Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Tara Molle
American Samoa is affectionately known as ‘Motu o Fiafiaga’ or the Island of paradise and happiness. If one were to walk around the villages there, they’d be greeted by gracious smiles and waves from several of the locals. The occasional ‘talofa!’ or hello is yelled by young children playing kickball with their friends as stray dogs watch lazily in the warm tropical sun. For Coast Guard Auxiliarists Mike and Paula McDonald, this is home.
American Samoa lies 2,566 to the southwest of Hawaii in what might be considered the center of the Pacific Ocean. It is an unincorporated territory of the U.S. and home to more than 55,000 residents. The economy revolves around the public sector, private sector and the last remaining tuna cannery, which exports several hundred million dollars worth of canned tuna to the U.S. annually.
Mike and Paula have a unique connection to American Samoa. They’re originally from there, yet both have one parent from the mainland. Mike’s mother is from American Samoa and father is from South Dakota and Paula’s father is from American Samoa and mother is from North Carolina.
It’s a cool, cloudy Saturday morning in the village of Utulei and a perfect day for a triathlon since it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Mike and Paula stand amongst the rocks closely watching several heads bob up and down in the sea as they make their way back to shore. Mike gets into position to take a photo as an elderly man emerges from the sea visibly tired but in good spirits.
‘Great job, John!’ yells Paula as she checks her stopwatch and writes his time on her clipboard.
‘Someone check my pulse to see if I am still alive,’ replies John as he chuckles out loud.
Both Mike and Paula smile and shake their heads, keeping a keen eye on the other participants as they too begin to emerge from the water and head to their next leg of the race.
When the couple isn’t co-coordinating triathlons, they keep busy with their fairly new business, South Pacific Watersports. SPW is about a year old and is a mix between a rental store for watercraft like kayaks and stand up paddleboards and a fitness center for the American Samoa community.
“We’re both very active with watersports and wanted to provide something for all ages to get fit, healthy and enjoy the outdoors,” said Paula, who has been actively paddling in outrigger canoe races since she was 13 years old.
“American Samoa was listed as one of the most obese country in the world,” said Mike. “We know it’s difficult to hear. We started this venture as a way to help people.”
Helping is an understatement. Both Mike and Paula have success stories throughout the community with several SPW members losing well over 100 pounds each.
“One of our biggest success stories didn’t even actually finish the class the first day she came in,” said Paula. “She finished about half way, went outside and was like ‘I can’t do this!’ We all told her that of course she could and that the beginning is always the toughest.”
The classes are structured for participants to go at their own pace with different levels and variations depending on the individual’s physical fitness capabilities.
“You’re not in competition with anyone else but yourself,” said Paula. “We try to harbor a positive peer pressure environment and when people haven’t shown up for class in awhile, we all ask, ‘Where have you been?’”
For Mike and Paula, their focus isn’t just in the gym. The duo recently implemented a summer kid’s camp as a way to reintroduce the Samoan culture into the lives of the youth.
Although American Samoa is modernized in many ways, a visitor can still see the traditions being preserved in daily life. Sunday’s are firmly kept as a day of worship and family time, with traditional style family meals cooked at home. Men still wear the lava-lava, a long wrapped fabric around the waist with several colors and decorations. Special ceremonies with high chiefs and other important tribal folk are held in ‘fales’, a traditional open style Samoan house.
“We wanted to do something more for the youth, get them hiking, kayaking, and just get them outdoors,” said Paula.
“We did it in two, four-week blocks,” said Mike. “During the second portion, we introduced how to build traditional style wooden sailing canoes, or ‘Va’a.’ We built those during the program so the kids could see how our ancestors built them and learn more about our culture. We’re trying to impress upon them the awesomeness of the feat that our ancestors settled the Polynesian Islands. It’s one of the greatest feats of mankind to have done that with no modern navigation only using the stars. It’s incredibly important to keep the culture alive,” said Mike.
If maintaining a full-time business isn’t enough, they are also Coast Guard Auxiliarists. Created by an act of Congress in 1939, the Coast Guard Auxiliary is the civilian, non-military component of the Coast Guard team, directly supporting the Coast Guard in all of its missions except military and law enforcement actions.
Mike is no stranger to the military. After joining the Navy out of high school in 1995, he served for four years as an electronic warfare technician in San Diego. Around 2012, while living in Oceanside, California, for a short time, Mike met members from a local Coast Guard flotilla.
“I had no idea what the Coast Guard Auxiliary was,” said Mike. “After talking to several of them, I knew I wanted to join and be a volunteer as well.”
Perfect timing considering a Coast Guard Flotilla was established in American Samoa in 2011.
“When I got home, I called my local flotilla and joined,” said Mike. “Paula also joined shortly after. It’s a great opportunity to work alongside the Coast Guard.”
With a compliment of roughly 60 members, the flotilla stays relatively busy conducting safety outreach for members of the community like free vessel safety inspections. The McDonald’s are integral to the flotilla and show not only how one can pair the Coast Guard with the lifestyle they already know, but how to introduce it to others and strengthen partnerships.
“During National Safe Boating Week in May we partnered with our local American Samoa Marine Patrol and the active duty members of the Coast Guard marine safety detachment here,” said Paula. “We set up a tent and booth and held life jacket fittings for the kids and conducted boat inspections. We even set up a rowing machine so the kids could get a little fun exercise in as well!”
“We’re still trying to build the flotilla and add more members,” said Mike who now serves as the flotilla’s vice commander. “We try to do a lot of outreach through our local radio and television stations as well as spreading safety information. We’re also conducting training to assist active duty service members during every day missions as well as serving as translators for the Samoan language. We’re very proud of our military tradition here in American Samoa.”
Tradition. Strength. Family. Pride. These are the cornerstones creating the foundation for the McDonald’s lives. In a place where cultures collide in a beautiful mix of old and new, the duo takes everything in stride and continues to weave traditional lifestyles into their everyday lives.
One could easily say they’re truly living the best of both worlds on Motu o Fiafiaga.