Tonga’s Malia Paseka hopes to inspire more women to take up combat sport


Tongan taekwondo player Malia Paseka of Tonga’s brief and bruising Olympic debut consisted of just two things: being kicked in the head and falling down.

Neither ideal when you are the first female fighter from your nation ever to take on the best in the world at Olympic level.

But Paseka insisted it was all “a pleasure and an honour” after she left Makuhari Messe Hall having failed to last a single round in two bouts of the women’s -67kg event.

Paseka is a 20-year-old figurehead for women’s sport in the Polynesian kingdom she calls home, one of just five female taekwondo black belts in a country where the ‘combat sport’ from which most people get their kicks is rugby.

She qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in Australia last year and was selected to carry the flag for her country at the Opening Ceremony on Friday, an honour that left her head spinning at the thought of her parents and six siblings watching back at home.

On Monday, her head was spinning for a different reason when Lauren Williams of Great Britain landed a thumping kick on her helmet early in the first round of her opening contest.

It sent Paseka crashing to the mat and a short while later the referee halted the tie. The Tongan had not even scored a point having lasted just 44 seconds.

Yet when Williams made it to the final Paseka was back on court for a repechage fight against Hedaya Wahba of Egypt who went on to claim one of the two bronze medals.

This time Paseka lasted more than a minute before the referee stepped in, the Tongan having been forced off the mat or on to her knees 10 times, incurring 10 penalty points in the process.

Some in her position would have crept away but Paseka emerged smiling and unbowed, proud of her place in Tongan Olympic history.

“I’ve never experienced such fighters before,” she said. “But even though I didn’t do that well it’s such a pleasure, such an honour.

“Back home, I’m the best, I’m used to winning. But today I kept getting hit. That’s quite normal in taekwondo but I was almost knocked out in the first round. That was new for me.

“I’m still proud of what I’ve achieved. There aren’t many who make it to the Olympics.

“I kept getting knocked down, and I kept getting up again. I lost the games, but I count myself a winner just for being here. My journey has just started.”

If all goes well the next step of that journey will be to re-join her coach, Paul Masitapa who is in New Zealand, the pair having been separated for months by the Covid-19 pandemic. The aim is to be together consistently at a new training base in Brisbane, Australia.

“He’s the person who’s inspired me most,” Paseka said. “It’s been quite tough at the moment. I’ve had to take my journey to the Olympics on my own and train by myself.”

Improving at the sport she has loved since she was 11 is only one of her ambitions, however. Getting more Tongan women to take up taekwondo is the long-term goal.

“I really love inspiring women in sport,” she said. “That’s what I aim to do in my life.

“There aren’t many who compete in taekwondo in Tonga. It’s kind of new and mostly it’s only boys.

“I’ve been trying to motivate more women to take part. So being here in Tokyo as the first female, I hope it will have some influence, said Paseka.