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Atoa Fitness Gataivai: The little gym making a big impact in Savai’i

When New Zealander, Muliagatele Zane Langford first laid eyes on the island of Savai’i over a decade ago during a trip with wife, Lina, he was instantly captivated by the beauty and way of life on the big island.

“I immediately fell in love with the island of Savai’i, the weather, the people, the culture and traditions, the scenery and the beautiful village of Gataivai,” said Zane. “From that point on we knew that this was where we wanted to bring our children up, and eventually in 2020 we made the decision to start a new life over here.”

Despite being the only “Palagi” (foreigner of European descent) in the village, Zane took everything in his stride and embraced his new home with enthusiasm. With his easy-going nature and ability to laugh at himself it did not take him long to win over his community.

“It’s interesting being the only Palagi in the village, especially with no tourists around at the moment, I certainly stand out. The village kids used to love yelling out “Palagi!” whenever I walked past but now they know me so they will call me by my name. Although Zane has been changed to Shane as the ‘Z’ sound can be a bit tricky!”

After spending 24 years in the New Zealand Army, the semi-retired soldier tried to stay in shape by continuing his morning runs but the local stray dogs had other ideas which eventually led him to establish Atoa Gym.

Atoa Fitness Gataivai: Open for business

Not only did it provide him a space to work out but it was a way to promote the importance of a total approach to health and engage local youth and locals with an opportunity to learn about exercise.

“The local dogs do not care one bit about my need to stay aerobically fit and quite often packs of them will surround me while I’m out running,” he laughs. “ I’ve had to roundhouse kick my way out of a few canine assaults over the last couple of years and have now learned to run with a handful of rocks to throw at them while shouting ’halu!’. I can’t really blame them for being angry and confused though, most of them have never seen a Palagi before, or someone running, so a Palagi who is running must really set them off!”

Establishing a gym in one of the remotest places in Samoa calls for a little ingenuity but luckily the Southlander from Aotearoa was experienced in being resourceful and a lot of his gym equipment is produced with whatever materials they could find within their surroundings.

“Some of the gym equipment we have is salvaged parts from what we have around the place like old tires which I sourced from a gas station in Salelologa. The owner was happy to donate the spare tyre to me, and the metal pipes we recycled from an old gate we had when we first arrived. Once you tell people what you’re going to use these items for, they are really supportive and give freely. We got some logs from Black Sand Beach, we just put some handles on them and people can use those as lifts.”

Initially Zane charged a small fee of $2 tala per gym session but realising how little income is earned in the rural villages, he adopted the Samoan approach of “tautua” and opened up the gym free of charge with the occasional exchange of fresh local produce for “payment”. His vision to make health and fitness training and education available to all Samoans outweighed sticking to any traditional business model.

“My gym is definitely not a great business model but it has drawn on the Samoan way of serving the village before self. We have free Combat Strength Training (CST) sessions at 6am every morning and have recently made it free entry for all at any time during the day.”

“We used to charge $2 entry but have learnt that money is hard to come by out in the villages of Savai’i, particularly for young people, and we really want to encourage our people to get exercising. By making it free, it takes away another excuse and makes it accessible to everyone which is part of the gym’s vision. We do accept delicious naturally grown Savai’i fruit and vegetables in lieu of money if people want to give something though!”

Over time he saw there weren’t a lot of opportunities for Savaiians to learn how to exercise and he decided to extend his services further by opening up his gym to other villages, and offering mobile coaching sessions to groups and businesses around the island.

“I saw that although the demand for a fitness provider was low, the need for it was high, and all it would take is one brave person to forget about what others would think and put themselves out there and others would follow. Fortunately that has happened and over 30 people are now regularly taking part in the mobile sessions or visiting the gym. I’ve been working regularly with a group in Papa Sataua, a women’s group in Sili and the team from SSAB in Salelologa.”

According to Zane, the response from the youth in the village has been great but he would love to see older people use the facilities especially the morning sessions. He has found the most popular activity at the gym is boxing especially amongst the youth including his disabled sister-in- law, Lafo, who loves working out in the gym.

Atoa Fitness is for everyone: boxing is popular with the youth and sister-in-law, Lafo.

“The boxing is the main thing that the boys love. They’ll come in here and I’ll take them through some techniques in protecting themselves so they don’t get hurt,” he said. “Lafo is my disabled sister-in-law, she loves punching the bag because she can’t walk or run very well so that’s her bit of fitness. We want people to understand that fitness is for everyone and it doesn’t matter if you’re able-bodied or not, we can adjust and modify things for everyone from the little kids to the elders. Health and fitness is for everyone and you’re never too old to improve the quality of your life.”

After spending many years in the army, Zane is accustomed to living by the soldiers’ creed of selfless service, respect, loyalty and strong sense of duty, which he discovered are also values that make up the pillars of traditional Samoan culture. Zane and his wife are active members of their community and have dedicated themselves to serving their village in any way they can using their knowledge, experience, and talents.

Last year he combined his love for running and Savai’i by raising SAT$40,000 in the “Barefoot Palagi Challenge” which saw him run the perimeter of Savai’i in his bare feet over four days. His goal was to raise money for a new primary school in his village and prove to the people of Savai’i that they didn’t need to have expensive equipment or shoes to improve their health and fitness. Shortly after the successful fundraiser, he was bestowed the chiefly title of “Muliagatele” by the village council in recognition of his exemplary service to the village.

“I really like the idea of through service comes leadership. Everyone has to serve their village, their church, and their family before any individual rewards comes their way. This is basically the opposite of western culture and it’s a great lesson to any palagi in putting the needs of the group or team before the needs of yourself.”

“Just like a promotion in the military, with this title comes the obligation to serve those who you are answerable to but more importantly to serve those who you are responsible for. I will continue to use the vision of Atoa Fitness Gataivai to help lead the improvement of the health and well-being of all Samoans within the village, throughout the island, and country of Samoa.”

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