Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

A Tokyo Olympics gold medalist wrote a message to herself recently on Facebook.

“Dear Younger Self,” wrote Tyla Nathan-Wong, Ngāpuhi, a member of New Zealand’s gold-medal women’s rugby team. “If only you could believe and see what you have achieved in your lifetime. That dream of making it to the Olympics and winning gold, well that very dream comes true.”

(Related: Indigenous athletes ring up Olympic wins)

She posted a photo collage of herself with her gold medal and another of when she was young, with the Olympic rings behind them.

Nathan-Wong is not the only Indigenous athlete who lived her dreams at the Tokyo Olympics. From ethnic Hawaiian surfer Carissa Moore, who took gold in the Olympic debut of the sport of surfing, to National Basketball Association player Patty Mills, who helped claim silver for the Australian team, Indigenous athletes brought home the medals for their nations and their Native communities.

The total number of Indigenous athletes who participated in the Tokyo Olympics is not known, since many countries don’t report those details. Team USA officials, for example, said Indigeneity is “a self-identifying question” that the U.S. Olympics Committee does not track.

An Indian Country Today review of Olympic medalists in the recent Tokyo Games, however, found at least 25 Indigenous athletes were among those winning medals for individual or team sports, or both. The numbers are likely sharply undercounted, particularly in Central and South America, the Caribbean and Pacific regions where many people consider themselves Indigenous.

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The U.S. drew international attention with Moore’s gold medal in surfing, but New Zealand led the way with the most Indigenous medalists after including the most-ever on a national team. Of the 33 athletes of Māori descent who competed in Tokyo for New Zealand, 21 returned home with medals, including seven members of the women’s rugby team and seven members of the men’s rugby team, which won silver.

For Australia, three of the 16 Indigenous athletes sent to Tokyo brought home medals: Mills, Muralag/Ynunga, who won a bronze medal with the Australian basketball team; Ash Barty, Ngarigo, with bronze for mixed tennis doubles; and Taliqua Clancy, Wulli Wulli/Goreng Goreng, with a silver in beach volleyball.

Each of the Indigenous athletes has a special story to tell.

“It is a huge honour to represent my country and culture on the world stage first and foremost,” Nathan-Wong told Indian Country Today in an email. “I am proud of who I am and where I come from. I am Māori, Chinese and European. All of those cultures are just as important to me.”

“Being able to represent my Indigenous side, being Māori on the world stage, is special,” she said.

Beach Volleyball: Taliqua Clancy

Taliqua Clancy was the first Indigenous women’s volleyball player to represent Australia in the Olympics, finishing fifth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero and returning this year to the Tokyo Olympics.

She didn’t forget her roots as she and Peru-born teammate Mariafe Artacho del Solar battled the United States for gold in beach volleyball.

““It is always extremely important for me to represent my people well,” she told The Guardian in an article about the cultural connections of the athletes in the Summer Games. “I have never felt so supported as an Indigenous athlete and it is nice that we are really acknowledging our First Nations people.”

Clancy, 29, was born at Kingaroy, Queensland, Australia, into a family of Wulli Wulli and Goreng Goreng descent.

Her Olympic dreams began as she watched Indigenous Australian Cathy Freeman race to gold in the 400-meter race at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, according to her profile page on the Australia Olympic Committee website.

At 15, she turned down a netball scholarship at the prestigious Australian Institute of Sport for a beach volleyball scholarship at the Queensland Academy of Sport. She joined the Australian volleyball program two years later, according to the website.

She paired up with Artacho del Solar from 2012-2013 and then shifted to Louise Bawden from 2013-2017 for the 2016 Rio Olympics. After Bawden announced her retirement, she returned to Artacho del Solar in 2017 in time for the Tokyo Olympics.

She and Artacho del Solar were bronze medalists in 2019 at the World Championships and silver medalists at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and they have won multiple medals together or separately on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour. Clancy was a six-time gold medalist and Artacho del Solar a two-time gold medalist, with another silver and bronze, at the Asian Beach Volleyball Championships.

Taliqua Clancy, left, and her beach volleyball partner Mariafe Artacho del Solar won silver medals for Australia in beach volleyball after fighting the U.S. team in the finals.   Clancy, of Wulli Wulli and Goreng Goreng descent, is one of at least 25 Indigenous athletes who won medals in the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Volleyball World)

Then, on Aug. 4, during the Tokyo Olympic beach volleyball competition, Team Australia upset the world’s number-one-ranked Team Canada in the quarterfinals. The next day they defeated Latvia in straight sets to advance to the championship game against the United States.

