An elite athlete who represents his or her country on the international stage generally receives living expenses and medical insurance funded from a variety of sources.
The athlete may also receive paid travel and accommodation for competitions, high quality racing gear, training equipment, coaching, post-workout recovery treatment and nutritional supplementation.
This week in the Blade’s Game Changers series, we meet an openly gay, two-time Olympic swimmer from Tonga who is funding his own training to qualify for his third Olympics this summer in Tokyo.
Amini Fonua represents a country where homosexuality is illegal and elite athletes do not receive financial support. To cover his expenses, Fonua works as a barista along with side jobs teaching private swimming lessons and mentoring high school athletes hoping to swim in college.
In an effort to minimize his expenses and commit to the training needed to qualify for the Olympics, Fonua recently moved from California to New Jersey. His daily schedule consists of work and traveling to New York City where he trains with the New York Athletic Club.
Fonua grew up in Auckland, New Zealand in a sports-oriented family and was active in rugby, basketball and swimming. By age 14, he turned his full attention to swimming.
“At that age toxic masculinity enters into the equation in most sports. In swimming, everyone is equal in the water,” Fonua says. “I enjoyed the underwater silence of being in the pool.”
He qualified for the Junior Pan Pacs in Hawaii at age 17 and was inspired by the level of competition. Also on hand at the event were college recruiters from American universities.
Fonua was recruited by Texas A&M University and began his collegiate career there in 2009. As a gay man, it wasn’t an obvious choice to enter a conservative institution in a conservative state. He calls it a leap of faith for his sport.
“My freshman year I swam sore and I swam tired. The jump from high school swimming to college swimming was intense and physically demanding,” Fonua says. “Over the long term, my swimming benefitted from the extra muscle I added from two-a-day practices, weight training and dryland.”
While he was at Texas A&M, New Zealand began passing him over for national teams and international travel. His Tongan heritage had been an important part of his upbringing and a family trip to Tonga in 2009 brought a new direction.
“My father had been whispering in my ear, ‘Swim for Tonga,’” Fonua says. “There were no water safety programs or swim lessons being offered at the time in Tonga. The Tonga Swimming Association was established in 2010 and I was cleared to swim for them internationally.”
He became the first Tongan swimmer to win a gold medal in international competition when he won the 50 meter breaststroke at the 2010 Oceania Swimming Championships in Samoa.
Fonua served as Tonga’s flag-bearer in the 2012 Summer Olympics Parade of Nations in London and competed in the 100 meter breaststroke. He was not out publicly at the time.
“It was a very memorable experience as my mom is from England,” Fonua says. “I was so well versed in my Tongan heritage — it was nice to experience my mother’s culture as a family.”
After graduating from Texas A&M in 2013, Fonua came out publicly and returned to New Zealand where he began training with his childhood coach. His first meet back after a break from competing was the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland where he represented Team New York Aquatics.
“I really missed the sport and found new inspiration at the Gay Games,” Fonua says. “There is a huge community out there that is passionate about gay sports and swimming.”
His path to the 2016 Rio Olympics included a stop at the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea where he won gold medals in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events breaking two Games records.
When Fonua arrived at the 2016 Rio Olympics he was one of a handful of out athletes competing.
“Rio was a lot more fun, happy and freeing for me whereas London was shrouded with guilt and shame,” Fonua says. “There were plenty of gay athletes and coaches in Rio, but they were not a loud bunch. Many of them are in situations where they can’t share their sexuality on the world stage.”
He gained international attention in Rio when he publicly criticized a Daily Beast article that outed fellow Olympians, including some from homophobic countries.
“I spoke out against the dangers of outing and published a series of tweets that went viral, followed up by a number of media interviews that helped to get the story retracted, with an apology,” Fonua says. “The International Olympic Committee ultimately deemed the article “unacceptable,” which was actually the first time the IOC had ever acknowledged any LGBTQ presence.”
In his quest for a third Olympics, Fonua says that this time it is with a sense of purpose that includes being an LGBTQ representative. He recently signed on as an athlete ambassador with Athlete Ally, an LGBTQ sports advocacy group.
He kicked off his Tokyo campaign by competing at the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics World Championships last summer which were held during Stonewall 50: World Pride NYC.
“Having the power of presence, showing up and doing your best are important when you are representing your community,” Fonua says. “There are many members of the LGBTQ community that are out, proud and successful in the workplace. We need more in the sports community.”
Fonua was disappointed with his 100 breaststroke race at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He says his attitude was one of “bubbling resentment” over not being given the tools and access that other athletes received from their governing bodies.
He is not going to let that happen this time around and has adopted the mantra, “We are the hero of our own story.”
“I want to change the narrative on policy, community support and funding in Tonga. For now, I can’t depend on their support and I have to engage whatever resources are available to me,” Fonua says. “No one is going to swoop in and save me and I owe it to myself to have the best lead up to Tokyo. It is my own responsibility.”
Tonga has never censored Fonua and he takes pride in representing the country. He spent a month last September training in Japan and has a few tune-up meets coming up this year on the road to Tokyo. Included will be the 2020 Oceania Championships in Fiji this June where he is a five-time medalist.
To fund his training camps and competitions, Fonua has set up a GoFundMe page. It isn’t something he is happy about, but it is necessary to complete the purpose of this Olympic cycle.
“I want to be a role model for anyone coming to terms with who they are as a person. It’s important to share this journey with the LGBTQ community and show that you can be your authentic self and achieve a lot of success,” Fonua says. “It’s going to be a big grind to get there and I hope that it ends with that one perfect race.”