18 Apr. 2023
At the end of April, the 2023 Oceania Continent Handball Federation (OCHF) beach handball championships will be played on the golden sands of Coolangatta beach on Australia's Gold Coast.
Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands will all be represented by their men's and women's national teams, with one more women's side also appearing: American Samoa.
An Olympic start
The islands of American Samoa are situated in the South Pacific and are home to around 45,000 people, split across a land mass of just under 200km, its size making it not only one of the smallest territories in Oceania but in the world, where it sits under 200 in the country rankings.
But its women's beach handball team are striking well above their global placing. In May 2017, just two years after the American Samoa Handball Association (ASHA) set up their beach handball programme, they entered the global handball consciousness when they won the OCHF Women's Oceania Youth Beach Handball Championship.
The title earned them a spot at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, where their team made up two-thirds of the total American Samoa delegation of 12 athletes.
An 11th place in Argentina highlighted their potential and a few months later, in February 2018, they entered the senior continental championships for the first time, finishing as runners-up to Australia, a ranking which was repeated again the following year.
A pause, then back to action
But 2020 saw COVID-19 strike and the Oceania nations were subject to some of the toughest restrictions on travel in the world.
"COVID-19 interrupted our momentum," said Carl J Sagapolutele Floor, head coach of the women's beach handball team, to ihf.info about that period.
"We were on lockdown for two-and-a-half years; no one was allowed in or out. The restrictions hampered our development with the sport and it prevented us from competing."
Cancelled beach handball competitions for American Samoa began racking up: the 2020 and 2022 OCHF Championships were curtailed, the 2021 event cancelled and the 2022 Youth Olympic Games in Senegal were postponed to 2026.
Now, it is different.
The American Samoa women are back in competition and hungry for success. The Oceania event this month is just their second-ever championship with qualification at stake as the winners will book a direct ticket to the 2023 ANOC World Beach Games in Bali, Indonesia.
Dakar on the horizon, planning ahead
Coolangatta not only provides a chance of qualification to Bali and a continental title, but also an opportunity to blood the next generation on a competitive stage for the delayed Youth Olympic Games in Dakar, Senegal.
"Right after Buenos Aires in 2018, we began considering Dakar 2022 and through our partnership with the Department of Education, we began recruiting and were very successful," explained Floor.
"A plan to develop handball during physical education classes was implemented to ensure that every student at every school would have the opportunity to learn, try-out and compete for the national handball teams.
"But COVID-19 hit and when Dakar was postponed to 2026, we immediately began developing the lower grade years at school and corresponding age groups with great success. The programme has been very successful in ensuring that we have a steady flow of players to choose from."
It is a healthy link between the ASHA and the Department of Education (DoE), with Clayton Mahuka, the DoE Physical Education Coordinator, witnessing the growth and success of the team first-hand.
"The American Samoa Department of Education recognises the success and opportunities for our students that handball presents," said Mahuka.
"I've watched the sport grow since its formation in 2014 and these athletes grow from girls to young women. I have seen them training almost every day all-year long and read about their successes, but when I finally had the opportunity to see them in action I was totally impressed with their high level of play."
Moulding a squad
Floor and his coaching team have been working hard to get a team ready after a competitive break of four years, trying to find an optimum blend of experience and youth with the players available.
A number of them will make their competitive debuts in Australia, including those from the Pacific Horizons School, based in Tafuna. The private education academy has a dedicated programme run by Floor's assistant coach Nuivaha Mafileo, with the school paying close attention to the fitness and conditioning of their students.
"Many of their students are in good shape and it does not take much effort to have them game ready," says Floor about athletes from the school.
It is the first time that the school has provided players to the team, joining those who have before such as Lupelele Elementary School and the Leone, Tafuna, Samoana and Faasao Marist High Schools.
"I circulate around American Samoa providing free physical education classes in cooperation with the Department of Education, going to private and public schools, mostly at the elementary level, to introduce the game and every Wednesday we offer 'Handball for Fun' sessions for anyone interested," explains Floor.
"From all of these, we select individuals who we feel fit the mould of players we are looking for in our national teams.
"We have allowed up to five High School girls under 15 to join the senior team for Coolangatta and gain the much-needed match and competition experience; plus we have many of our U17 women there, too, helping them prepare for their run at qualifying for Dakar."
In that mould are newcomers from Pacific Horizons, including multi-sport athletes goalkeeper Er Si Tang (who also plays football), defender Amelie Chen (golf) and Tivah Duffy (softball). Fellow debutants Ita Peters Magalo, Azarya Togafau and Tia Nash-Cummings are also included.
