Vanuatu beach pair star in movie about Olympic dreams

Beach volleyball players Miller Pata and Linline Matauatu were training for the Rio Olympics when a Category 5 cyclone hit their Vanuatu homeland and wiped out their practice court.

The few alternatives at the many public beaches on the South Pacific nation's 80 islands are often crowded. Plus, the sand in Vanuatu is hard - not like the coarse-grained particles that beach volleyball players prefer for jumping and diving - forcing them to look abroad for alternatives.

''Our court where we train, it's not a quality court. So we had to find a place to get better,'' Matauatu said in a telephone interview from Rio de Janeiro, where she and her partner were playing in an Olympic qualifying event. ''We have a lot of beaches, but it's hard to get into the training court because at some of the beaches they are already (being used).''

In Vanuatu, which is about 1,600 miles from Sydney, Australia, last year's Cyclone Pam was more than just a training obstacle. With winds as high as 168 mph, it left 65,000 homeless, cut power and water to thousands more and was blamed for 17 deaths along the archipelago.

Matauatu's home was destroyed completely, while the front of Pata's was sheared off in the storm. Their effort to qualify for the 2016 Olympics despite the storm and other obstacles is the subject of a documentary short called ''A Fighting Chance,'' by the Oscar- and Grammy-winning director of ''20 Feet from Stardom,'' Morgan Neville.

A trailer for the film was viewed by The Associated Press in advance of its planned release at the South by Southwest festival this week. Samsung, an Olympic sponsor and the funder of the film, also provided the athletes with smartphones to help them stay connected with their families and work with their coaches from a distance.

Also featured are marathon runner Tsepo Mathibelle, of Lesotho, and Dominican boxer Yenebier Guillen Benitez. Mathibelle finished last in London four years ago - only the second time he had ever raced at the distance; Guillen, the daughter and granddaughter of boxers, is trying to become the first Dominican woman to medal at the Summer Olympics.

The video includes footage of the athletes training, with Mathibelle running through a valley or past the farm animals grazing along a dirt road, and Guillen shadowboxing as she runs through city streets, or working out by pounding a sledgehammer against a tire.

Pata and Matauatu are shown in the trailer running in a river accompanied by a voice-over saying, ''It's not only their dream. It's the country's dream.'' Then the music slows, and the footage cuts to images of uprooted trees and homes destroyed by the cyclone.

Pata said she was excited to participate in the movie because ''I want them to know about where I'm starting.'' With little support from a national federation, the Ni-Vanuatu are forced to find their own training facilities and can't afford hotels when they travel to international events - a necessity to qualify for the Olympic beach volleyball tournament.

Pata and Matauatu, who were eliminated in pool play in the Rio Grand Slam this weekend, remained below the top 16 spots needed to qualify for the Summer Games; if they fail to move up, they would have another chance in a continental qualifier.

While in Brazil for the FIVB World Tour event, the players stayed at the home of a friend of a friend - a French woman who had lived in Vanuatu for three years and now lives in Rio.

''I went to see them at the beach, and I saw all the other players, they all had very nice T-shirts, very nice caps, everything to play properly. And I see my Vanuatu girls, with all the same clothes each day, no caps or anything,'' said their host, Catherine Rumillat.

''Here they have nothing,'' she said. ''The only help they have is apparently my help.''

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Jimmy Golen covers Olympic beach volleyball for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/jgolen .

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