Down Under Sports exists to bring athletes together from different countries in Australia where they compete in numerous sporting events. My sister (Elizabeth “Lizzy” Tuomi), my mom (Patty Tuomi), and I made the decision to embark on this adventure after Lizzy received a letter from Down Under requesting her presence at their Track and Field competition.
The meet itself was a three-day event lined up at the end of our trip, consisting of around 800 athletes with about 300 from the U.S. The athletes were invited from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand after being handpicked based on their skills and abilities. The meet was held at Griffith University; around 400 events were held each day at the track due to the volume of competitors!
Our trip consisted of much more than just sports, however. On day one, we landed in Australia and were immediately sectioned off into our groups and became familiar with those we’d be spending most of our time with. We all hopped onto our busses and were driven to an outlook in Brisbane. We got up to the top and could see the entire city; it was a breathtaking view! I ordered my first Long Black—the Australian version of an Americano—from a cute, little cafe at the top of the overlook and contently watched the world carry on under me.
Afterward, we had our first meal in Brisbane where we began to get acquainted with our group, The Wallabies, more and more. The rest of the day was free, aside from the athletes who had a short practice. My mother and I explored the area where we were residing—Surfers Paradise. It’s a beachy, relaxed but very busy area on the Gold Coast. There are shops, restaurants, attractions, and of course, lots of people!
Across the main avenue was a board- walk and then the beach. Australian sand is nothing like what you’d find in America; it’s white, very fine and silky and almost powder-like. The ocean, however, was what caught my eye. The waves crashed down in a powerfully magnificent fashion. The water stretched back right into the sky, but where blue met blue, there was an exchange of a deep navy to a light turquoise full of clouds drifting about. I was mesmerized.
On day two, we woke up and rushed off to a surfing lesson. Walking with the board through the water as the waves rushed in was tough enough, but standing? It never happened for me, though I quite enjoyed riding the waves on my stomach. After we dried off, I tagged along with the athletes to watch them practice followed by a visit to a wild forest. This forest, although technically wild, was full of very tame birds, kangaroos, koalas, and other animals who were used to being fed by all the tourists. (If you’ve never seen a kangaroo hop, I would advise you to watch a YouTube video right now. It’s so fun to watch their legs work as they bounce around like large bunnies.)
Our next day was by far one of my favorites! After our breakfast I had an article to write, so I packed up some items and went searching until I found a tiny coffee shop right across from the ocean where the dramatic waves could lure me as I wrote. I chatted with the barista for a bit before asking him to make me his favorite iced coffee. The flavor notes were very rich and the drink was delightful. I enjoyed my beverage while writing and listening to the chatter of the waves and birds swarming around.
I talked with different people who came and went as I wrote. One thing I came to notice, and love, was the aura of Australians. Each person was unique, but most all were kind individuals with a chill vibe. They weren’t worried or stressed, everyone seemed happy and content and used the phrase, “No worries,” more than you could imagine. Being in Australia opened my eyes to a new way of seeing the world.
For lunch I ordered my first (of about ten) avocado toast renditions. Australia is where avocado toast originated, so of course, I had to continue ordering it, right? Shortly following, we were on our way to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. The sanctuary is home to a variety of animals native to Australia. My family and I walked around for hours taking in the critters. We saw wallabies, Tasmanian devils, a crocodile whose length was twice my own, many beautiful birds, emus, and so many other strange creatures.
The highlights of the visit included the koala bear I got to hold in my arms and the kangaroo field where we fed, pet, and played with the kangaroos. The koala I held was very cuddly, but smelly at that! The kangaroos had many personalities; some slept no matter how much food you offered and others were jumping up and licking the feed from our palms.
Day four of our trip was a free day; each athlete could choose how they spent their time. My mom scheduled the three of us to hop on a plane to Lady Elliot Island where we’d snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef.
Once we landed, we were immediately swept off to a cabin where we changed into wetsuits. We grabbed flippers and goggles and off we went. My group hopped onto a boat with a glass bottom and we began to spot all sorts of creatures. The ocean floor was full of coral, anemones, schools of fish. Sea turtles glided by, manta rays majestically swam underneath us, and we watched as a whale splashed around in the distance.
