Crocodiles are a dangerous part of life in Solomon Islands, and when two-time Olympian Sharon Firisua saw eyes peering out of the Yarra River in Melbourne one brisk winter morning after a training run, she feared the worst and shrieked in terror.
Her coach roared with laughter as she fled the riverbank.
“In my country, we believe things happen for a reason, and to be attacked by a crocodile means you have ‘bad luck time’,” says Firisua.
“So, I was grateful it was just a platypus, and I will get to run in the Pacific Games.”
The Games, which kick off on 19 November in Honiara, are one of the most important sporting events for the Pacific region. About 5,000 athletes from 24 nations across the region will compete in the two-week tournament, which is held every four years.
For months Firisua, who will compete in the 5,000m, 10,000m and half marathon events, has been training in Australia. Most of her other teammates have been preparing in China.
“I didn’t want to train in China, and I love it in Melbourne,” she says. “So many options for training and lots of legs of lamb and chips.”
One month before the Games, Firisua travelled back to the Solomons Islands capital Honiara, where she is a celebrity having been appointed as the country’s first-ever tourism ambassador in 2021.
Her roots trace back to Loina village in North Malaita, where her family were traditional subsistence farmers. Firisua worked in the family garden growing various crops, showered in the river, and dressed up once a week for Sunday school at church.
As a teenager her life changed when she won the Honiara Easter fun run in a pair of shoes her uncle bought for her.
“I always took care of those shoes,” Firisua says.
“I would go barefoot everywhere else, but they were my lucky shoes.”
Caring for her sick grandparents paused her budding track career but after they, and her father, passed away, Firisua left with a heavy heart and moved to Honiara to train.
She says running became an escape from her grief: “My family were my closest friends, and the only time I stopped thinking about them was when I was on the track.”
Her career blossomed and after a joyous Olympic debut in the 5,000m in Rio in 2016, she made history at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics when she became the first woman from a Pacific Island nation to compete in a marathon.
Ahead of the Games, Firisua’s house in Honiara has been transformed into a sanctuary for young Solomon Islands athletes eager to follow her path.
She shares stories with them, including one from her grandparents about the significance of tribal runners in ancient times who would take the chief’s message from village to village. Women were not allowed to be messengers and in a world that once confined them to traditional roles Firisua is a pioneer in her field, challenging the old stereotypes.
“In my language my name means Chosen Arrow, so I had to break the barrier,” she says.
Firisua wants to share a message of equality to younger generations in Solomon Islands.
“My message runs from village to village; now girls can do whatever the boys can do.”