Undergraduate journeys from the tiny island of Tonga to USC — with a stop at the Tokyo Olympics along the way
- Noelani Day has been swimming competitively since age 8, even though her home country of Tonga does not have an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
- Day was just one of six athletes from Tonga to compete at the Olympic games, where she swam in the 50m freestyle.
- Day is the youngest person ever to swim across the 8-mile long Apolima Strait in Samoa.
The Apolima Strait, an 8-mile corridor of ocean between Samoa’s two largest islands, usually ripples gently in a calm turquoise. When Noelani Day swam across during the annual Apolima Strait Swim, however, it churned with dark, heavy waves. Race organizers declared it the worst conditions the event had ever seen.
To top it off, Day was still recovering from a bout of Dengue Fever she developed after a hurricane swept through her home country of Tonga a month earlier. Day wasn’t too worried, though; she was in good hands. Kayaking alongside was her mother, and swim coach since middle school, Vila Day.
Noelani Day checks her swim time with her mother and coach, Vila Day (standing). (Photo: Tim Allardyce.)
Her mother guided Noelani Day throughout the eight-hour ordeal, and by the end, Day was the youngest person ever to complete the swim across the strait.
Three years later, her mother was there again, cheering on the sidelines as Day swam the 50m freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics, the first Tongan who grew up on the island to swim at the games.
Now, Day is beginning another adventure, this time as a human biology major at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences some 5,000 miles from her tiny island home.
Mother daughter team
Day’s love of swimming began with the family business. Her parents take tourists out to swim with humpback whales around Tongatapu island in their hometown of Holonga Bay, Tonga.
“Whenever my parents went out for a tour, I wanted to come too,” she says. “It’s so fun I never thought of it as work.”
When Day was 8, Ella Mawdsley, a Canadian woman living in Tonga, founded the first local swim club.
“I started swimming competitively and I really liked it,” says Day.
She received some coaching from Mawdsley and then an Australian woman, but both eventually moved away. Noelani’s swimming stalled for a time.
“My mom saw that it was really affecting me. She said, ‘Hey, let’s figure this out together,’” says Day.
Day’s mother than took on the role of swim coach, despite having no experience herself.
“She’s learned just as much as I have. Sometimes I’m coaching her and sometimes she’s coaching me. We work together on it,” says Day.
The primary challenge for the two lay in overcoming the lack of an Olympic-sized swimming pool on the island. Day mostly swam in the open ocean, or the lagoon in their backyard, which they set up with swim lanes using plastic bottles.
Occasionally she would visit nearby Touliki Navy Base to swim in a small pool-like area where they docked boats. “I’m always lucky when I get to train during high tide because then I get to practice flip turns against the rocks. This also usually ends in a lot of coral cuts on my feet and hands,” says Day.
She also trained at Uafu ‘Amelika, an old boat harbor built during World War II that is mostly in ruins due to years of destructive cyclones. Weekend practices often meant swimming from the harbor to small outer islands.
In 2018, Day began attending training camps and competing in events outside Tonga where she could access a proper size pool. When she reached her first camp in Japan, however, her open-water swimming style faced some criticism.
“When I got there, they said my technique was not what it should be. I really had to start from ground zero,” says Day. “After that, it was just about where the next opportunity was that would make my swimming better. Whatever was thrown my way, I just took it.”
Just keep swimming
Noelani Day trained at the Thanyapura health resort in Thailand to prepare for the Olympics. (Photo: Tilali Scanlan.)
In February of 2021, Day began training for the Tokyo Olympics at professional swimming facilities at Thailand’s Thanyapura health resort. The COVID-19 pandemic still had international travel mostly shut down, so Day spent months without seeing her family.
Luckily, there was help from the Trojan family on hand. Alex Tikhonov, a former USC swimmer, along with Thai swim coach Miguel Lopez helped Day prepare for the games. “They gave me the final push that I needed to make the Olympic team,” she says.
By the time the Olympics came around, the games became as much about a reunion as fulfilling a dream. “My first chance to see my mom in months was when she came to the Olympics as my coach,” says Day.
She also had another happy reunion. Mawdsley, the Canadian woman who first inspired Day to start swimming competitively a decade before, was working at the games.
Although her first Olympics wasn’t her best race — she ended up finishing 50th — Day is stoic about it all. “I had my little cry and then I was just so relieved that I’d done it. I put in the work and I got here and that’s what matters. Now it’s time to go back to the pool, work harder and do it again.”
For her mother, it was a satisfying culmination of years of hard work. “It made me very emotional, to think of all those years of struggling, hours in our backyard ocean, and to see her walk out with the top swimmers of the world,” she says.
You can go home again
After her race, Day flew straight to Los Angeles to start her first semester at USC Dornsife. Her goal is to become a physiotherapist. She hasn’t tried out for USC’s swim team yet, but she does have her eye on using the Olympic-sized pool on campus.
She stays connected with her parents and her younger brother, one of her biggest fans, back home through regular Facetime calls. When she’s completed her schooling, Day plans to return to the island — eventually. A little wanderlust is in her blood, after all. Her grandparents and parents were traveling Christian missionaries before they returned home to Tonga.
“Where I come from, when someone makes it off the island, it’s a big deal,” says Day. “After I finish graduate school, my dream is to go home and give kids there the same experience that I got.”