The U.S. defeated Australia in straight sets 21-15 and 21-16, marking the seventh straight time the U.S. has won a medal since beach volleyball was added to the Olympics in 1996. The Australians took the silver medal.

Clancy told journalist Tracey Holmes with ABC that the team’s diversity contributed to the success. Coach Kirk Pitman is Māori and Assistant Coach Brad Tutton is Aboriginal, she said.

“These are all the special parts of what make our team so special.” Clancy told Holmes, “and why we click.”

New Zealand’s Valerie Adams, who is of Tongan descent, won the bronze medal in the shot put at the Tokyo Olympics. Adams was among at least 25 Indigenous athletes who won medals at the Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Claus Andersen)

Shot put: Valerie Adams

New Zealand’s Valerie Adams, 36, who is of Tongan descent, won the bronze medal in the shot put at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Adams was one of about 70 Olympians who were not born in New Zealand.

She has won two Olympic gold medals, plus a silver and a bronze. She is a four-time world champion and four-time world indoor champion, a three-time Commonwealth Games champion, and two-time IAAF Continental Cup champion.

Her personal best throws of 21.24 meters outdoors and 20.54 meters indoors are Oceanian, Commonwealth, and New Zealand national records. She has the international distinction of being the third woman to win world championships at the youth, junior, and senior levels of an athletics event.

Adams was named the New Zealand Sportswoman of the Year seven consecutive times between 2006 and 2012. She was also awarded the Lonsdale Cup as the leading national athlete in an Olympic sport.

In a Woman Magazine story in New Zealand, she talked about her family life and being of service to others during the emergence of COVID-19.

She has two young children with husband Gabriel Price, who is also Tonga. She said she hopes that young Pacific Island girls look at her and realize they can be anything and anyone they want to be.

Surfing: Carissa Moore

Carissa Moore considers the ocean “her happy place,” according to her Team USA profile page.

Born and raised in Honolulu, she started surfing with her father on Waikiki Beach at age 5, and hasn’t stopped. By age 16, she had become the youngest Triple Crown of Surfing champion, and by 18 had become the youngest person – male or female – to win a world surfing title.

She’s been named Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic in 2012, Woman of the Year by Glamour Magazine in 2013 and Top Female Surfer in multiple Surfer Magazine polls.

She went on to win a string of surfing titles that left her ranked number one in the world for 2021, just as surfing made its debut as an Olympic sport for the first time ever.

Carissa Moore, of the United States, preforms on the wave during the gold medal heat in the women's surfing competition at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, at Tsurigasaki beach in Ichinomiya, Japan. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

On July 27, at Tsurigasaki beach in Ichinomiya, Japan, she won the women’s surfing competition at the Tokyo Olympics to claim the first gold medal ever issued for women’s surfing. South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag earned silver, and Japan’s Amuro Tsuzuki took bronze.

“It’s been a crazy couple of days,” Moore said after the win. “A little bit of a rollercoaster of emotions…”

Moore was born and raised in Honolulu. She was one of three Indigenous athletes competing for the U.S. in the Tokyo Olympics. Heimana Reynolds, a Native Hawaiian and Tahitian, in park skateboarding, and Micah Christenson, also Native Hawaiian, in volleyball, did not advance to the medal rounds.

Gymnastics: Sunisa Lee

Sunisa Lee, 18, was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is not only an Indigenous Hmong representing the USA in international gymnastics competition, she is the first Indigenous Hmong to medal in the Olympic Games.

She is a recent graduate of South Saint Paul Secondary and is on her way to Auburn University. Sunisa, in a story on E! about receiving an Olympic rings tattoo also talked about arriving at Auburn: “I'm really excited to be competing with them. The team has really amazing girls, and they all bring something to the table. So I'm really excited to be competing with them.”

Her accomplishments, according to her USA Gymnastics profile, include:

  • 2020 Tokyo Olympic all-around gold medalist, team silver medalist and uneven bars bronze medalist. Also advanced to the balance beam final
  • 2021 U.S. uneven bars champion and balance beam silver medalist
  • 2021 Winter Cup uneven bars champion and balance beam silver medalist
  • 2019 World team champion, floor exercise silver medalist and uneven bars bronze medalist. Also advanced to the all-around final
  • 2019 U.S. uneven bars champion, all-around silver medalist and floor exercise bronze medalist

Auburn University head gymnastics coach Jeff Graba recently said: “It has been an amazing experience to watch Suni achieve what she has been working towards for years. The Auburn gymnastics program is proud of all she’s accomplished as an elite gymnast and we can’t wait to help her reach the goals she’s set for her collegiate career.”

