Lagi Tausaga, a Mount Miguel High School graduate, displays surprise gold medal for world meet
Lagi Tausaga, a Mount Miguel High School graduate, displays surprise gold medal from August world meet. Photo by Ken Stone

A month ago, Spring Valley native Laulauga Aveaomalo Tausaga-Collins was hoping for the best in the women’s discus final at the Budapest world championships.

“I’m going to be excited if I get 11th place,” she recalls telling her roommate, javelin thrower Ariana Ince. “I was like: I’m going to be the happiest person you’ve ever seen.”

Tausaga doesn’t light up, but she vowed: “If I get anything but 12th, I will be smoking a cigarette” like many of the Europeans she saw.

Despite having the fifth-best toss in Aug. 19 qualifying, her odds of landing a medal two days later were slim. Track & Field News picked her for 10th. Anyone at Draft Kings who bet $100 on her to win pocketed $6,500, David Woods noted.

Now she’s queen of the underdogs — consensus pick as the most unlikely winner at track and field’s 19th world championships. She was runner-up at the Diamond League Finals last weekend in Eugene, Oregon.

With her gold-medal toss of 69.49 meters (228 feet) in the fifth round at Budapest, the 25-year-old University of Iowa alumna known as Lagi, who set CIF San Diego section records for Mount Miguel High School, improved her personal best by a huge 14 feet.

In so doing, she beat Tokyo Olympic champ Valarie Allman and two world title holders — and automatically qualified for the 2025 world meet in Tokyo (if not becoming a favorite for the 2024 Paris Olympics).

Roommate Ince wasn’t surprised.

“She showed me the video of her 67-meter foul (220 feet) … and that’s when I knew,” Ince told Times of San Diego, noting that Tausaga in that qualifying round used her “static” start instead of a full windup, more risky for her.

Such a distance from a static start “is practically unheard of,” she said.

Aiming to lighten the mood, Ince told her roomie: “It would be a shame if you won the thing.”

Results of Budapest world meet women’s discus final. (PDF)

The remark was selfish, Ince confesses.

“Any time someone is a medalist at a major championship, moving forward they get their own room,” she said via email. “Picking roommates on teams can be critical to your success as you want someone who has similar sleep, temperature, schedules, expectations, etc., as you.

“But after seeing that static foul, I knew Lagi was ready for a medal, and that meant I’d have to find a new roommate pick for the next championships.” (But Lagi went back on her smoking pledge: “I will not be having a cigarette. Yeah, endangering my life.”)

Even more remarkable is the fact Tausaga could barely walk in February and almost quit the sport several years ago.

She had gout in her right ankle for nearly a month and “literally had to go through so much rehab to even be able to actually put my weight on my ankle because it just literally locked in a certain position that I simply could not walk.”

Gout also affects her left toe. She has yet to achieve its full mobility.

She’s had X-rays done and the ankle looks OK now, she said.

“But I have to be very mindful of what I do and what I eat,” Tausaga said, even avoiding tomatoes. “Sometimes, it’s not even what I eat — it is just: Are you standing too long?”

Despite being the 2019 NCAA champion and making that year’s Doha world championships, Tausaga lost 2020 to the COVID shutdown, had back problems and saw her beloved throws coach leave for a new job in Florida.

“I’d pretty much sat out two years from competition and I was telling myself: ‘Look, if you don’t make it in ’22, … it’s time to just walk away.”

Eric Werskey, her former coach, wouldn’t hear of it.

“He was like: You have too much talent not to do this,” she said. And he promised to call coach John Dagata at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center so she could at least go home to San Diego.

Werskey shared memories of that rough period.

“The 2021 season toward the end was challenging because I made her and the Iowa team aware of my next career move by moving to [the University of] Florida weeks before the NCAA Championships,” he said this week. “Lagi had a successful NCAA season, but the USATF Olympic Trials were a struggle and I will take the blame for that because it was an emotional time for us both.”

Tausaga accesses an online version of the Competitor's Bible
Tausaga accesses an online version of the Competitor’s Bible.

Despite Tausaga not making the Tokyo Olympic team (she fouled all her throws and took 24th), he said he encouraged her to pursue her dreams “because I truly believed that she had so much more to give to this sport.”

He admits being a “little hurt” that she didn’t follow him to Gainesville, “but I understood. So I did what I thought was the next best thing for her next career step” and called Dagata.

Werskey reminded Tausaga of his refrain for her: “Why Not You?”

The transition to Dagata, she said, was like a smooth baton pass. She considered it the “saving grace” of her professional track career.

