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Senior Headmaster’s Blog: 'Sevens Heaven'

A very Happy New Year. In fact, it is not just a new year, but a new decade. Social media has seen many people posting pictures comparing themselves in 2010 with themselves now, as people reflect on how much has changed in a decade. If you are sitting at home, thinking how much things have changed in your life, remember that for those still at school, the last decade makes up more than 50% of their life, and so the change is even more significant!
Last term, I asked the students to focus on three key questions about themselves. These focused on work ethic, behaviour towards others and engagement with opportunity. In order to illustrate this, I spoke to the school on Tuesday about the remarkable story of the first Fijians to win an Olympic medal. The story is told in full in the book 'Sevens Heaven' written by Ben Ryan, who had previously been coach to the England Sevens team.

Ryan spent two years trying to get the hugely talented Fijian squad into a position where they could challenge seriously for the Olympic title. In the run up to the games, one of the tournaments took place in Nevada, Las Vegas. The preparations for the Fijian squad for this tournament were about to be torn to pieces, as a huge cyclone was threatening the islands that make up the nation of Fiji. Cyclone Winston struck and struck hard. 40,000 homes were destroyed, 40% of the population was affected, and 44 people were killed. The squad of players suffered too, but instead of it tearing them apart, it brought them together. Hitching lifts, walking for hours, they came together to see what they could do to help their fellow Fijians. Ryan takes up the story:
'All the players were in pieces, hungry, exhausted, emotionally shattered.  Most of the players had barely slept for three days, and none had eaten hot food. I tried to get them to sleep, but instead they wanted to help. And so we went around as heavy movers, as water boys. Getting into the villages and helping with whatever needed doing. The players had left their families to be with the team, not as a selfish act, but because their families wanted them to. Stronger than Winston became the catch-phrase.'
Just a week later, they were due to play in Nevada, battling at the top of the World Series with New Zealand and South Africa.  Ryan assumed that the players would not want to travel, let alone play. The squad had no visas (there was no internet to get them), and sickness had spread through waterborne diseases, so half the squad battled with gastroenteritis, conjunctivitis and the Zika virus. But the players were determined to go, to put smiles back on the faces of the people of Fiji, and to show that they were Stronger than Winston.
Three of the squad were too ill to fly, four others hid the fact that they were still not able to hold down their food. They were late, and jetlagged, lacking sleep, and short of energy. They hadn't trained for days. Two players were too ill to make it out of the hotel, and another ate only a tube of Pringles throughout the three days of the tournament. For the opening match, the exhausted squad overslept, so missed breakfast, and then lost 28-24 to Samoa. For most of us that would have been the final straw.
Back to Ryan.  'Instead the players got together and talked about how things that had gone wrong were things that they could control.  About what their families and friends were going through at home, and what they would think if they found out we had lost a match because we had an extra hour in bed.'  One of the players, Ropate, was at the heart of this. His home had been destroyed, his farm washed away, and his family's life demolished. The players had a ritual of 'lotu', where they gathered before a game, and sang spiritual songs together, which now took on new meaning.  Argentina were beaten, Japan knocked out in the quarter final, and the hosts, the USA, were dispatched in the semi final, leading the remnants of the Fijian squad to the final with Australia.
Australia were on song, and as the wind picked up, they went into a commanding half time lead of 15-0. 'We gathered at half time. Ropate was laughing himself to tears. Smiles on all of us, something bigger than the team.'  Australia pressed, but Fiji broke out from behind their own line, and went the length of the field to score a brilliant try. Then, a mistake by Australia, and Fiji were in again. Suddenly 15-14.  'The ball went loose, and instead of Australia scoring the winning try, we had it. It went to Save Rawaca, away down the right wing, away with defenders in his slipstream, away untouched the full length of the field.'
In the build up, England spent their time complaining about the width of the pitch for the tournament, and New Zealand’s coach was annoyed that there were cupcakes in the dining room, compromising the nutritional directives he had given to his players.  Fiji somehow got themselves out there, and showed remarkable work ethic.  They had already demonstrated extraordinary kindness and support back in Fiji to those who had been worst affected.  Now, they saw an opportunity and took it.  Work ethic, behaviour towards others and engagement with opportunity.  When they faced up to the challenges of the Olympics, a couple of months later, they had this memory to draw upon.  Needless to say, they found a way to win in Rio, beating Great Britain in the final 43-7, earning Fiji their first ever Olympic medals in the process.
Chris Townsend