Sports

The Olympic champion raised in a one-room home

Jerry Tuwai: The rugby captain raised in a one-room home

By George Ramsay and Christina Macfarlane, CNN

Updated 7:46 AM ET, Thu May 17, 2018

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Seruwaia Tuwa: Mother of Fiji's rugby hero 02:30

Story highlights

  • Tuwai has captained Fiji Sevens since 2017
  • Won Olympic gold in 2016
  • Family lives in poor region of capital city Suva

(CNN)Knife on one, fork on the other — those are the words Jerry Tuwai inscribed on his first ever pair of rugby boots.

If he wanted to play rugby, his mother told him, he would have to make a living out of it. For families in Newtown, one of the poorest districts on the outskirts Suva, the Fijian capital, rugby boots are expensive. Follow @cnnsport

Raised in a one-room house with corrugated iron walls, Tuwai's family home is modest. But today, to the people of Newtown, the Fiji star represents hope."This is not a good place," Tuwai's mother Seruwaia Vualiku tells CNN World Rugby from the family home. "In this community, there are crimes, but Jerry grew out from this place.

In one of the poorest villages in Fiji, in a corrugated iron house…an Olympic gold medal. And the mother who raised a champion. When you meet Seruwaia Vualiku, you understand how she did it: with resilience, faith and fortitude. A woman I won't forget #rugby #fiji @cnnsport pic.twitter.com/Qaq00wNqhs

— Christina Macfarlane (@chrissymacCNN) April 23, 2018

"All the children, when they play games, they want to be like Jerry. He's setting a standard for them. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke; the children want to follow in his footsteps."Read MoreTuwai, who used to play rugby with plastic bottles and bundled-up T-shirts on the streets of Newtown, is now a world champion, Olympic champion and, most recently, captain of Fiji's sevens side. Understandably, his family are proud. When her son was first selected for the national team, Vualiku cried."I was so overwhelmed with happiness," she explains. "I knew I wouldn't worry about food, about clothes. And Jerry did that for us; for me, my husband and my children.""It's not me, it's not my husband. It's God. Because I know I didn't dream that one day Jerry will be a superstar, a rugby player like this. It was all in God's plan."Jerry Tuwai sinks to his knees after his Fiji side scored a try in the last play of the game to win the Singapore Sevens title over Australia in April. Photos: Jerry Tuwai, Fiji captainJerry Tuwai sinks to his knees after his Fiji side scored a try in the last play of the game to win the Singapore Sevens title over Australia in April.Hide Caption 1 of 6Tuwai is enjoying his second season as captain of this Fiji side, which is currently well-placed to win a third Sevens World Series title in four years and first under coach Gareth Baber. Photos: Jerry Tuwai, Fiji captainTuwai is enjoying his second season as captain of this Fiji side, which is currently well-placed to win a third Sevens World Series title in four years and first under coach Gareth Baber.Hide Caption 2 of 6After making his international debut in 2014, Tuwai has gained a reputation as one of the world's best attacking players, beating defenders with clever sidesteps and devastating speed. Photos: Jerry Tuwai, Fiji captainAfter making his international debut in 2014, Tuwai has gained a reputation as one of the world's best attacking players, beating defenders with clever sidesteps and devastating speed. Hide Caption 3 of 6Despite only being 5'7" tall, Tuwai is fearless in defense. Here he dives into a tackle on England's Tom Bowen in Wellington, New Zealand. Photos: Jerry Tuwai, Fiji captainDespite only being 5'7" tall, Tuwai is fearless in defense. Here he dives into a tackle on England's Tom Bowen in Wellington, New Zealand. Hide Caption 4 of 6Like many Fijians, he is deeply religious, often seen looking to the sky after scoring a try. He has crossed the whitewash 21 times this season. Photos: Jerry Tuwai, Fiji captainLike many Fijians, he is deeply religious, often seen looking to the sky after scoring a try. He has crossed the whitewash 21 times this season. Hide Caption 5 of 6He celebrates winning Olympic gold -- Fiji's first -- in 2016 with teammate Vatemo Ravouvou. <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/11/sport/fiji-rugby-olympics-sevens-rio-2016/index.html">Fiji defeated Great Britain 43-7</a> in Rio. Photos: Jerry Tuwai, Fiji captainHe celebrates winning Olympic gold — Fiji's first — in 2016 with teammate Vatemo Ravouvou. Fiji defeated Great Britain 43-7 in Rio. Hide Caption 6 of 6fiji tuwai singapore australia fijijerry tuwai teamtalk hong kong sevens fijijerry tuwai fiji rugby sidestepjerry tuwai fiji rugby sevens tackle 2jerry tuwai fiji rugby sevens prayerjerry tuwai fiji olympic gold rugby sevensREAD: From teenager to test match, the long road to rugby stardomREAD: British rugby players die from 'breathing difficulties' in Sri Lanka

