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Matai Leuta’s Road To U.S. Rugby Olympian Went Through His Native Fiji

By Santosh Venkataraman | May 29, 2022, 3:44 p.m. (ET)

Matai Leuta of the United States is tackle by Andrew Amonde of Kenya during the Poll match between Kenya and United States at the HSBC London Sevens at Twickenham Stadium on June 2, 2018 in London, United Kingdom

 

Matai Leuta doesn’t get back to his native Fiji often, yet it’s clear how much the island nation has influenced his life.

The 2020 U.S. Olympian in rugby sevens was born in California and plays professionally for a team in Houston, but it was his upbringing in Fiji where he established his roots — both in rugby and in life.

“It was a great experience,” Leuta said. “I obviously learned to play rugby in Fiji, but just being around the culture and the lifestyle, it has just molded me into the man I am today. So I am forever grateful for that experience.”

Leuta, 31, recently stepped away from the U.S. sevens program to focus on the more established 15-a-side version of the game. Wherever the sport takes him, his upbringing in the Asian rugby powerhouse continues to resonate with him on a personal level, especially now during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Born in Marina, California, Leuta spent his childhood in Fiji learning how to play the sport, where it is a national obsession. Though he returned to the U.S. in time to attend college, he remains in close contact with his family in Fiji. The COVID-19 pandemic has made turning to the island more difficult than usual in recent years, but his family keeps close tabs on him from afar.

“Even the fact that I became a sevens national player — they’re always into it and they’re always in touch,” he said.

Reaching the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year was the culmination of a dream for Leuta. He broke out with the U.S. sevens team around 2015 and looked like a contender to make the next year’s Olympic team, where the sport was also making its Olympic debut.

However, a foot injury kept him off the Rio team. Then came the pandemic, and soon after the realization that the Tokyo Games wouldn’t be held in 2020 as planned.

“Rio was a big disappointment for me, but it ultimately was an opportunity for me to take my time in getting back and also reevaluate myself moving forward. I was still a rookie at that time,” Leuta said. “But obviously with Japan and COVID, it was a huge setback, and a lot of us were wondering because through the headlines and the rumors saying that the Olympics would be canceled, that was a bit nerve wracking for us for me personally because I’ve been working since Rio to make it to that point.”

Ultimately the Tokyo Games did take place, though one year later than originally planned. And in what Leuta described as a “blessing,” he was selected for Team USA.

His first Olympics was a memorable one for many reasons. There was the unusual experience of playing in front of no fans. There was also an up and down tournament for Team USA, which opened with wins over Kenya and Ireland but later fell to Great Britain in the quarterfinals after being ahead 21-0. The Americans ultimately finished sixth.

Leuta made sure he soaked in the entire experience.

“Running out onto that field in an empty stadium was a little weird, but we were told it was going to be like this so we just had to learn how to zero in and focus on the task at hand, which was to go out and play our best rugby,” he said. “And you know, I think we did that for the most part at these Games. Unfortunately it didn’t quite go our way in a few of those games because that’s just how it is, that’s just how the sport is, it’s ruthless.”

 

 

Alongside Leuta was his good friend and teammate Martin Iosefo. The two bonded over their Pacific Islander heritage during their three years bunking together, with Iosefo being of Samoan descent. The duo also left the U.S. sevens program simultaneously, with both looking for a new challenge, Leuta said.

“We had dedicated seven years of our lives to Team USA, and I think we had accomplished what we set out to do,” Leuta said. “And I think it was finding something new to continue to excite us, I guess, moving forward and help promote the game of rugby in America as well. It was time to just step away for a little bit.”

Leuta has joined the Houston SaberCats of Major League Rugby for his next endeavor, and has hopes of making the U.S. 15-a-side team that is seeking a berth in the Rugby World Cup next year in France. A strong performance there would build momentum for a sport gaining a foothold in this country, with the U.S. set to host the event for men in 2031 and women in 2033.

Should Leuta make that 2023 team, the possibility exists that it would be the first of two straight years for him competing on French soil in major events. That’s because the 2024 Paris Games are right around the corner.

“I’m keeping my options open,” he said. “Obviously would I like to make another Olympics? 100 percent. But I’m also kind of playing it as it comes, I don’t know what the future will hold. But the boys will definitely have my support.”

Santosh Venkataraman

Santosh Venkataraman is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
 

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