Experience is provided by four players who have over 10 years on the sand each: Jasmine and Lynette Liu, Naomi A'asa and Imeletta Mata'utia. Completing the squad is Faatonu Isaako.
A step up?
A 26-point losing differential against Australia in the 2018 final was reduced to just 12 in 2019, so could American Samoa go one place higher on the podium in Australia in 2023?
"We may not be as strong this year compared to 2018 and 2019," explains Floor in reference to the elongated break and squad changes his team have faced.
"With the result in 2019, it was evident that our girls became women at that point. Whatever happens in Coolangatta, our goals will be met as we continue to gain valuable international competition experience – we will be a challenge for our competitors and we will use what we learn to prepare for our next event. It's important to compete as often as possible.
"We have always looked at every single competition as a preparation to our goal which is to represent American Samoa in beach handball at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games. That's what really keeps the interest of our more experienced players, or 'veterans', as we call them," added Floor, who is also President of the American Samoa Handball Association.
"With that in mind, most of our players continue to play, some from as far back as 2015 when we started. Three of our Olympians are now married with children, but are on leave, playing recreationally as they organise their new lives.
"The others from the Buenos Aires squad are only held back by their military, schooling or employment schedules, but as many of eight of our veterans continue to train and play whenever they can. They understand our end goal of 2028 and as long as I continue to present opportunities to play, they will."
Figuring it out
With the women's team secure and a future path mapped, thoughts from Floor turn to other pressing matters with work to do on securing a home court, nurturing referees and officials and building a men's programme.
"We have had difficulties developing a men's programme as the focus of most boys and men here – and their parents – is on American Football," he explains. "Despite this, we are now seeing more interested in handball and seeking a future of us through their love of the game, which they picked up from our school's programme.
"Compared to the US, there is a lack of well-paying jobs in American Samoa, combined with our own lack of resources. This means that most players we identify as a prospective referee, coach or official depart after graduation and join the US military, attend universities or colleges or seek employment in the United States."
And even finding a court to play on has proved difficult, despite American Samoa being surrounded by beaches.
"None are suitable for full beach handball courts and although some have a significant amount of sand that can be utilised for running and other drills, we are at a great disadvantage having no court," explains Floor.
"After the 2017 U17 Oceania Championships, which saw us qualify for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, we were questioned by one of our business leaders on how we could win no beach to train on.
"I told him the ASHA motto is 'figure it out' and that's exactly what we did. We utilised existing wrestling mats to practice spin shots and dive blocks and this impressed him enough that he offered some of his land to build a beach handball court on – it worked perfectly until we had to abandon the court after the land and business were leased to new owners who were not so supportive."
But the story is set to have a happy ending.
"With our team representing American Samoa at the Youth Olympic Games and then winning Oceania silver soon after, it's a real feather in our caps and has really validated the worth of the American Samoa Handball Association," said Floor.
"We have seen an increase in sponsors and supporters both in funding and in the recruitment of new players and in November last year we were contacted by the Director of Parks and Recreation seeking the dimensions on a beach handball court. We provided the specifications and are currently waiting for construction to begin at Lions Park in the village of Tafuna."
This court could play host to future games against Samoa and Tonga, with Floor working behind-the-scenes to provide some more localised competition, instead of the 4,000km trip to Australia.
"In my other role as OCHF Vice President I have been working with Samoa on their beach handball programme and we are also hoping that the Kingdom of Tonga begins developing beach handball too," explains Floor about the nations known globally for their rugby, wrestling and American football athletes.
"At just 65km away, Samoa offers us the opportunity for more training and international games at a price that we could afford."
Identity and representation
Whatever happens in Australia, win or lose, the entire American Samoa delegation will be full of pride when they take to the sand, none more so than sisters Jasmine and Lynette Liu, who not only share the same family and name – but the captaincy of the team too.
And with that comes the responsibility on and off the sand.
"Being a joint captain means having the opportunity to help our teammates grow both individually and as a team," says Jasmine, who has played handball for a decade, not missing any international competition American Samoa have appeared in.
"It means being the ones to go the extra mile to get our team to achieve goals," adds Lynette. "It's such a great opportunity to lead a team whose number one goal is to put American Samoa on the map."
"Our identities and 'faasinomaga' (loosely translated into English from Samoan as 'identity') are shaped from our culture and we intend to show everyone the beauty of who we are," explains Jasmine.
"We will carry the American Samoa flag with nothing but pride for all of Oceania to see and with the national anthem reminding us of who, what and where we're representing."
Photos: Handball Australia / Jun Tanlayco (cover photo)