“I can’t thank him enough,” Tausaga said of Werskey. “He’s one of the main reasons why I didn’t stop throwing after college and I cry every time I think about it.”

Highlight reels from Budapest show her hugging Dagata. They didn’t show her reaction to locking eyes with Werskey, further up in the stands.

“I could clearly hear him go: ‘Good job, LT,’ and he’s standing up…. I went from a smile to absolute sobs because I was like: I would not have been here without you being very unselfish as a coach.”

Tausaga also credits the Man further Upstairs.

She tells how she consulted her Competitor’s Bible — a Fellowship of Christian Athletes product, finding track-related passages in Philippians 3:13–14 (“run to win”) and Corinthians 9-24, which was interpreted as raising the bar.

She says she felt a “divine presence” in Budapest.

Awaiting her third throw in the final, she was in 12th place at 52.28 meters — but had to be in the top 6 to get another three tries.

“And I’m so sad … it was absolutely heartbreaking,” she said. “So I kind of look in the distance and then I look up and I’m like: ‘You’ve told me I didn’t have be perfect … [and] told me to run for the win.’ I was like: I’m not getting the message.”

Her third throw went 65.56 (215-1), a new personal best that launched her to fifth place. Then came her 228 bomb in the fifth round — putting her first.

“I hugged Dagata and then I came back,” she recalls. “And in my mind, I’m like: ‘I didn’t mean to yell at you — do not smite me. I’m sorry. It’s been a bit frustrating, you know? I’m still a believer.”

But what about that raising-the-bar reference in her Bible reading?

In the the sixth and final round, her heart racing, Tausaga saw Allman and others fall short. Her final throw wasn’t critical. But it was revelatory.

She hit her No. 2 lifetime distance of 68.36 meters (224-3 1/4) with the 2.2-pound discus, and looked over to notice the men’s high jump under way.

“And I just start crying because I’m like: I raised the bar,” she said, quietly telling God: “You are sneaky” — working in mysterious ways. She stared at the high jump contest and thought: “This … is … insane.”

Roommate Ince, 31, didn’t get a chance to see her friend’s final since her own qualifying was the next morning.

Tausaga displays her gold medal near the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center discus rings.
Tausaga displays her gold medal near the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center discus rings. Photo by Ken Stone

“But when Lagi hit her first throw to make it into [the final three throws], the texts started rolling in from friends and teammates (Harrison Williams, Keturah Orji, Kara Winger, Sam Mattis, etc.): “Lagi made it to the finals!”

“But then 69 meters happened and I’ve never sent or received so many all-caps, expletive-laced text messages in a row in my entire life,” Ince said. “Beyond proud, beyond excited. It was tough to sleep before my qualifying round after that because I was SO excited for her, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Ince took 27th place in qualifying, not making the javelin final.

“After my own disappointment, I found myself saying that ‘Hopefully, I’ll get my own Lagi moment someday,’ and I’m going to keep hoping that’s true,” she said. “But more importantly, Lagi DID get her moment, and I think she’s headed for quite the medal collection.”

Her old Hawkeyes coach Werskey agrees.

“Lagi is one of the most powerful women I have ever seen,” he said this week. “She is one of the shortest on the circuit, but makes up for it with her power and athleticism. This was one thing I always tried to teach her early. She has the power to throw very far in stadiums when the pressure is on and not be reliant on the wind, and when you can do this, you become a very competitive thrower.”

He says the 5-foot-10, 239-pound star he calls LT “is just beginning to see her capabilities in this sport. She is young, has a great support system, and an experienced coach. When these things combine with proper preparation, she will continue to improve her personal bests in excess of 70 meters [nearly 230 feet].

“My hope for Lagi moving forward in the Olympic year and Tokyo the following year is that she’s healthy, happy and confident,” he said. “Because if she has all of those in line, her results will take care of themselves as she is naturally gifted with her competitive mind-set!”

Lagi has fans back in Spring Valley as well.

Maria Garcia, her high school counselor, still works at Mount Miguel.

“I’m always rooting for Lagi!” Garcia said this week. “None of this is a surprise to me. … She was always destined for greatness!”

She noted how Tausaga is the first American woman to win a world discus title in the 40-year-old championship series.

“It is inspiring to us all and especially to all of the little black and brown girls out there who are watching her shine and represent and believing that they too can do it,” she said.

Lagi Tausaga's discus gold medal from Budapest was a first for American woman.
Lagi Tausaga’s discus gold medal from worlds.. Now she hopes to average 66-meter throws (216 feet) and maybe pop a 70 (229-8).Photo by Ken Sone

“She made herstory and I always knew she could!!!!”

