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Theo Piniau: Putting Papua New Guinea in the running for recognition

PNG Athlete Theo Piniau
PNG Athlete Theo Piniau.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Usain Bolt may be the hero of Rio, if you walk the streets of Rabaul, Papua New Guinea it is Theo Piniau, that everyone is talking about. The athlete has added Olympian, to the roles of scholar, traveller, ambassador and inspiration to many. It all became possible because he listened when encouraged to pursue his dream.

Student Theo Piniau might still be learning, but the 23-year-old also spends plenty of time educating others.

“They think I’m from Guinea,” he says. “So, I have to explain.”

Theo patiently informs them he isn’t from the small country on the West Coast of Africa. He is from Papua New Guinea, in the south-western Pacific, and more specifically, Rabaul, in East New Britain.

Theo Piniau back home in PNG
Theo Piniau back home in Papua New Guinea.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Papua New Guinea hasn’t been especially well known in Canyon, Texas, where Theo spends most of his time these days. But he is changing that. This slightly-built sprinter has a track and field scholarship at West Texas A and M University and has just showcased his nation on the world stage, lining up in the 200-metre sprint at Rio Olympics.

The four-time Pacific Games medallist was well below his best, finishing 8th in his heat and struggled to hide his disappointment. But to his home crowd he is still a hero.

Piniau competing the Rio Olympics
Piniau competing the Rio Olympics.

Courtesy PNG Olympic Committee: Jason Pini

“They are always very proud of me,” he says humbly.

“Whenever they see me, they come shake my hand and give me a hug and tell me; ‘Well done, son. We are proud of you. Keep doing what you are doing.’

“They ask a bunch of questions and I have to tell the same story over and over.”

After years as a speedy soccer player, he took up athletics in his final years of high school and it was soon apparent he had a world-class talent. But rather than listen to the growing chorus of praise, Theo knuckled down and stepped up his devotion to study.

Piniau is encouraging others to expand their horizons
Piniau is encouraging others to expand their horizons.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

“I tried running and I did really well in the 100 and 200 metres, so that gave me the confidence to try to be better but I had classes to worry about and I didn’t want to drop out,” he says.
Then, opportunity knocked. In 2013, Theo was encouraged to apply for an Oceania Australia Foundation scholarship which offers two years of education and sports competition at selected US Junior Colleges.

His application was successful and the wide-eyed boy from provincial PNG was soon in a car in rural Iowa, USA, en route to his first day at Southwestern Community College to study business.
“It was so weird,” he remembers.

Piniau admits study and training can be a grind
Piniau admits study and training can be a grind.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

“I started to see all these cornfields and I was thinking to myself ‘Hang on, are we going to Smallville or what?’

“The first few weeks it was really tough but then I just kept myself busy working on everything I had to do; training, school, training, school, staying healthy and eating right. I had to adapt.”

Back home visiting family after his Rio adventure, Theo is convinced the scholarship has opened doors and opened his eyes.

“I’m glad I chose this road because it was a big transition for me going there and doing a lot of things and look how far it has brought me.

“There’s a time for everything. There’s no need to stress about any other distractions that come your way. Being a teenager, relationships tend to affect us; school and everything.

“Forget about all that and focus on what you gotta do. Do what you gotta do and your time will come. For now, get your heads down and study, get to work, go to training and grind.”

It will be back to the grind soon enough as studies and athletics training resumes and Theo once again farewells his homeland. He plans to bring his skills back home to stay one day.

Piniau is working hard to improve his times on the track
Piniau is working hard to improve his times on the track.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

But first, he wants to take on the world as a proud Papuan New Guinean athlete and businessman.

Perhaps he’ll even get the chance to visit Guinea.

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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