by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

ROME — She was all alone coming down the stretch. That’s because everyone else in the race had finished. Some were already back at the hotel, eating dinner.

Ha! No. Only kidding there. But she was last, all right. By a lot. These were the World Track and Field Championships. This was an opening heat of the 1,500 meters — four times around the track — and she was with the leaders at the end of the third lap. Their third lap. She was still on her second.

“I heard them coming,” says Georgiana Tomisato, “and then, they lapped me. They were going so fast!”

So fast? Well, yes. These are the best in the world. The best in their countries. And Tomisato is the best in her country.

Her country is American Samoa, population 34,000. She is its first World Championships competitor. Why? Simple. At 33, married, the mother of one, she is, the fastest woman on her island.

“What track do you train on?” I ask.

“We don’t have a track,” she says.

“Where do you run?”

“There’s a road that goes around the island.”

“What’s it called?”

“Just . . . you know . . . the road.”

“How about your national uniform?”

“I got this at a shopping mall.”

“I didn’t know they had malls in Samoa.”

“LA. I got it during the flight layover.”

Self-starter, organizer

Now, I admit, I would not have noticed Tomisato had she finished anywhere with the others. But she was so far back that soon she was the only figure on the track. She moved like several runners I remember well — from gym class — and the crowd began to urge her on.

When she finally crossed the line, in 5 minutes, 49 seconds, she smiled faintly and the crowd applauded wildly. She had missed making the semifinals by only one minute and 44 seconds.

But this is not about winning. This is about trying. Trying to keep up. Trying to finish. Trying to avoid bullets. “I had never run in a race that was started with a gun before! When it went off it scared me. Then I just ran.”

Let me describe Tomisato. She is not tall or svelte, like many women runners; she has black hair, an island look and a disarming smile. I tell you this because you might want to know, and because we have no photos on file.

You may also ask how she qualified. Well, she won the Samoa marathon. True, she was the only runner. But that is not unusual. She often organizes the races, puts ads in the papers, heads the committee, then runs by herself.
“It’s hot there,” she says. “People don’t like to run in heat.”

But there is one other runner. And that is mostly what this is about. In addition to a full-time job and an infant daughter, Kimiko, Tomisato is the coach of perhaps the only other Samoan female with track shoes, a 13-year-old schoolgirl.

“I’m trying to inspire her,” Tomisato says. “I’m 33. I can motivate myself. But it’s going to be hard for her to stay with it. She needs public support.”

Tomisato hopes running here — and possibly in the Olympics next year — will provide that. And it might. Although she may need a more identifiable uniform. Something with “Samoa” on it. She was going to wear one she wore at a recent island competition, until her husband nixed it.

“It said ‘Hot Dog City’ on the back. Martin didn’t think that was appropriate.”

Nah. Good call, Martin.

Take a left, and go

Now perhaps some of you have dreamed of competing in World Championships, but for some reason, like adulthood, you got sidetracked. Well, here’s your chance. Take a left at Hawaii, and go 2,300 miles. According to Tomisato, you need only live in Samoa six months to compete under its flag. Which may not be as easy as it sounds.

“I tried to get my brother, who is a runner, to live there. He couldn’t take it. There’s really nothing to do. No nightlife or anything.”

Tomisato, who was born in the United States, came to Samoa seven years ago.

She runs a language program and works with children. She never intended to be an athlete, but suddenly it is a means to an end. Even if the end is the only part she sees.

“I wasn’t embarrassed out there. I was numb. But hopefully they will write about this in the big newspaper back home, and the girl will see it.”

“The, uh, big newspaper?”

“The one that comes out twice a week.”

I knew that. I just forgot.

Now, some people might think it stupid to write about the dead-last runner in the first heat of a track event. Some people might think headlines are for winners only. But I don’t. I think what Georgiana Tomisato is doing is kind of nice. And I wish her luck.

“Will you be back at the World Championships four years from now?” I ask.

“Are they every four years?” she asks.

A lot of luck.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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