There was sweat, blood, and tears. Ok, well maybe there was no blood (at least none that I saw), but yesterday's Liberation Day Games illustrated Pohnpei athletics at its finest. After two weeks of rigorous training, student athletes from PICS, Madolenihmw High School (MHS), and Nanpei Memorial High School (NMHS) congregated at the Pohnpei State Track and Field to do battle, undeterred by the merciless sun and sweltering humidity. There were no camera crews, no major sponsors, no state of the art facility. Instead of internationally-recognized athletes, there were local standouts; instead of technologically-superior footwear, there was a hodgepodge of hand-medown- spikes, sneakers, and even some good ol' fashioned bare feet. Instead of individuals sacrificing their formative years for one race, there were bright-eyed youth eager to try something new. After four years of Division I athletics and an international track and field scene laden with scandal, I could not have found the Liberation Day Games more liberating. This was athletics in its purest form.
The day began at 10AM with a procession of athletes and coaches, as well as a welcoming ceremony, which included speeches from the Liberation Day elementary school speech contest and an exuberant belting of the national anthem by students from Pohnpei Early Childhood Education. After the opening rituals, the athletes jumped into their warm-up regimens, filling the air with an intensity that conveyed the ever present rivalry between the schools. The running events kicked off with the 100 meter preliminaries, and was followed by the 1500 meters, 200 meter preliminaries, 800 meter preliminaries, and 400 meter preliminaries. After a brief lunch break, competitors returned for the finals in the 100, 200, 400 and 800, and the highly-anticipated 4X100 meter relay. While NMHS, notorious for its sprinters, claimed the men's 100 and 200 and the women's 100, 200, and 400, PICS made quite a presence in the middle-distance races, capturing victories in the men's 400, 800, and 1500, and the women's 1500. In the relay, the ladies from NMHS blew the competition off the track, assembling a quartet of the top sprinters from the 100 and 200 meter distances. For the men, a tragic baton/water bottle drop during the final exchange cost NMHS the title, which was instead claimed by MHS.
The field attracted a talented bunch as well, seeing athletes from all three schools compete in the long and triple jumps. While PICS claimed both men's titles, the women's jumps were split: NMHS went 1-2 in the long jump, while three PICS athletes went 1-2-2 in the triple jump (tie for second at 8.08 meters). The javelin throw was scratched from the meet due to a lack of implements.
Although the athletes' display of sheer determination inspired all who watched, they were not the only ones putting forth their best effort. Coaches from PICS, NMHS, and MHS, bus drivers, Pohnpei State Department of Education employees, and various others volunteered their time and effort to make the Games such a success. And thanks is due to all spectators who encouraged the athletes with their presence and words of inspiration (and provided just as much entertainment as the competition itself).
During lunch, while a friend and I sought refuge in the stands from the near 100 degree heat, we watched elementary-age children flock to the track, running and jumping in spontaneous competition. We could only laugh as they clenched their teeth and flailed their extremities, set on claiming their place at the top of the podium. Children everywhere have heroes; this time, however, it wasn't Michael Jordan or LeBron James. This time, it was some local high school athlete from the 2008 Liberation Day Games. When that happens, everyone wins.