'The same Jerry'

Tuwai has himself admitted that he was once close to falling onto a troubled path. But rugby, which he only took up after dropping volleyball aged 18, has provided an answer. A diminutive figure at 5'7", the first jersey Tuwai wore for a local team flapped around his knees. What he lacked in size, he made up for with fast feet and lightning speed, jinking past defenders without so much as a hand being laid on him. Now aged 29, Tuwai has made 200 appearances and scored 92 tries in the HSBC Sevens World Series, captaining Fiji since 2017. There's one career accolade, though, that the family holds dear. When he's travelling with the team, Tuwai takes his Olympic gold medal with him in his suitcase — the first and only medal of any kind that Fiji has won at the Games. But when he's back home, the family can proudly display it to friends and neighbors."People who were sitting in wheelchairs, sick men and women in beds — I took it all round the community," Vualiku recalls after her son had returned from Rio."I took it all around the village. I started in the morning from one side of the village, came home for lunch, then took it up and started from the top of the village."New Zealand's Black Ferns inflicted the heaviest ever series defeat on Australia in the final of the Canada Sevens, scoring eight tries in a 46-0 demolition of their rivals. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Langford, Canada – New Zealand's Black Ferns inflicted the heaviest ever series defeat on Australia in the final of the Canada Sevens, scoring eight tries in a 46-0 demolition of their rivals.Hide Caption 1 of 14Fiji moved to the top of the standings with a tense victory over Australia in Singapore. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Singapore – Fiji moved to the top of the standings with a tense victory over Australia in Singapore.Hide Caption 2 of 14New Zealand's Black Ferns backed up <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/15/sport/commonwealth-games-2018-new-zealand-win-first-womens-rugby-sevens-gold-spt/index.html">Commonwealth gold</a> with silverware in Japan after a 24-12 victory over France in final. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Kitakyushu, Japan – New Zealand's Black Ferns backed up Commonwealth gold with silverware in Japan after a 24-12 victory over France in final.Hide Caption 3 of 14Fiji made history in Hong Kong -- the <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/06/sport/hong-kong-rugby-hsbc-sevens-world-series-fiji-spt-intl/index.html">most famous and best-loved leg</a> of the Sevens World Series -- by winning a fourth consecutive title, <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2018/04/08/sport/fiji-hong-kong-sevens-kenya-spt/index.html">defeating Kenya 24-12</a> in the final. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Hong Kong – Fiji made history in Hong Kong — the most famous and best-loved leg of the Sevens World Series — by winning a fourth consecutive title, defeating Kenya 24-12 in the final. Hide Caption 4 of 14Japan gained a berth in next year's Sevens World Series with a 19-14 victory over Germany in the qualifier event. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Hong Kong – Japan gained a berth in next year's Sevens World Series with a 19-14 victory over Germany in the qualifier event. Hide Caption 5 of 14Fiji fans celebrate in Vancouver where their country secured its second win of the Sevens World Series. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Vancouver, Cananda – Fiji fans celebrate in Vancouver where their country secured its second win of the Sevens World Series. Hide Caption 6 of 14Kenya was the tournament's surprise package. Playing in its first final since Singapore in 2016, it eventually went down 31-12 to Fiji. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Vancouver, Cananda – Kenya was the tournament's surprise package. Playing in its first final since Singapore in 2016, it eventually went down 31-12 to Fiji.Hide Caption 7 of 14There was an historic result in Vegas as the Eagles lifted the trophy for the first time on home soil with a 28-0 victory over Argentina in the final. It was just the second title USA has won, the first coming in London in 2015. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Las Vegas, USA – There was an historic result in Vegas as the Eagles lifted the trophy for the first time on home soil with a 28-0 victory over Argentina in the final. It was just the second title USA has won, the first coming in London in 2015. Hide Caption 8 of 14Fiji overturned a first-half deficit against South Africa to <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/05/sport/hamilton-rugby-sevens-fiji-south-africa/index.html">claim its first title of the season</a> in Hamilton -- the first time the town has hosted a Sevens World Series tournament after the New Zealand leg was moved from Wellington. