Holiday seasons away from family, plenty of other sacrifices and regular workouts Tama Paogofie-Buyten calls “weekly throw-ups” have given three Big Island rugby players an opportunity of a lifetime.
Recent high school graduates Paogofie-Buyten, Isaiah Chinen and Nuu Aiava will compete for a USA Rugby under-19 high school All-American team that will play five matches in South America during a three-city tour.
The Americans will play Chile today and Wednesday in Santiago before taking on Uruguay July 21 and 25 in Montevideo. The U.S. squad will conclude its tour with a match against Argentina on July 28 in Buenos Aires.
Three other Hawaii players — Maui’s Solomon Anitema and Vili Tolutau, and Oahu’s Fito Lagi — will join the Big Islanders in South America.
“It’s definitely a relief that all the sacrifices we had to go through paid off in the end,’’ said Paogofie-Buyten, a defensive lineman on Kealakehe’s varsity football team the past three years.
For Paogofie-Buyten, that relief stems from knowing months of hard work didn’t go to waste.
Paogofie-Buyten said between 22 and 26 players will travel to South America, and all of them needed to prove themselves worthy to national team coach Salty Thompson at scheduled USA Rugby combines in the past eight months.
Both Paogofie-Buyten and Aiava spent last Christmas away from family to attend a camp in Tempe, Ariz., boarding a plane on Dec. 23 and not returning until Dec. 31.
“It really hurt because me and Nuu are both from Samoa, and we have very strong family ties,” Paogofie-Buyten said.
Rugby players were encouraged to attend as many combines as possible. Aiava, who also played soccer for two years at Waiakea, went to two seven-on-seven camps — one in Las Vegas last February and another in England a month later.
Paogofie-Buyten has been a USA Rugby member since 2010, but he said that didn’t mean Thompson gave him preferential treatment.
After Paogofie-Buyten attended the Tempe camp, Thompson told him his chances of making the national team were good — if he continued to work hard and maintain a high level of physical fitness.
“You can’t really earn the spot officially in Tempe,” Paogofie-Buyten said.
Thompson kept tabs on players’ fitness by concocting mandatory fitness training programs.
Chinen, who played running back for Konawaena’s football team and sweeper for the Wildcats’ soccer team the past three seasons, said the program included four weightlifting sessions and four conditioning sessions per week.
Both Chinen and Paogofie-Buyten spent four years with Hawaii Youth Rugby’s Kona Bulls, who won state titles in 2010 and 2012.
“Coach Thompson is an animal,” said Chinen, the MVP at Hawaii’s 2010 state rugby championships. “The physical factor is going to be intense, but it was mostly your emotion and stamina — to keep going when your body is fatigued.”
Each Tuesday presented the biggest challenge: a grueling fitness test. Paogofie-Buyten said the test had several different versions. Players required to run 400-meter sprints in under 70 seconds one week might need to run 10 40-yard sprints in under 5 seconds the next.
“I called it the weekly throw-up,” said Paogofie-Buyten, who plans on playing rugby and majoring in psychology at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo.
When describing what they needed to do to make the team, each player discussed sacrifice.
Chinen said he wanted to spend more time with friends who will soon leave Kealakekua and go to college but didn’t.
He has applied for financial aid at Lindenwood, and if he gets the package he desires, he’ll room with Paogofie-Buyten and consider majoring in sports management.
“I sacrificed a lot of time to enjoy myself, but I know this payoff is worth it,” Chinen said.
Before departing for the tour, Aiava, who wants to major in sociology at Life University in Marietta, Ga., emphasized playing with pride.
“I’m excited to represent Hawaii and the country,” said Aiava, a member of Hawaii Youth Rugby’s Keaukaha Sharks. “I’m pretty pumped. I can’t wait to go out there and give it all I’ve got.”
Paogofie-Buyten isn’t focused solely on personal goals. He hopes his performance leads to more Hawaii players in USA Rugby.
“I want to give back to the village that raised me,’’ Paogofie-Buyten said. “If I bust my bum, hopefully I can bring something back to them.”
But the Big Islanders hope the experience of elite-level rugby doesn’t end in South America.
The 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janiero will include seven-on-seven rugby competition, and all of them hope to get there.
“I just to hope to be a better player, better leader, better everything — to help my development as a rugby player,’’ he said. “My heart is set on the 2016 Olympics for rugby.”