For a student-athlete one sport can be a handful, but for Palomar’s Soliaana Faapouli that’s nothing compared to the challenges that she has had to endure as a two-sport athlete. If she isn’t playing basketball in the gym during the winter, then she’s out on the track throwing the shot-put, discus, hammer and javelin in the spring.
As a dual sport athlete, Faapouli has been faced with many obstacles. Not only must she keep up with her academics, but she also has to be present at physically strenuous practices for two sports, which can be hard on the body. She quickly learned how to manage team time and study hall, juggle basketball workouts with track meets and when to make the decision to sacrifice treasured sleep to study. But she said her two biggest challenges are being a single parent and an injured athlete.
Faapouli is no stranger to the demands of athletics. In high school as she was a three-sport athlete playing volleyball, basketball and participating in track and field for the El Camino High School Wildcats. But her loyalty always remained with basketball and track.
She first picked up a basketball at 6 years old. Her dad and her sister Singa, who is two years older, were the ones that introduced the game to her and she has loved it ever since.
Track, however, was a different story. Her love for it didn’t come until her sophomore year in high school when she decided to go out for the team thanks to strong encouragement from one of her coaches and after having watched her big sister make a name for herself as a jumper and shot-putter for the Wildcats. It was there that Faapouli said she first became acquainted with shot-put and discus throwing.
After playing three sports in high school, Faapouli planned to play two at Palomar, however the summer after Faapouli finished high school in 2009, she said she got pregnant with her daughter Lei and was forced to take the year off.
“Being a single parent was one of the toughest things I’ve had to overcome,” she said. “It was more of a mental thing. No one expects to be a single parent especially so young. I was only 18 years old when I had her.”
With the help of her family, Faapouli was able to bounce back and the following year she made the decision to go to Palomar to do track and field. Here, she also planned to play basketball as a second sport. At that time, Palomar women’s head basketball coach Leigh Marshall had just been hired as the coach, taking over a program that was in the process of rebuilding.
“When I got hired in September of 2010, there were no returning players and no new recruits,” Marshall said. “I tried to get any women athletes who were interested in playing for the team to come out and Soli was one of them.”
Faapouli credits her friend from high school, Sarah Duray, for getting her to try out for the basketball team. “The Palomar coaches were really interested in having me,” she said, “and I was very excited to be able to get back into playing the game I loved.”
That year, Faapouli played three games before she was sidelined once again. While going for a layup, she hurt her knee and ended up tearing her ACL— a season ending injury.
“I was devastated,” Faapouli said. “I worked so hard to come back and get in shape from my pregnancy only to be shut down again by injury.”
Her basketball coach expressed thoughts on her injury and how because of it her role changed on the team.
“Being injured is one of the hardest things to face as an athlete,” Marshall said. “But Soli was still there for her teammates, just in a different way. She sat on the bench with us, and she would cheer them on.”
As an athlete not being able to play can be disheartening, but for Faapouli as a student and a young mother the time actually had some positives. Having to sit the year out, she explained really taught her a lot about herself, helped her build relationships and even brought her closer to her family. She praises her family, especially her sisters Tasi and Singa, for helping her out with Lei who was less than a year old when she had surgery. She said it was their support that really helped her to get through her knee injury.
Following her ACL surgery, Faapouli had to undergo rehab at Kaiser Orthopedics with a physical therapist to nurse her knee back to health. Eventually, she fell under the care of Palomar trainers Felicia Heise and Dennis Greenhill.
According to Heise, ACL reconstruction has changed so much. She explained this type of injury was seen as career ending 25 years ago. Just 10 years ago, she said it was two years until an athlete could actually come back. But now, she emphasizes the recovery is more like 6-8 months.
With rehab Heise commended Faapouli for her drive and desire to get back on the court and on the track, describing it as a part of her culture. “Her family and her just don’t give up. She is very strong willed and strong minded so once she has her mind set on something she sticks with it. It’s because of this, I believe her recovery was quicker.”
While the recovery was not easy, Faapouli expressed how these hardships have helped her.
“A lot of things happen for a reason. I may not have understood at the time, but now I am stronger because of it,” Faapouli said. “My pregnancy and my injury were merely stepping stones in my life.”
This year, Faapouli completed a full season with the Palomar women’s basketball team. She admitted that the transition to the court was a little harder this time.
“Playing in the post, I had girls leaning on me and it was upsetting because I know I could do so much more but my knees just couldn’t,” Faapouli said. “Sometimes it would hurt but I just tried to push through it and play.”
According to Marshall, an ACL injury is hard because even though you’re back, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re fully recovered or in shape. Marshall said Faapouli was undersized in the post, so she ended up fouling out a lot. But even so, she credits her for being a captain, and a leader and she said that a lot of girls looked up to her for her strength and toughness.
Her basketball teammate Ashley Witherspoon described Faapouli as being very hardworking and encouraging but also very motherly to all the girls. “We nicknamed her Mama Sol because of the way she was always there for us,” she said. “She would make sure that I’m on my grades, ask how my family was doing and would even give us relationship advice since she has been through it all.”
“She is a family woman and very mature beyond her years because she has had to grow up so fast,” Coach Marshall said. “I sometimes have to remind her to be a kid and enjoy herself, not to think too hard.”
With basketball season over, Faapouli has turned her attention to track. On April 7 at the University of California San Diego she placed first in javelin and third in the hammer for Palomar.
“For it to be her first year learning to throw the hammer and the javelin, and to already be ranked as No. 1 in the conference is pretty phenomenal,” throwing coach Whitney DeWeese said. “She has exceeded expectations already.”
DeWeese describes Faapouli as being extremely coachable, competitive and a huge asset to their team.
“She has raw, athletic talent and power,” she said, “but at the same time, Soli is very mature and brings a calming aspect to practices.”
Track teammate Deanna Doss said that Faapouli has not only been motherly, but helped her on the field as well. Doss explained that last year she didn’t have a teammate who could push her the way that Faapouli has, and as a result, she has improved her marks greatly this year.
“I am excited to see what she can do in conference this year. She is capable of taking the top spots,” DeWeese added.
Faapouli expressed great gratitude toward her family who have helped by taking Lei if she has to do homework or go to practices, games or meets. She believes that if it weren’t for them, she wouldn’t be able to balance being a mother, overcoming injury and being a two-sport student-athlete.
“They’ve been very encouraging. My dad, for example, has shown me what God can do and continues to remind me to have faith in Him. This helped me to become strong during difficult times,” Faapouli said.