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Hamilton, New Zealand – Fiji overturned a first-half deficit against South Africa to claim its first title of the season in Hamilton — the first time the town has hosted a Sevens World Series tournament after the New Zealand leg was moved from Wellington.Hide Caption 9 of 14Australia's women continued their storming start to the season <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/29/sport/sydney-australia-rugby-sevens-world-series/index.html">in Sydney</a>. Tim Walsh's side became the first team ever to go a whole tournament without conceding a point. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Sydney, Australia – Australia's women continued their storming start to the season in Sydney. Tim Walsh's side became the first team ever to go a whole tournament without conceding a point. Hide Caption 10 of 14There was more good news to come for home fans that weekend. The men <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/29/sport/sydney-australia-rugby-sevens-world-series/index.html">eased past South Africa 29-0</a> in the final, with Ben O'Donnell (pictured) grabbing a brace. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Sydney, Australia – There was more good news to come for home fans that weekend. The men eased past South Africa 29-0 in the final, with Ben O'Donnell (pictured) grabbing a brace. Hide Caption 11 of 14The All Blacks claimed a first tournament victory since March 2016 in Cape Town, <a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/11/sport/rugby-sevens-world-series-round-two-cape-town-new-zealand-haka/index.html">toppling Argentina </a>in the final. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Cape Town, South Africa – The All Blacks claimed a first tournament victory since March 2016 in Cape Town, toppling Argentina in the final. Hide Caption 12 of 14Having finished second to New Zealand in last season's overall standings, Australia's women got their campaign off to winning ways by <a href="http://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/04/sport/rugby-sevens-world-series-dubai-round-one-south-africa/index.html">overwhelming the US 34-0</a> in the opening tournament in Dubai. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Dubai, UAE – Having finished second to New Zealand in last season's overall standings, Australia's women got their campaign off to winning ways by overwhelming the US 34-0 in the opening tournament in Dubai.Hide Caption 13 of 14Last year's world champion South Africa started this season as they ended the last. The Blitzboks <a href="http://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/04/sport/rugby-sevens-world-series-dubai-round-one-south-africa/index.html">saw off New Zealand 24-12</a> in the UAE. Photos: Rugby Sevens 2017-18Dubai, UAE – Last year's world champion South Africa started this season as they ended the last. The Blitzboks saw off New Zealand 24-12 in the UAE. Hide Caption 14 of 14canada sevens black ferns portia woodmanfiji singapore sevens headerblack ferns new zealand sevens kitakyushufiji teasejapan hong kong sevens 2018fiji fans vancouver canada rugby sevenskenya rugby sevens vancouver usa sevens header las vegasPaula Dranisinukula fiji sevens hamiltonrugby sevens season so far 4rugby sevens season so far 5rugby sevens season so far 3rugby sevens season so far 6rugby sevens season so far 2READ: Last-gasp heroics see Fiji lead sevens championshipREAD: New Zealand beat Fiji in Commonwealth Games finalThe Olympic aftermath was a moment that saw Fiji rejoice and Suva become a cacophony of noise as locals sang songs and thumped spoons against pots. "I went to my neighbor and asked if I could borrow her 40-gallon drum," says Vualiku. "I led all the children, the mothers, everybody round the roads with the big drum. Everyone came out." It's a fervor that has long gripped the Pacific Island nation when its team takes the field. In good weather, Vualiku takes the family television onto the streets to cheer her son from the other side of the world. But for all his success — be it the silverware won or the clamor of support back home — the local hero has never forgotten home. "The same Jerry I brought up, the same Jerry that went to New York or Hong Kong, has come back the same Jerry. He's never changed," says Vualiku.

