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Mela steps up

Woman at the front of a dance class.
Mela leads from the front.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Gymnastics is taking its first steps in the Pacific island nation of Fiji, with a fun and friendly format designed to lure locals. It might not yet be in every village but it has already succeeded in finding and developing a Fijian face of the sport.

AeroGym.

The word, and the sport, is an amalgam of aerobics and gymnastics. Both are well known for being easy and fun to try but incredibly challenging to truly master.

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Mela Lutunauca will vouch for the truth of that. Almost as challenging as organising dozens of schoolchildren who are squealing with excitement as they prepare to have a go at mass outdoor AeroGym on Fiji's Pacific Coast.

Mela has succeeded at soccer, netball, rugby, athletics and even golf before. But gymnastics has become not only her preoccupation, but her occupation.

"Yes, I'm getting better," she says when asked about the physical and mental dexterity and dedication required by the sport.

"I am getting there. I can see the difference [from] those who are used to it, whereas I am just starting. But I am getting there."

- Mela Lutunauca

Woman organising a group of students.
Mela has had to develop a range of skills in her new role, including crowd control.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

And it is not just the routines and the child-wrangling Mela is mastering. When, as a school volunteer, she first sampled the sport, shyness forced her to the back of the room.

But one of the key aims of the Australian Aid-supported AeroGym sport for development program is to build leadership capacity in women. The shy girl at the back of the room was soon noticed.

Close up portrait of young girl.
Gymnastics is trying to find and develop inspirational women across Fiji.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Mela has now been trained in face-to-face teaching and leadership, all the while working on her routines. She is flourishing as the Gymnastics Federation of Fiji's Sport Development Officer and is the local face of the sport in her nation.

"You can get all the exercise you need and Fijians love the music and the routines," she says, making the argument for why the sport ought to take hold across the islands.

"In other sports, you learn one thing. Here you learn a lot of routines."

- Mela Lutunauca

Women with group of children stretching.
Jodi Sleaford leads the warm down.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Jodi Sleaford agrees the sport is ideal for Fiji, but largely because of the program's flexibility and lack of expensive equipment. The aerobic gymnastics expert has travelled to Fiji to assist the pioneering program.

"You don't need to have any background," she says.

"You can just turn up. You can have fun. You can have it as a recreational class, you can have it as a competitive class, you can actually have recreational competition.

Women with class of children doing exercise.
AeroGym is fun, cheap and easy to organise.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"It doesn't have to go to plan. You can have one person turn up, you can have 100 turn up and you can run the same thing.

"It's all about getting everybody up and getting some exercise."

- Jodi Sleaford

Like Mela, Jodi is an inspiration and a living example of what is possible for those cautiously sampling gymnastics in the Pacific.

She only discovered the sport as an adult and mother and has risen rapidly through the ranks.

"It's compatible to all ages so you've got women, you've got children of any ability and they can come and join an aerobics class and from there they can take it wherever they want to take it,” she says enthusiastically.

"So if we start the groundwork and get those basics steps of the AeroGym program in place, this is where we can take it to that next level."

- Jodi Sleaford

Students outside taking part in a gymnastics class.
There is hope gymnastics will take root in Fiji.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

As Mela moves around Fiji collecting more converts, and other international specialists share their expertise, the focus is firmly on the future.

But every time the once-shy Mela takes control of a crowd or stands out front, ready to lead the way when the music starts, the sport of gymnastics and the young girls in the room have living, breathing, bouncing proof of the good that has already been done.

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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