Otago alumnus Eroni Leilua has just returned from the Olympic Games where he became the first Samoan to represent his country at Olympic level in the Laser sailing event.
Brought up in Samoa, Eroni moved to Auckland with his family when he was 12 before relocating to Dunedin for five years where he studied Commerce and Physical Education at Otago.
What were the standout moments of the Olympics for you?
It's hard to put a finger on one or two moments as the entire Olympics was awesome, but the Opening Ceremony was definitely one of the highlights. Being able to march out as part of Team Samoa amongst all the different countries and rub shoulders with some of the best athletes in the world was a very surreal experience. The start of competition was also a big highlight as we had waited so long to be able to get out and compete.
How did you get into sailing and did you ever think it would take you so far?
Mum got me and my siblings into sailing at the age of eight when we were living in Samoa because she did it as a kid with her father (my grandfather) who was a keen sailor. We really enjoyed it, especially the social aspect, but then got into competitive racing and never looked back. I was fortunate to represent Samoa during my junior years in the Optimist and then moved up to the Laser Radial and competed at two Youth World Championships. I then moved to the Laser Standard and competed at two Pacific Games and a World Championship, but the Olympics was always the big goal. I knew it was possible but also knew the possibility was very small and I had a lot of work to do to get there.
What drew you to Otago to study?
There were a couple reasons I chose to study at Otago, but the main reason was to experience something different and live away from home. I had always wanted to study sport and Otago offered an attractive Physical Education degree, which my grandmother had also completed so it made sense to follow in her footsteps.
How did you find your Otago experience?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Otago and had some of the best years of my life there. Made some lifelong friends from all corners of New Zealand and came away with two degrees and many invaluable experiences.
I put sailing on pause when I moved to Otago as the sailing scene wasn't too strong in Dunedin and the weather wasn't that favourable either, so I picked up rugby instead and played social grade in my first year for Studholme. In my second year I joined the Dunedin Sharks and played there until I finished in 2015 and it was the best decision I made as the club and people were awesome.
Where are you working now?
After graduating at Otago I picked up a graduate role in the Fresh Produce Industry at MG Marketing who are a grower cooperative that distribute and sell fruit and vegetables on behalf of growers. I am now in my fifth year with the company and work as a Key Account Manager for one of the major supermarket chains.
What are your future goals?
I have two main goals. I want to qualify for the 2024 Games in Paris and I want to increase the participation of sailing in Samoa and eventually the Pacific Islands.