In Ancient Times, when victorious armies or athletes returned home riding in chariots, the streets of the ancient cities such as Rome would be lined with applauding crowds cheering and throwing garlands of flowers.

This ancient tradition was echoed when the TAFEA Provincial Government and the Ministry of Justice and Community Services organised a welcome home for their para-athletes, Mathias Nakat and David Niere. The welcome included a motor cavalcade from the Whitegrass Airport to the newly refurbished Sports Grounds at Laminu Stadium.

On the way, school children came out from classes to throw flowers and residents of small villages cheered and clapped for the local heroes. Passing cars tooted horns and their passengers cheered and waved. At Laminu, the President of TAFEA Province welcomed the team home with speeches, leis of fresh flowers and food.

This is a story of the power of sport. Nelson Mandela famously once said, “Sport has the power to change nations”. The story of one Tanna para-athlete certainly proves that sport can change lives and equally importantly transform community perceptions and prejudices.

Mathias Nakat, a young man born with cerebral palsy, had left school at Year 4. The jeers, nasty jokes and vicious laughter from his school mates could not be borne. He stayed home, refusing to come out even when the family had visitors, becoming ever more reclusive.

“We tried so hard to get him to participate in community activities or Church groups but his experiences at school or even just walking along the street made him afraid of the derision and thoughtless name-calling,” explained Mathias’s mother.

Then the Vanuatu Paralympic Committee (VPC) held a Talent Identification Day in May 2017. Timothy Loughman, the VPC’s coach on Tanna was tasked to find some potential para-athletes, “I know Mathias’s family. Between us we talked him into coming. He was not very confident and terribly shy – but we got him out of the house.”

“The moment he ran, I knew we had a potential athlete in the making,” remembers Chris Nunn, Australian high performance coach for Paralympics and Olympics who had been funded by the AGitos Foundation. “His times were awesome. With the success at the trials, we asked him to become a member of our elite squad on Tanna. Timothy took over the training schedule we developed and soon he was coming 3 to 5 afternoons a week. Bus fares are a big issue so many times he had to walk long distances to training – then home. Rain or shine he never missed a session. His times kept improving.

“I could see him changing. He was out of the house, getting fit and the rest of the squad became friends. They encouraged him with their own stories of never giving up and success. He was smiling and talking. God sent the parasports coaches to us,” remembers Mathias’ mother, her eyes brimming with tears. “Then he came home to tell us he had been selected on merit from all the other para-athletes in VPC’s elite squads on Santo, Efate and Malekula to represent Vanuatu at the Arafura Games in Darwin, Australia!

“None of the other boys and girls who had laughed at him and made his life so terrible at school have represented Vanuatu internationally wearing the colours of our nation’s flag,” added Mathias’ father.

“I thought hah! See what sport can do! I have myself worked on a crocodile farm near Darwin as part of the Seasonal Worker’s Program. I told Mathias to make sure he saw a crocodile!”

But Mathias had never left his family home. He had never travelled in a plane. He had never left Tanna. This was a huge step forward and another challenge now emerged.

“In our custom, when a boy leaves his family home, he is shaved in public by his kastom patron with his broad family community present to witness this important step of transitioning from boy to man,” explained Timothy Loughman.

So the trip to the national capital Port Vila to participate in an AGITOS funded pre-departure training camp before flying with the team to the Arafura Games assumed new importance. Over forty people gathered to watch as his mentor Kiel Loughman, Vanuatu’s Attorney General, shaved Mathias. His grandfather, former Prime Minister Joe Natuman, was present and spoke about the importance of the ceremony and the chance to represent Vanuatu overseas as a true rite of passage.

New clothes for a new stage in life become even more significant as Mathias was presented with the full set of Paralympic Uniform to wear at Arafura. A shy smile from Mathias started to appear and a little eye contact. Small changes but big steps. A new haircut, new clothes, interviews on national radio and television – it was a very different young man who was farewelled by a crowd of well-wishers gathered at the international airport in Vila.

Everything was a new experience! A day in Sydney with a trip to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, escalators, multi-story sky scrapers, traffic jams, department stores, Public Holiday crowds enjoying an Easter weekend and the Opera House was followed by the six-hour flight north across the continent of Australia to Darwin. An intense training and classification program, the Opening Ceremony with performances of custom ceremonies, dance and song by the ethnically diverse Darwin community was then followed by days of competition. Of course, a little bit of side tourist activities saw double decker bus trip around Darwin, a trip to Crocodylus Park (think humungous crocodiles!) and artificial wave pool lightened the very serious intent of their visit – to represent Vanuatu in the Arafura Games with 45 countries and 1,500 athletes.

“We were really just there for classification and event experience,” remarked Margaret Macfarlane who had self-funded her trip as Team Manager. “We have a plan for our Vanuatu parathletes to represent the nation in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Arafura was an important step in that plan but a huge leap forward for our parathletes. I hope the people of the Northern Territory realise what the transformational changes in peoples’ lives were made by the Games.”

The Vanuatu team exceeded expectations.

Fellow parathlete Ken Kahu threw 47.60 metres to be ranked 4th in the world. Ellie Ennock won bronze in Seated Javelin and then, in a relay on the final evening, Mathias ran in an Oceania relay to win silver!

Finally, home. In Vila, a motorcade through the streets, then David and Mathias headed south to a hero’s welcome. Mathias’ elusive smile grew broader – if you could see it behind the layers of frangipani garlands piled over him by well-wishers.

However, they had little time to enjoy the experience as the National Games were due to be held two weeks later in the same community where they lived –West Tanna. Another period of hard training gave Mathias and David only a little time to savour their new found public recognition. Admiration, congratulatory hugs and positive comments – not jeers — became the more common reaction of their community. In addition, the National Games in Tanna were the very first ever in Vanuatu with an integrated approach. Parathletes from all over Vanuatu travelled south to participate. The spectators were constantly reminded by dignitaries, sports announcers and radio commentators of issues related to people living with an impairment.

Wendy Tomlinson, Disability Desk Officer with the Ministry of Justice and Community Services said, “It was amazing. The message of inclusion and equity was so powerfully delivered. I could have spent years in village advocacy and awareness programs and not achieved the impact of these integrated games and the example of Mathias Nakat, Ken Kahu and David Niere.”

Georges Langa, himself a para-rower and track athlete (javelin & shot put) and Vanuatu Paralympic Committee Board member representing parathletes commented, “The story of Mathias is not unusual. It’s why so many Ni-Vanuatu living with an impairment do not finish school. Then without an education, they find gaining employment very difficult. Using sport to encourage people to come out of the ‘dark corners,’ play sport, meet friends, gain confidence is what the Vanuatu Paralympic Committee tries to do. It’s proving to be a life changing strategy for many – me included.”

Next steps? Mathias has been selected to compete in the Pacific Games in Samoa in July and will be accompanied by his trusted coach and mentor Timothy Loughman. Then the Vanuatu Paralympic Committee will look to the next competition for Mathias. Dubai for the World Championships. Tokyo 2020? Back to school to learn to read and write?

It doesn’t matter because Mathias has already won the increasing respect and acceptance from his community. His example as a “Change Champion” is now empowering others living with a disability throughout Vanuatu …… and that smile is getting broader.

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