A wave of Marshallese spirit made a splash this week in Tokyo for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games as Kwajalein High School graduate Colleen Furgeson swam in the 100 meter freestyle while Class of 2014 Seventh Day Adventist High School graduate from Ebeye, Phillip Kinono, swam in the 50 meter freestyle.
As the two representatives for the Republic of the Marshall Islands fourth time attending as a country, Furgeson and Kinono join a small group of RMI Olympians since 2008 to compete.
Serving as the Chef de Mission for the Tokyo Olympics, longtime Kwaj resident Amy LaCost serves as the person in charge of the national team during this international sporting event.
LaCost, who has lived and worked in the Marshall Islands for more than 25 years, grew up swimming competitively.
“As my children grew up, I knew that I would be teaching them how to swim,” she said. “There was an established swim team on Kwajalein, so I volunteered to coach swimming throughout the years.”
In 2010, the Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee approached her with the opportunity to be part of the organization.
“I work through the Marshall Islands Swimming Federation as a swimming coach and am the Vice President of Women’s Development in Swimming.”
Tokyo is not her first Olympics, however. In 2012, she attended the Olympic Games in London as a swimming coach where her daughter, Annie Hepler, competed in swimming for the Marshall Islands.
“Because I have Olympic experience for the RMI, and due to the travel ban and since I was already stateside, I was asked and am honored to go as the Chef de Mission this year,” said LaCost. She added that due to the pandemic, she has worked closely with MINOC since 2019 to ensure the RMI athletes are prepared to compete.
Those athletes are college students and currently reside in the U.S., although their families are residents in the Marshall Islands. Both grew up on Kwajalein or Ebeye and were members of the Kwajalein Swim Team as children. This is Furgeson’s second Olympics, having represented the RMI at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
One of the many people in Furgeson’s Kwajalein cheering section is former swimming coach Sarah Stepchew.
Stepchew, like LaCost, is a long-time Kwaj resident and former swimming coach at the 2016 Rio Summer Games, and is extremely proud of her former student.
“Colleen started swimming in elementary school and continued to swim competitively all throughout college, and now having graduated, is still swimming,” said Stepchew. “I can’t say enough about her determination and perseverance through all distractions college life brings the training disruptions due to the COVID virus, and the resulting postponements of competitions. She excelled in both swimming and academics during her four years in college.
Stepchew works as a maintainer on site at the Ground Based Radar at the southwest tip of the island.
“I’m a “Kwaj Kid” having spent several of my childhood years out here and then returning with my husband and kids in late 1995 and have been here ever since.”
Stepchew reflected on her countless hours spent with Furgeson at the pool over the years.
“Many times before sunrise and after sunset in order to get enough practices in around her busy high school schedule, I would hold additional practices on the weekends if we had fallen behind during the week,” she said. “Invariably, after I explained the workout in detail to her, she would offer up her own idea for a workout—always a shorter and easier version of what I had planned for her. Very rarely did she ever get her way.”
Colleen did get her way Wednesday night in Tokyo as she swam a Personal Best at the Olympics in the Women’s 100-meter freestyle with a time of 58.71, setting a new national record for the Marshall Islands and placing in third place for Oceania in third place while placing 44th overall for that event.
For LaCost, Furgeson and Kinono, this Olympics is definitely unique.
Every person associated with the Olympics, from the athletes, support staff, workers in the village and drivers and venue workers must have a COVID test every single day, in addition to being close contact tracked, said LaCost. She says that everyone wears a mask at all times and everyone has to have an approved activity plan in order to leave the Olympic Village.
“The activity plans had to be submitted and approved two weeks before we came to Tokyo,” she said, and added, “we are not allowed to visit any other sports venues except what we are here to do.”
LaCost says that she is proud to work with MINOC and to help represent the RMI at the Olympics.
“I have lived and worked half my life in the RMI,” she said. “My children were all born and raised in the RMI, and our two adult children have returned to work in the RMI and continue to teach and promote the sport of swimming. Our entire family is heavily involved in teaching and promoting swimming, not only from the safety perspective that every human should know how to swim, but also from the competitive and health benefit perspective that swimming is just good for you. It challenges you physically and mentally and helps you in every aspect of your life, regardless of if you just want to go to practice or you want to strive to go to the Olympics.”