Soon enough the boat slowed down and it was time to snorkel. A few brave souls hopped off, and one by one everyone else got in the water and began snorkeling. When I first put my head under the water, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The reef was so lively and colorful; fish were peeking their heads out from behind rocks and plants, eels and clams covered the floor, and other strange creatures zoomed past me through the waves. It felt as though I was watching Nemo.
After our time in the water we were served a warm lunch and then had time to walk along the shore. We walked by the lagoon on the opposite side of the island from where we snorkeled and saw starfish, sea cucumbers, little fish, and many rock formations within the crystal clear, blue water.
After another plane ride back to Surfers Paradise, my family and I enjoyed a fantastic dinner at Latitude 28. Lizzy ordered the kangaroo entrée—which she reported tasted like a steak—we enjoyed each other’s company, then some ice cream, talked all about our snorkeling adventure, and got to bed after a long day.
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were a bit different because the official track meet had now begun. Each day the athletes got up early and made their way to the track. Lizzy had two events, one was run on Friday and one on Saturday. On Friday, I took a solo day to spend time exploring, reading and writing, relaxing near the beach, and chatting with people. That weekend was also the beginning of Viva Days in Surfers Paradise, Australia’s largest tribute artist festival. There was music, entertainment, car shows, an Elvis Presley music contest and more.
The Beachfront Markets were also going on at this time. Over 100 market stalls were set up for people to walk along the boardwalk while enjoying the ocean, shopping, and watching the entertainment. So all three nights, after Lizzy got back, we would go down and enjoy performances and the markets. Saturday my mother and I lay on the beach for hours and enjoyed Viva Days once again. That night, as we were having dinner outdoors, there was a large parade for Viva Days complete with music, cheerleaders, people in costumes, and much more. It was a true dinner-theater experience—Australian style.
Sunday came around all too quick; it was our last full day in Australia. As the athletes took off to their meet, once again, my mother and I enjoyed one more morning on the beach. The waves crashed, the birds squawked and fought for food, people played volleyball, others tanned, some swam, and we took it all in. I don’t think life could’ve gotten much better.
The afternoon rolled around we hopped onto the tram and made our way to Griffith University. The track was jam-packed with athletes going from event to event, parents crowed the stands, and coaches ran from one place to the next to support their athletes as best they could.
Lizzy ran a 400M dash on Friday (which she ran well, but not her best) and had a 400M relay to run today. When the time came, and the gun popped, Skyler Beck was off. She positioned the team in fourth (of five teams). Next, McKenna Brown grabbed the baton and ran her split. Her leg and arms pumped swiftly as she did her best to catch up to the American team in front of her. The baton finally reached Elizabeth’s hand and she ran with it—fast. Lizzy has a long stride and determination, and on that day, they worked together and got her team into third place. Her final teammate, Joni Becker, took the baton and finished the race off, keeping them in their third place position. The race was over in a matter of minutes and Lizzy’s team took third! They were ecstatic as they all hugged and ran off to get their medals.
That night everyone had a final banquet and got instructions for their departures. Ours was a bit rocky, to say the least. We had a flight cancellation in Toronto and ended up in Canada for an extra day. I visited the CN Tower with my mother and made the most of our situation. Despite the unexpected delay, we had an amazing time! Our coach, Justin Bakkethun, who is also from our area in Minnesota, was helpful in making sure everyone had hotel rooms and a flight going out the following day.
Down Under put together an itinerary that allowed us all to experience Australia to its fullest, while still giving the athletes time to compete and improve in their events. Australia was a once-in-a-lifetime experience; the culture there is quite beautiful and the people were unforgettable. Special memories were made and new experiences had that will forever be lasting in all of our hearts. This will be a trip that none of us will ever forget.
Serena Tuomi lives in Hibbing, MN. This is the eleventh in a series of articles she is writing as a summer intern for Hometown Focus. Serena is a 2018 Hibbing High School and Hibbing Community College graduate. Soon she will be moving to New York City to attend The King’s College in Manhattan where she will be pursuing a degree in journalism.