls] but I had no idea what Don Bosco was because you know I’m a Saint Mary’s girl, that was my background.”

“He came and said that his school had kids who were fighting everywhere but come from really low-income families there’s not enough money for stationeries and so he always had to go look for money.

“After he left, I felt like I had known him for long time even though I had just met.

In November of the same year, Marist executive met Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi who was also a Marist old pupil but was also the chairman of the Segavao 2 longboat from church to request if Vaimasanu’u can train the students of Saint Joseph’s College as rowers for the longboat.

However, she declined their request and said that Don Bosco has been promised to be the rowers of the Segavao longboat.

“I would have been with Marist if it weren’t for that visit from Father Mosese – I told him that I will be the skipper, bring the longboat to Don Bosco and it will be my community service to train and mentor the young men for the Segavao Don Bosco. Even the colours of the Segavao longboat, green and yellow, were also the colours of the Don Bosco school uniform. 

“I even told him that if we won, then it’s $30,000 per race and if we had two races then that’s $60,000 but a small portion of that money -$5,000 will go to my church because that’s where the boat belongs and that was my contribution to our church.

“We competed in the independence race in 2005 and came third, then in the Teuila Festival we came second but won our first race after being invited by the Governor of American Samoa in 2006 for their flag day.”

The longboat regatta changed the school, she said, it became a symbol of excellence for the students.

Fast forward to 2020, Vaimasenu’u was issued a challenge by the Marist Old Pupils Association to lead the fifth longboat crew to compete against four longboats rowed by all-male crews compiled of Saint Joseph’s College former students.

The regatta was part of the College’s 70th anniversary celebrations held on November.

She shared that in the past, the idea of having women compete in the longboat race was turned it down, by skippers.

However, she thanked the President of the Marist Association and its members for the opportunity to put together an all-women team to compete in the 70th anniversary.

“They thought I would come with a mixed team of girls and boys from Don Bosco but no, now was the chance to profile women, and a once in a lifetime opportunity that I had to make use of to have an all-women crew.”

She was faced with many challenges of training a team of women who do not have any experience in longboat racing and in under three weeks.

On the day of the official race, the Fautasi o Toa longboat rowed by women did not have a drummer. 

Vaimasanu’u said that she used a wooden spear to guide the rowers by hitting the spine of the longboat and everyone rowed according to my beat.

“Some of the skippers asked why I didn’t have a drummer but it was crucial that I controlled the rhythm of the oars, and be tactical in saving the strength of my women rowers so that they last the distance of 5 kilometres, and I simply had no time to train the team on how to row to the different drumbeats when they’re so new to rowing a longboat.

“I took my 20 years’ experience of being a skipper on longboats and applied everything that I knew about winning to this team of women. It was important that the first ever team of all-women in the history of the sport place at the top.

“At times I doubted myself because I was doing three different things; steer the boat, beat the rhythm and blow the whistle, which I’d never done before, because I’d always had a drummer on the bow.”

She also mentioned that the courageous Toa Ladies’ passion and commitment to the hard trainings twice a day on the ocean and land, the sisterhood bond we quickly formed that drove us, an excellent assistant training team, my extensive knowledge and experience of pulling together large extraordinary courageous teams was our winning formula.

Furthermore, she highlighted that they used their participation in the regatta as a platform to advocate for ending violence against women and children. 

Asked if she will ever retire, Vaimesanu’u revealed that only when she can no longer get on a boat.

“It is something I truly love, and plus I’ve just started teaching our girls, our women, my sisters! I thrive on challenges. If someone says it’s impossible, then I’ll work out a way of how it is possible. Women are generally seen as weak, and I and our lady Toas wanted the Fautasi o Toa, to be seen and known as the longboat of legends, of warriors. It is because we are warriors.”

Their participation also became a message of strength to women and children who are abused that they too are warriors.

“That there is always a way to get out of their situation and never look back. And that there’s a warrior within us and you just have to awaken it and step into your courage to stand up for you, unapologetically!”

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