Garcia says they’re still in touch and spoke to Tausaga after her gold-medal moment.

“Nike is lucky to have her!” she added via email. “She stopped by Mount Miguel to visit me a week ago and was so thoughtful — she brought me some gifts from her travels to Budapest and China and one of her very own Nike USA shirts. I will wear it with so much pride.”

Mount Miguel is looking to honor the one-time “care-free Matador” at an upcoming football game, she said, adding: “I’m pushing for something big and permanent at MMHS to honor her legacy!”

For her part, Lagi is looking forward to a new financial freedom.

Minutes after winning gold in Budapest, she recalls being irritated at a photographer trying to steer her toward someone she didn’t know and in the middle of interviews.

But out of a tunnel emerged Nike athlete manager Paul Moser, “like Batman coming out of the shadows,” Tausaga said. They’d talk later about a sponsor deal. Manna from heaven.

“I literally went from owing people money to being financially stable in one throw,” she said, “and I just kind of bawled my eyes out.”

She expresses gratitude to her coach and agent, Karen Locke, about her movie-like change of life. “I truly believe there was like a divine presence.”

She credits her mother as well, who pushed the self-described bookworm born in Oahu into sports — volleyball and basketball before track — at Mount Miguel High School.

Tausaga still lives with her retired military mom Aveaomalo Tausaga near downtown San Diego — but hopes her new earnings (including $70,000 from Budapest) will lead to living on her own.

The Collins part of her name belongs to her father, McKinley Collins, a retired Army colonel. She’s reticent about sharing details.

“I mean, I still talk to my father,” she says. “We have regular conversations. (But) I’m just a mama’s girl. Mom is my primary caretaker. And I owe, of course, you know, 100% of my life to her. … When I think about parents, it’s my mother and my older siblings.”

Still, she was in high school ROTC and took a recruiting trip to West Point (and also was sought by San Diego State, UCLA and Miami).

“So my mother’s military and so is my father, who would have been proud,” she said. But she was unnerved by the sight of a young man at the West Point prep school “who wasn’t too big, but he was running and while he was running, he was absolutely sobbing.”

That gave her pause.

“I was like: You know what — I wouldn’t be America’s strongest soldier,” she said. “I’d probably be the biggest crybaby out there.”

Iowa’s “Midwest nice” and change of seasons won her over.

Tausaga thinks it would be especially nice to compete at the 2028 Los Angeles Games, when she’d be 30.

“It’d be special to go out with a bang there,” she said. “Do I see myself going super long (in career longevity)? No. But I do see myself trying to flush out as much as I can of my talent.”

Roommate Ince says: “Lagi can absolutely become the champ in Paris. It won’t be easy — she’s certainly motivated her countrywoman Valarie Allman to work even harder, which will be quite the thing to watch.

“But in the Eugene Diamond League final just a few days ago, Lagi threw 68m again, from a static. She showed about a 4-meter improvement between her static and her full throw, so if she can figure out her full throw, well, I’ll let you do the math.”

Allman’s American record of 71.46 (234-5) was set last year in the wind-tunnel conditions of UC San Diego’s ocean-bluff throwing area.

Tausaga says she’d consider extending her career to throw for her mother’s homeland of American Samoa.

More than 20 years ago, according to Deanna Sanitoa-Fuimaono of the American Samoa track federation, Lagi’s older brother and sister, Chris and Renee (now 38 and 40), ran sprints at an Oceania meet in Guam for American Samoa.

Sanitoa is a distant relative of Lagi’s mother — a year behind her at Samoana High School in the town of Utulei. She even tried to lure Laulauga when she was a high school sophomore.

Lagi recalls her mom telling her about the recruiting effort.

“I was just like, um, I don’t think I trust myself yet,” she said. “And [Mom] is like: It’s always there.”

Tausaga still hasn’t visited American Samoa — and doesn’t speak her mother’s native tongue.

Says Sanitoa, who was in Budapest for World Athletics meetings: “You know, if they choose to return to us and the United States agrees to let them go, of course” they’d like Tausaga to compete for the U.S. territory covering seven South Pacific islands and atolls.

But her tiny track federation prefers that athletes with Samoan ancestry stay in the United States “because they get better training from elementary, high school, college. The opportunities are definitely, you know, through the roof for them,” Sanitoa said in a 4-hour-time-difference phone call.

“We love it when they excel. … We prefer that they be successful. representing the United States or … other countries.”

But she said: “If she changes her mind, we’re here.”