Seal On Ice: Samoan Bobsled Leader Earns Respect

CORONADO, Calif. - Faauuga Tia Muagututia can blow up things underwater and hurl himself out of an airplane, making him eminently qualified to lead American Samoa's first Olympic bobsled team.

Muagututia, or Tia for short, was picked as driver for the fledgling team because of his athletic talent and training as a member of the Navy SEALs, the elite special operations force that can fight from the sea, air or land.

Add ice, and Tia's just as formidable.

SEALs have manned U.S. bobsleds before, but this will be the first Winter Olympics for American Samoa, a tiny South Pacific island that's thousands of miles from the nearest patch of ice.

After the American Samoa Bobsled Federation was formed by a U.S. bobsled enthusiast in 1991, Tia was the consensus pick to be its star member.

"They had found out through some friends of mine that I was a Navy SEAL," he said at the Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, across the bay from San Diego. "They said, `Hey, let's get that guy, we need a crazy guy to push the sled.' "

Tia, 35, had his first ride in a two-man sled in November 1992 at a driving school in Calgary.

"It's scary," he admitted. "The first time I went down, my heart was going 100 beats per minute. But after a couple of times you get used to it. Either you have it or you don't. I said, `I'm here, I might as well go for it and try to do the best I can.' I ended up liking it."

Still, a 55-second ride down an ice-covered chute at 75 mph is nothing compared to life as a SEAL.

"It's probably not as scary as jumping out of an airplane," said Tia, a senior chief boatswain mate who's been a SEAL since 1979. "It's a thrill. It's different."

At 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds, Tia admits he's a "runt" compared to the Samoans who play in the NFL. Then again, Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers or Jesse Sapolu of the San Francisco 49ers probably wouldn't fit in a bobsled.

Tia is well-known in Navy athletic circles.

"There's nothing he doesn't do real well," said Tia's former commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Tucker Campion.

Including bobsledding.

"He has really no fear of anything at all," said Jim Hickey, a former coach of the U.S. bobsled team who coaches the self-named and far-flung "Tri-Bob Alliance" of American Samoa, Greece and Armenia. "He adapted quickly to speed."

Tia qualified for the Olympics by scoring 38 points, 18 more than the minimum, in two international competitions in Calgary, and by competing in five international events on three different tracks in two countries.

Both Tia and Lance Funston, the Philadelphia businessman who formed the American Samoa Bobsled Federation, think the novelty has worn off warm-weather bobsled teams, the most famous being from Jamaica.

"I believe the Jamaicans have developed a respectable, competitive position," Funston said. "But I think that the uniqueness in Tia's entry is the level of competition he's reached in what amounts to really just two seasons."

If bobsledding had a rookie of the year award, Funston believes Tia would have won it last winter. This winter he finished 10th in a 25-sled Americas Cup Division race.

"We're really serious about this," said Tia, who was born on American Samoa and moved to the Los Angeles suburb of Carson when he was 13.

Tia will drive a rented, Italian-made sled in the competition Feb. 19 and 20. His brakeman will be Brad Kiltz of Indiana. The alternate is James Womack of Georgia, beaten out for a spot on the 1992 U.S. team by Herschel Walker.

When Tia isn't on duty, or training in Calgary, Lake Placid or Europe, he's sprinting and working on upper-body strength for the critical push.

Funston, who's on the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation board of directors, expects Tia to finish in the top 20.

"He's certainly a credit to the Navy's training," Funston said. "That SEALs program is phenomenal."

A sign in the Basic Underwater Demolition School reads: "The only easy day was yesterday."

Six weeks into the 25-week training, prospective SEALs are subjected to a "hell week" to see if they can handle intense stress.

Campion said less than 5 percent of Navy personnel could meet qualifications for SEALs training, and there's a 54 percent attrition rate once training begins.

After such demanding training, "you almost feel like you've been through the Olympics and won a gold medal," Tia said. "It's just an amazing feeling."