'Little genius'

Idolized back home in Suva, Tuwai also commands respect amongst his players. The side he's captaining currently holds a slender lead at the top of the Sevens World Series leaderboard, chasing a third title in four years with two tournaments remaining on the calendar. "He's my little genius," Gareth Baber, who took charge of the side after the Olympics, tells CNN World Rugby."You can see how much he puts his body on the line. You've got to have ultimate respect for it. It's all very well being 6'6" and 120-odd kilos, but when you're his size and you're still smashing people around like he does — then that commands respect."Not the loudest man in the squad, some questioned Baber's decision to select Tuwai as captain. But, explains the Welshman, "when Jerry speaks, everybody listens.Ben Ryan spent a golden three years with Fiji's sevens team. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyBen Ryan spent a golden three years with Fiji's sevens team. Hide Caption 1 of 10Ryan moved to the Pacific Islands with his interest in the game at its lowest ebb after being disillusioned by his job with the English RFU. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyRyan moved to the Pacific Islands with his interest in the game at its lowest ebb after being disillusioned by his job with the English RFU.Hide Caption 2 of 10Fiji won two successive men's Sevens World Series titles, and backed that up to take Olympic gold at Rio 2016. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyFiji won two successive men's Sevens World Series titles, and backed that up to take Olympic gold at Rio 2016.Hide Caption 3 of 10Ryan built up an amazing rapport with his team, but opted to walk away from the role after the Olympics when his contract expired. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyRyan built up an amazing rapport with his team, but opted to walk away from the role after the Olympics when his contract expired.Hide Caption 4 of 10However, Ryan -- pictured with Ro Dakuwaqa in Rio -- remains closely linked with the Fiji players and is working to ensure they get a fair pay deal for playing on the global stage. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyHowever, Ryan — pictured with Ro Dakuwaqa in Rio — remains closely linked with the Fiji players and is working to ensure they get a fair pay deal for playing on the global stage.Hide Caption 5 of 10The Englishman (pictured celebrating after the Olympic final) closely follows the team's fortunes after parting ways. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyThe Englishman (pictured celebrating after the Olympic final) closely follows the team's fortunes after parting ways.Hide Caption 6 of 10Fiji enjoyed strong support in Brazil during the Olympics. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyFiji enjoyed strong support in Brazil during the Olympics.Hide Caption 7 of 10But that was dwarfed by the celebrations that greeted both Ryan and his players on their return to Fiji after August's Games. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyBut that was dwarfed by the celebrations that greeted both Ryan and his players on their return to Fiji after August's Games.Hide Caption 8 of 10In the ensuing months, Ryan attended a number ceremonies for him and his players. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyIn the ensuing months, Ryan attended a number ceremonies for him and his players.Hide Caption 9 of 10Members of the public would line up at his home in Fiji to give him gifts and thank him for what he had achieved. Photos: An Englishman's island odysseyMembers of the public would line up at his home in Fiji to give him gifts and thank him for what he had achieved.Hide Caption 10 of 10ben ryan fiji players 2014ben ryan shadowy imagefiji team celebrateben ryan fiji team talkben ryan ro dakuwaqaben ryan prayingfiji colour in the standsben ryan street partyben ryan eldersben ryan kid selfieREAD: Former US rugby captain turns to WWEREAD: How rugby is reforming Italian prisons"He's not a shouter, he doesn't scream and shout and demand things — there's other players that I task with that," adds Baber. "What Jerry provides is a real consistent, rational approach to the game."When he comes away [from the field], he is the most humble player. He's the first one with the opposition, win or lose, to go up and shake your hand and say, 'good game.' "The values that he has as a human being and his behavior is exactly what I want my team to look like."Humility motivated Tuwai when he laced up his first ever pair of rugby boots a decade ago.Visit cnn.com/rugby for more news and videosIt was there when, at the start of his career, he bought a washing machine for his family, and it's there when the final whistle blows on a rugby match thousands of miles from home. His mother's words ring true. Jerry's never changed.Original Article

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