Litia Naiqato was just a few days short of her 10th birthday when Fiji, inspired by her hero Waisale Serevi, won Rugby World Cup Sevens for the first time in 1997.
Serevi’s illusive running and mastery of the rugby ball captured the imagination of those watching events in Hong Kong – and Naiqato was no different.
Fiji’s global triumph had sparked something inside the youngster and she was determined to salute the returning champions.
So, following some cajoling from their youngest daughter, the Naiqato family set off from their home in the mountainous Sawakasa region in the country’s north-east to greet Serevi and his victorious team-mates.
“I had to beg my parents,” recalled Naiqato. “I wanted to come and celebrate with the team.
King of Sevens
“I remember, I didn’t even speak to [Serevi] because there were plenty of people and I was sitting right there and the only thing that I touched were his sandals.
“I said ‘I want to be like him one day’ and I did it – even though I’m not very good at side-steps!”
Naiqato has realised the promise she made to herself that day, walking away from an international football career to pull on the famous white jersey.
She has since represented her country at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013, made her HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series debut in Dubai in 2013, the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and emulated her idol when she captained Fiji last year.
Serevi, the ‘King of Sevens’, has also become a friend.
“He gives me advice and he encourages me in what to do next,” Naiqato said. “What to do in training and off-season. I’m really grateful for his help.”
But carving out a career in the sport she loves has been anything but easy.
First Naiqato was forced to deal with what she calls “sarcastic comments” when she made the decision to swap a round ball for an oval one.
Then, in the early years of her Fiji career, there was the physical toll associated with travelling from her family home in Sawakasa to Suva for training five days a week.
In order to catch the first bus to the capital, Naiqato would wake up at 04:00 and run to the nearest bus stop – one hour away. Unsurprisingly, once she reached Suva she was already shattered.
At the end of her session she would be faced with the same arduous journey in reverse.
Naiqato has since moved to Suva, much to the delight of her former coach Chris Cracknell, but that she was prepared to go to such lengths in order to play for her country only underlines her commitment to both Fiji and rugby.
“It’s just the passion and love that I have for rugby – it makes me walk that extra mile,” she explained.
“It was a routine for me every day when I was starting rugby and it didn’t give up.
“I don’t know, I just love this sport rugby and I just want to represent my country in playing this sport.”
It was that desire that also helped her to brush off the negative comments that were directed towards her when she stopped playing football to follow her dream.
“‘Oh, that’s a men’s game, why do you want to play this?’,” Naiqato said, mimicking opinions that are still prevalent in the Pacific Island nation today.
“They all knew that I was a good soccer player and [said] ‘why don’t you stick to soccer? You’re going to get bruised, you’re going to get broken legs – it won’t take you anywhere’.
Noise as fuel
“But deep inside me I know what I want. This is the dream, the passion that I have for this game and I keep going.
“I never look back to what they said, or follow what they want.”
Instead, Naiqato used that noise as fuel to help her improve at the sport she wanted to play. It is an approach that she tries to instil in her team-mates too.
“I really don’t care [about the comments] because I know I’ve got better opportunities by giving my 100 per cent on and off the field,” she said.
“For some of my colleagues it let them down but I’m happy, I talked to them and cheered them up to let them know that those people are just there to pass comments, and their comments are going to make you better and don’t listen to whatever they’re saying.
“You know yourself better, you can do better, and you can be a better representative of our country in future.”
Attitudes in Fiji are changing, slowly. The country hosted both the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship and Oceania Rugby Women’s Sevens Championship last November.
Naiqato helped Fiji to a third-placed finish in the latter, behind only Australia and New Zealand.
“I was really proud to be playing in my home,” she said. “It was the first time for me to be playing the Oceania Sevens back at home.
“And it was a proud opportunity to see the crowd back at home cheering for us, [although] while playing there are still some there passing their sarcastic comments.
“But it’s not a lot of them, most of them are supporting us now. And I hope there’s more tournaments like that that can be played back at home, which can help develop in people’s mind that it’s not only for men, it’s also for women.
“And us women cannot do much better than what we have done.”
Naiqato has had a taste of the adulation that Serevi and co received on that March day back in 1997, having arrived home from Rio alongside Fiji’s gold medal-winning men’s side.
She admitted that the party started as soon as the plane touched down in Fiji, and lasted for a whole week.
Naiqato is determined to make sure that those lining the streets on the road into Suva following Tokyo 2020 will be there for the women.
“I just want to win something for my country and be the heroes like the boys,” she said.
“Unfortunately, we lost to Great Britain in the quarter-finals [in Rio], but the only thing that I asked my team-mates after that quarter-final, when we go back to the Games Village, I asked them ‘can we work extra hard more?’
“I want, at the next Olympics, to be standing on that podium. To take something back home.”