Fort Osage graduate Elias Vaoifi will attempt to make Olympics for American Samoa
Fort Osage High School graduate Elias Vaoifi used to try to get himself angry before his wrestling matches.
When he competed at Fort Osage and during his redshirt freshman year at Missouri Valley College, he said he often listened to rap music before his matches to get himself motivated.
In high school, Vaoifi was a state medalist and a state runner-up. During his first year at Missouri Valley, he qualified for the NAIA Men’s Wrestling Championships but didn’t place. At that point, wrestling was everything to him.
Then his sophomore year, everything changed. His girlfriend Josephine Boutte, also a Fort Osage grad, introduced him to Christianity. He started focusing more on his faith and used wrestling as his vehicle to share it. Vaoifi started listening to Christian music and focused more on having fun with the sport.
“She helped me see that Jesus is a big God and he cares about me,” Vaoifi said of Boutte.
That’s when he started having more success, becoming a two-time NAIA All-American for the Vikings, finishing fifth as a sophomore and sixth this past season as a junior in the 165-pound weight division.
Vaoifi nearly quit wrestling
Vaoifi initially committed to South Dakota State, redshirting during his first year at the Division I school that competes in the Big 12 Conference. He admitted it was not an enjoyable experience for him, paying for his own travel and lodging, competing at open tournaments for the Jackrabbits.
He almost decided to give up wrestling until the Missouri Valley coaches convinced him to transfer there and be closer to home.
“I wasn’t happy with myself and I wasn’t having fun wrestling anymore,” Vaoifi said. “It felt more like a job or a chore than my passion.
“I got a call from a coach at Missouri Valley and also a couple of Division II (schools) called, too. I was really sold on the coaching staff at Missouri Valley and felt like the school was committed to me. I was also able to be closer to home and my parents got to come to my tournaments.”
Making the move from Division I to NAIA wasn’t a big change for Vaoifi. In fact, he said the competition actually got more difficult and he still competed against Division I opponents at open tournaments.
“It was a different environment, but my coaches were there for me.” Vaoifi said.
In his first national tournament, Vaoifi finished 2-2 and did not place.
“I just wasn’t here yet,” Vaoifi said. “I made some serious jumps over the summer.”
'God wants me to be here'
One of those jumps he made was his wrestling from the top position, something he struggled with in high school and early in college.
“In high school, I wasn’t really good at keeping people down or turning them,” Vaoifii said. “I kind of had the same tired tricks. At college, I realized, these guys are way stronger and got way better technique. You have to catch up to par.”
But the biggest difference for him was finding Jesus, he said.
“God wants me to be here, use my skills and have fun and wrestle for him,” Vaoifi said. “I realized wrestling is not the big battle of my life. It’s something I thought in high school. I made it an idol in my life. I put wrestling into context that it’s a tool to reach people for Jesus. It’s to connect with other people. I wasn’t really a believer in anything before that.
“Because of that, I was able to make huge strides and have fun. I met the right people here in ministry and my pastor, Scott Westfall, was a huge help to me. He helped me realize what God wants from my life. The only thing that matters in life is Jesus and everything else can be extracurricular. The results of a wrestling match won’t ever determine who I am.”
Part of his journey to become a Christian was when he went on a trip to the country Georgia just before his sophomore year at Missouri Valley with a ministry called Athletes in Action. He went there to share his faith and wrestle others from different countries.
“We got to minister to refugee camps and practice wrestling with local teams,” Vaoifi said. “I started to learn more about Christianity at the time. I saw their level of surrendering to Jesus in Georgia and wanted that same kind of commitment for myself.
“That shaped my wrestling, and when I came back, other wrestlers asked me about my faith. Sports ministry is something I want to continue to do as a graduate assistant.”
During the 2020 national tournament, he entered as a No. 12 seed and lost his first match by a 3-0 decision. Vaoifi then rattled off three consecutive victories before he fell in the consolation semifinals 7-6. That put him in the fifth-place match in which he won by medical forfeit against Grand View’s Giovanny Bonilla.
At this year’s national tournament, Vaoifi was the No. 3 seed and he made it to the semifinals before he fell to eventual champion Kyle Kirkham of Southeastern University in a 6-4 sudden victory decision. He then lost his last two matches in the consolation bracket to take sixth. But it was still a strong tournament for the junior. He called his 9-8 quarterfinal win over Marian’s Elliott Rodgers the biggest win of his career.
Vaoifi was down 8-7 with 15 seconds left before he scored a clutch reversal to win it.
“I had a close match with him before,” Vaoifi said of Rodgers. “The quarterfinal round just felt like a big round to me because it was a close match.
“I was so surprised I won. I had no idea where I was, I just kept wrestling. After I reversed him, I had to keep him down for a couple more seconds and I just squeezed him as hard as I could to not let him up.”
What's next for Vaoifi?
After a successful college career, Vaoifi, who sports a 4.0 grade-point average, plans on transferring to Ottawa University in Kansas to be a graduate assistant for its wrestling team and pursuing a master’s degree in business administration. After that, he wants to attend law school at UMKC.
However, his wrestling career isn’t quite over yet. Currently, he is turning his attention to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics as he will try to make the American Samoa team in the 74-kilogram division. He is competing in an Olympic qualifying tournament April 2-4 in Tunisia that will include other countries like Australia and New Zealand.
To have a chance to make the American Samoa team, he has to finish in the top two of his weight class and then Samoa wrestling officials will pick their representative. Then American Samoa has to receive a bid from the International Olympic Committee to be able to compete in Tokyo.
“I am pretty excited about competing,” said Vaoifi, whose family is from Samoa. “I am training really hard. I got a great group of coaches around me. And I am ready to have fun.”