Moments before taking the stage to perform various spins and catches in his fireknife routine, the 2022 Junior World Fireknife Champion, 11-year-old Elway Tora of Laie, said he had butterflies in his stomach. “[I] tried my best not to think about going on stage, tried not to be nervous.”
This was Tora’s second year competing at the World Fireknife competition. He shared what he felt during his performance on the evening of May 4. “All that nervous stuff went away. In my head [I] was just like, ‘Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it.’ And impress the judges.”
His own little world
Tora’s father, Api Tora, also from Laie, said his son practices his routines in their front yard, “where he [Elway Tora] is just in his own little world.”
The 2022 junior champion stated he only seriously trained for one or two weeks leading up to the competition. “I really only do it for fun, so I would get bored and go outside and just practice,” said Elway Tora of his preparations.
Api Tora added the serious part of his son’s training took place at Vaimatina, a fireknife school in Laie run by former fireknife champion David Galea’i. Api Tora explained, “They have scheduled trainings, weekly trainings, and when it comes leading up to the competition, then they will have it more regularly on a daily basis.”
Along with the weekly training at Vaimatina and solo practice, Elway Tora said he had to learn some intricate tricks, such as “a throw around the neck.” With the help of his coaches, he was able to master this skill, but he explained he mostly taught himself until he “somehow got it.”
Aside from physical preparation, competitors said they must also prepare mentally. Ferila Soatogi Mata’u, a member of the fireknife committee and the backstage crew for the Junior and Intermediate 2022 Fireknife Competition, shared her experience watching the young competitors prepare themselves mentally for their performance.
“Being on stage you have to prepare yourself to go on stage. You gotta be mentally prepared. You know, you gotta prepare mentally, physically and emotionally, to go on stage, and especially when you’re actually performing with fire. It’s very intense.”
For Elway Tora, this mental preparation always involves prayer. “For me, before I go on I say a little prayer, and then I find [an] open space when no one is there. Sometimes our uncle gives us drills to work on.”
Mata’u said mental preparation is a time to rebuild your confidence because fireknife is a dangerous sport and every competitor has their own routine. Not only must the competitors be ready but also the parents, shared Mata’u. She added about 70 percent of parents have had little to no experience in the world of fireknife. Although this is the case, parents and community members alike come out to fully support these young talents, Mata’u said.
Juliana Craig Masaniai, a resident of Laie who has been a presenter of the final awards for the past two years and presented on the evening of competition, said she was very overwhelmed by the talent and support of the community and “that the whole world could watch the kids’ talent.” The event was live streamed for everyone to see.
‘Did they say Elway?’
On the night of the competition, Api Tora said he left the performance due to nerves. “I was sitting out in the parking lot, thinking that you know, what does it really matter if he gets placed or not?”
As the final lineup for awards began to be announced, Elway Tora said he was scared watching the other competitors before him. “I was thinking, ‘Oh no they might win. I’m probably not going to get the title.’ And what made it even worse, all [my] friends were going like, ‘He’s [one of the judges] coming,’ which made me even more scared.”
Despite those feelings, while waiting for the results to be read, Elway Tora voiced he still felt hopeful that it would be him. When he was announced as the winner, he recalled feeling happy.
Api Tora added, “First I was like, ‘Elway? Did they say Elway?’ Then I saw him walk forward and I realized, and it finally hit me [he had won]. To be a parent, it is something that you’re proud of. I’m proud of all who competed. They set the tone for the rest of the kids in this community.”
Regarding his son’s hobby of fireknife, Api Tora expressed his gratitude for how the fireknife school instills discipline and focus. “With what’s going on in the world today and … all the distractions going on, it’s something that we can [use to] get their mind off and focus more on cultural things.”
Mata’u also spoke of the cultural value fireknife offers these young children. “The main purpose of this [competition] is to share the culture, [taking] the culture seriously and actually being [like], ‘This is part of me now. I’m representing Samoa even though I’m not Samoan, but I’m representing this because it’s who I am now.’”
The World Fireknife competition involves competitors from many islands throughout the Pacific and the U.S. mainland, and it has included junior, intermediate, men’s and women’s divisions. Elway Tora won the junior division, which featured competitors ages 6 to 11.
Elway Tora said he plans on competing next year and trying his best with the support of his family and fireknife school.