Since 2008, the RMI has had six Olympic swimmers, and LaCost has coached five of them, including her own daughter, who represented the RMI in swimming in 2012.
Born in Kankakee, Illinois, LaCost has lived around the U.S. and attended Texas A&M University at Galveston, graduating with a degree in Marine Biology with a U.S. Coast Guard License to work on ships through the Texas Maritime Academy. She obtained an unlimited master’s license to work as a captain on vessels in 1998.
On Kwajalein, LaCost began work in the Marine Department as a ship captain and marine manager in 1995. She has worked part time as a lifeguard, swim instructor, lifeguard instructor and swim coach for more than 20 years. Recently, she has worked as a substitute teacher for the school district and U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Child and Youth Services.
LaCost says that the experience at the Olympics is exciting, a bit scary and truly amazing.
She says she is pleased with the host country of Japan.
“Our hosts are extremely kind, generous, friendly and patient. Although I have seen very little of Tokyo, I am impressed with the cleanliness of the Olympic Village and the city (as seen from the bus going to and from the swimming pool). Many citizens ride bikes around, so I am used to seeing that.
“I can see the Japan Giant Sky Wheel from my bedroom window, and Tokyo Bay surrounds the Olympic Village so we can see many tugs, barges and boats moving by all day,” she said. “There is a lot of pride being displayed by all the athletes in the village by their colorful uniforms, and banners hanging from their buildings. The Marshall Islands is part of Oceania – an IOC recognized “country”. There are 15 countries represented from Oceania. These are our Pacific island brothers and sisters. Although we are all our own separate countries, we live together in the village and root strongly for each other to achieve a personal best and win.”
LaCost added, “There are about 10,000 athletes competing in the Games from more than 200 countries. About 9,700 athletes will go home with no medal, just the experience of having represented their country in their sport, hoping to attain a personal best, make new friends, being “ambassadors” of their countries, teaching others, and learning from other competitors.
“It is an opportunity to meet people from around the world in a safe and inviting environment. It is an important event for the world to have. The IOC and the Japanese have worked very hard for the last 15 months to ensure it the safety of the Games. Even though the stands are empty, the athletes still want to compete, to strive for excellence. I admire them and applaud their hard work and dedication to sport, even as their competitions leading up to the games were often cancelled, making it difficult to continue training.
“The athletes come in all shapes and sizes. It is amazing to watch and helps teach great life lessons about being the best you can be with what you are given. Usain Bolt may be the fastest man on earth for 50 meters, but he would probably not do as well in a marathon race. The size and shapes of Olympic gymnasts might not do well in swimming or basketball events. Each athlete learns valuable lessons about perseverance, pushing themselves to their limits, and then just a little more each time, acceptance of themselves and others, competing fairly and encouraging their teammates.”
About The Athletes
“It feels great to represent the Marshall Islands in swimming. Only a few people have ever gotten to represent the RMI and I am honored to be able to swim.”
Kinono has trained in the U.S. for about 1 and 1/2 years and says it would be a miracle to bring home a medal to the RMI. “It will be fantastic to be able to swim and bring home a personal best,” said the 22-year-old who will be attending Lincoln College in Lincoln, Illinois in the fall.
He credits his proud parents, Mack and Rakai Kinono, with encouraging him to keep swimming and fulfilling his dreams.
“To be given the opportunity to represent the Marshall Islands in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics is truly an honor.” She says that this has been an amazing experience.
“All of the love and support from everyone back home makes representing even more fun and exciting. I am also so happy and honored to have proudly waved my beautiful flag at the opening ceremonies.
“I have been training for Tokyo for a while now, but I was given the FINA scholarship to train in Florida with Azura Florida Aquatics back in February- ever since then, all I did was train for Tokyo,” she said.
“My entire family and all of my friends are beyond proud of Phillip and me. They never fail to mention how proud they are of us. Without a doubt, we could not have done any of this without their love and support. I want to say thank you to everybody who has followed us, cheered us on, and supported us as we represent the Marshall Islands. Most importantly, a huge thank you to the coaches who have helped me get to where I am now.”
The 22-year-old will be working on her master’s degree at Western Illinois University in Sport Management.