On that day in March 2020, the sought-after coach stumbled upon an old friend, Vanuatu Volleyball Federation president Debbie Masauvakalo. The two chatted and, though she wouldn’t have guessed it then, this sheer coincidence sowed the seed for Tonon to officially become the new coach of Vanuatu’s volleyball program one year later—though it wouldn’t be quite that simple.
What followed was a saga that stretched around the world and moved logistical mountains.
Reaching Vanuatu, no matter what it takes
“After that day in Sydney, I had no idea Debbie would call me to be the coach a month later. I was set on making it there and working with the team, but pretty soon after, things got really complicated,” she recounted.
Before coming to Vanuatu, Tonon would need to get to Italy for a stint working with the national team; Italy, however, was in the midst of one of the most devastating COVID outbreaks in the world. On the way home, the situation halted travel and she found herself stuck in Hawaii for an extended layover of two months.
When finally back in Italy, though, an unlikely solution materialized to set her on a path to Vanuatu.
Volunteer work as a first responder allowed Tonon to get vaccinated early, which, in turn, laid the groundwork for her to board a flight. After months of jumping through hoops, Tonon at last set foot on a new beach to get to work.
“When I finally made it out of quarantine and the process was over, I just wanted to give the girls a hug!” she said.
Tonon, who has been a mainstay on the coaching circuit for the last 20 years, is in fact no stranger to Vanuatu.
Now, nearly a decade later, Tonon returns with a new role as senior national beach volleyball coach and the opportunity to further propel the women’s team to a meaningful future on the international stage. Despite a time crunch to prepare for the remaining Olympic qualifier, she sees a chance to take advantage of the enthusiasm at hand and hit the ground running.
A new generation of talent blooms
An in-demand leader who brings both a wealth of experience and an international perspective, Tonon’s placement as Vanuatu’s coach also helps establish how the next generation—and particularly young girls—can use sport as just one way to stay connected globally.
“I’m excited because the team is so motivated; they know the significance they can show the women here. Seeing these women take it to the world stage is good for the country’s reputation as well as for the local girls themselves,” outlined Tonon.
Following the group’s first official practice session, Tonon, who also holds a PhD in business and communications, reiterated that the time is now for Vanuatu to build its potential and develop talent sustainably.
“I’ve coached a lot of other groups in the past, but I had a special feeling, and I believe this is the right time for Vanuatu’s team,” she said.
After that fateful meeting on Manly Beach, Tonon caught a spark of inspiration and realized her skillset and their determination were a match.
“Physically they’re ready to do well but they also need experienced coaches and training to upgrade their level—you need to know how to grow the plant to make the flower bloom,” she added.
As Vanuatu welcomes foreign experts like Tonon, the chance to compete internationally comes in tandem with having overcome the challenges of a trying year—both worldwide and personally.
The new coach recognizes that it will take hard work to qualify for Tokyo, but also takes solace in her new environment.
“The other day we heard music and people could dance and have a real social evening — my eyes were watering with joy!”