When the Papua New Guinea team marches into the stadium at the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in Australia in April, there will be one notable absentee: the track queen of the Pacific, Toea Wisil.
The sprinter has been disciplined for unsporting actions at the Pacific Mini Games in Port Vila three months ago, and after relations with her coaches in Australia broke down, she is back in PNG, trying to get her athletics program back on course.
It is the latest twist in a career that has seen one of the most talented track athletes ever produced in the Pacific never quite reach the heights that a succession of coaches have said she is capable of achieving.
Wisil won a hatful of gold medals at successive Pacific Games, and just last year she became the first athlete from PNG to take out the Australian sprint double, winning both the 100 metres and 200 metres at the national championships.
Those performances should have been the catalyst to go to the next level, and under the watchful eyes of husband and wife coaching team, Tony and Alison Fairweather, one of her key targets was the 100 metres final at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
But instead relations between athlete and coach began to deteriorate, Wisil’s training regime began to tail off, and after a poor performance at the World Championships in London, matters came to a head.
“Her training dropped off, her attitude dropped off,” Fairweather said.
“We had a couple more weeks competing in London, and I wasn’t overly impressed with those races.
“I said to her you’ve got to put more effort into your training and be a bit more discipline … we were arguing a lot, which I didn’t like, it was like I was forcing her to do it.
“We went from 20 hours to probably six to eight hours a week, so I just said, ‘That doesn’t cut it’.”
By the time it came to the Pacific Mini Games in Vanuatu last December, Wisil and the Fairweathers had parted company.
‘The vibes were bad, it shouldn’t be like this’
Toea Wisil’s coaches said if she was more committed she could be a 10.8 seconds runner. (Reuters: Phil Noble)
Fairweather said there was still no excuse for the athlete’s behaviour in Port Vila, where she suffered a shock loss in the 200 metres final to her former training partner, Patricia Taea from Cook Islands.
“The vibes were bad there and I thought they’re good friends and it shouldn’t be like this,” Fairweather explained.
“I felt Toea was playing [mind games], there was no need for [that], and I think it all boiled down [to the fact] that Patty won the 200, quite convincingly, and Toea, instead of coming up for the medal presentation, snubbed it.”
It is that action that has cost Wisil her place at the Commonwealth Games, with Athletics PNG opting to impose a suspension amid the full backing of the National Olympic Committee.
“The PNG Olympic committee has upheld the decision of Athletics PNG in view of the fact that it was a serious breach of protocol,” secretary-general Auvita Rapilla said.
“Certainly it is disappointing, but like everyone else, they make mistakes and we’re hoping that she learns from this mistake and she has a better focus going forward.”
While it is a bitter blow for the PNG team to head to the Gold Coast without their star athlete, the president of Athletics PNG, Tony Green, said Wisil’s career was by no means over yet.
“We have a full time coach in country for at least the next two years under an IAAF funded program and he’s working with Toea in Garoka,” Mr Green said.
“Toea is still on an Olympic scholarship, that’s her medium-term focus. So she’s looking forward to the Pacific Games next year, and the Tokyo Olympics.”
Toea is a big talent, but there remains a big problem
Every coach that has ever worked with Wisil has said much the same thing: masses of talent but not always the easiest person to work with.
It is a problem that Mr Green acknowledges, but one that he believes can be overcome.
“It’s not the first time she has split with her coach, that’s true … but now that we’ve got Toea back in PNG, I think it’ll be easier for us to work with her and manage her better. It’s been a bit difficult while she’s been in Australia,” Mr Green said.
“Toea wanted a bit more freedom to make decisions for herself, and that caused a bit of friction with the coaches. They were demanding a certain level of commitment and Toea felt as though it was a bit too much.”
Wisil’s now former coach Fairweather said her poor performances in London, and the unexpected defeat at the Mini Games to her friend and rival, added up to a reality check.
“Sometimes you’ve got to learn to take defeat and move on and be stronger,” Fairweather said.
Toea Wisil thrilled the crowd with a gold medal-winning performance in the women’s 100m at the 2015 Pacific Games. (GNS: Susie Pini)
Wisil is certainly capable of overcoming adversity, as she proved at the Pacific Games in Port Moresby in 2015, where she rose above the personal tragedy of losing her father and brother, to triumph in front of her family and adoring fans on her home track.
Her coach at the time was Sharon Hannan, who mentored Australia’s Olympic champion hurdler Sally Pearson for more than a decade.
After watching her win the 100 metres final at the Pacific Games, Hannan said Wisil was good enough to mix it with the very best — but there was a catch.
“If she was an unbelievably committed athlete and never missed a session, I guarantee that she could run 10.8 seconds [with] the Americans and the Jamaicans,” Hannan said.
“But she comes from a different culture and they don’t see things like that as an absolute priority. She trains reasonably well, but to be a 10.8 runner you have to be totally dedicated.”
And that has been the crux of the matter throughout Wisil’s up and down career.
“When she’s in a good frame of mind, she’s lovely to coach, but when she’s not in a good frame of mind, she’s difficult,” Lloyd Way, one of her former coaches, said in 2013.
Wisil has already indicated that she plans to retire after the Tokyo 2020 Games, but whether she can deliver a last hurrah on the big stage by making an elusive Olympic semi-final is most probably a question only the athlete herself can answer.