According to the Minnesota Historical Society, “the Hmong began coming to Minnesota in 1975 as refugees from the destructive wars that had ravaged their homelands in Laos. Today, there are more than 66,000 Hmong in Minnesota, and the Twin Cities metro is home to the largest concentration of Hmong in America.”

Rugby: Tyla Nathan-Wong

Tyla Nathan-Wong’s great-grandparents emigrated to New Zealand from Guangzhou in the People's Republic of China, where they met up with the Māori people, the indigenous people of Aotearoa, the island of the long white cloud, or New Zealand.

Her family includes rugby players at various levels. Her grandfather, David Wong, whom she calls Gung Gung, played provincial rugby league (13-a-side) in New Zealand for Auckland. Her mother Deanne and aunt Sheree played touch rugby for New Zealand, while her father Russell played rugby for the Auckland Māoris, according to her Tokyo Olympic profile.

Nathan-Wong said her rugby teammates – and the New Zealand Olympic team as a whole – tap the Indigenous Māori culture for inspiration.

“We express it through haka, waiata and the language itself,” she told Indian Country Today. “To be able to show that to the world means a lot. To meet other Indigenous athletes also on the world stage is very cool. To see them doing so well and embracing their culture as much as we embrace ours is inspiring.”

Nathan-Wong and many of her teammates are also members of the Black Ferns, the women’s rugby union team that performs a pre-game haka. Nathan-Wong was the youngest to ever be selected to the Black Ferns Sevens team as an 18-year old in 2012, and she was a key member of the World Cup championship a year later, according to her Black Ferns profile.

She is also the second-most-capped Black Ferns Sevens player -- a cap is defined as being in an international competition game.

Nathan-Wong was the second female to score 1,000 points in the World Series and was presented with the Mark of Excellence during the 2020 World Rugby Sevens Series. As a part of the event, she was also named to the 2020 Sevens Series Women’s Dream Team by World Rugby.

She has been a member of two World Cups, has won Olympic gold and silver medals, a Commonwealth Games gold medal and six World Series titles. Nathan-Wong was also named New Zealand Rugby Sevens Player of the Year in 2019.

On July 31, the New Zealand team squared off against France in the gold medal match, winning 26-12. The team performed the haka after the game.

But her success in sports has not come easily. Throughout her life, Nathan-Wong said she was told she was too small, not strong enough and not good enough.

“I didn't make sport teams and representative teams because people had this judgment of me,” she said. “This was even before they knew what I was capable of. I used that as motivation throughout my sporting career. You told me I couldn't do something and I would show you I can.”

“Now look at me, I'm an Olympic gold medalist. Being told ‘no’ or ‘can't’ or ‘not good enough’ fueled the fire and pushed me towards the person I am today and how my mindset works. I'm very optimistic and always willing to try and put in the hard work.”

Her advice for other dreamers is to not get discouraged.

“No dream is too big,” said Nathan-Wong. “As a child I dreamt of going to the Olympics and winning Olympic gold. To say that childhood dream came true and is now my reality is incredible.

“The journey won't be easy. There will be many times you get knocked down but it is how you react and respond that shows who you are as a person. When you get knocked down you stand up again, with all the pride and with all those that love and support you behind you.”

She added, “Keep pushing past those boundaries, because even though it is tough, all the hard work will be worth it in the end. Especially if you stay true to who you are as a person. Keep dreaming those wonderful dreams because you never know when they will come true.”

Looking ahead

Many of the Tokyo Olympians are now planning for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024, with plenty of international competitions in between. But that doesn’t mean they won’t savor their recent wins.

“My short-term future plans are to enjoy this moment,” said Nathan-Wong. “Especially with my loved ones. They have been on this journey with me from the very start and I want to thank them and celebrate that with them. After that I will get back into what I love, which is playing rugby.

“The long-term future plan will be to go for another cycle as it is only three years away,” she said.

Then what?

“After 2024 I'm not sure what I will do. Continue playing, settle down and have a family, I'm not sure,” she said. “The world is my oyster and I'm happy to be living in it.”

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