Fifteen-year-old Lynfield College student Beatrice Faumuina was only one of the support cast in the 1990 Auckland Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, but the experience was important in shaping her athletics career.
“I was in blue, holding a flag, one of the corners of the ocean,” she said. “I got a huge kick out of it. Before that, I knew nothing about the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics. After it, I wanted to compete at a Games.”
When she woke during the night to watch the 1992 Barcelona Olympic women’s discus final, she was already a champion-in-waiting.
Faumuina, an only child, was born in Auckland in 1974. She was raised by her mother Roini, and her grandmother. As a youngster, family, religion – Pacific Island Presbyterian – and sport were the important ingredients in her life and that never changed, even when she became a famous athlete.
She was a keen swimmer and gymnast, and as she got older she played softball, netball and athletics to a representative level.
In 1988 she enlisted the help of former national throws champion Miriam Stanley as coach. Max Carr, a hammer throw champion, was also added to the mix.
She quickly began producing results. In 1993, when she was 18, she set a national discus record of 55.20m. It was the first of her 11 New Zealand discus records. The following year she won a silver medal behind Australian Daniela Costian at the Victoria Commonwealth Games. She was sixth entering the last round, but a 57.14m throw did the job.
Faumuina’s career went off the rails in 1995 when Stanley died after a heart attack. Distressed and bewildered, Faumuina struggled at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and failed to qualify for the final.
Then Auckland mayor Les Mills became her coach. Mills, a former Commonwealth Games gold medallist, was a student of shot put and discus, and an expert in weight training.
Mills had Faumuina dramatically increase the severity of her weight training, with startling results. At the 1997 world championships, in Athens, she won the gold medal from defending champion Elina Zvereva, of Bulgaria, and Olympic gold medallist Natalya Sadova, of Russia. Faumuina nearly didn’t make the final, having opened the qualifying round with two fouls. In the final she again began with two fouls, but then uncorked a 66.82m that won her the gold. She became the first New Zealander to win a title at the world track and field championships.
New Zealanders watching on television saw Faumuina throw the big one, then wave the discus further. Then came the beaming smile. Faumuina won 23 consecutive discus events in 1997 and was ranked No 1 in the world. The previous New Zealander to be ranked first in a track or field discipline was John Walker, two decades earlier.
Faumuina, who had nearly completed a diploma in business studies at Auckland’s Unitec, became a professional athlete. She performed consistently well on the international grand prix circuit, holding a top 12 world ranking until 2005. She certainly deserved her successes – her training, especially when she worked with Mills, was gruelling, and led to her bulking up to 120kg.
In 1998 Faumuina threw a personal best of 68.52m at Oslo and won the Commonwealth Games gold medal in Kuala Lumpur, with 65.92m. She never quite struck such rich form again.
She fell out with Mills and was not at her best at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when she was 12th.
She retained her Commonwealth Games gold medal at Manchester in 2002, after which she was featured on a stamp in Samoa. However, at Olympics and world championships, she couldn’t quite get among the medals – she squeaked into the Olympic final at Athens in 2004, finishing seventh, and was fifth at the 1999 world championships, and fourth in 2005.
By then her position as New Zealand’s No 1 athlete was being challenged by shot putter Valerie Adams, and the changeover was confirmed at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, when Faumuina had a forgettable day, finishing only fourth, far below her best, while Adams won the shot put gold medal in emphatic style. Her last major Games was the 2008 Beijing Olympics when she was 28th.
By then Faumuina had been a world-class athlete for 14 years and was beginning to look to a life beyond athletics. This involved some television work on the Tagata Pasifika programme and a successful appearance on the popular programme Dancing With Stars in 2006, when she finished second. She was always extremely popular with the New Zealand public, who knew her affectionately as Queen Bea. After her retirement from athletics in 2011 she became chief executive for BEST Pasifika Leadership Academy and Charitable Foundation.
Faumuina, who was the 2004 New Zealand Olympic team captain, won the Halberg Award and the Lonsdale Cup in 1997. She was awarded an ONZM in 2005.