KOROR, Palau â€“ Moving away from your homeland is always an anxious endeavor. Doing it as adolescents without your parents in the name of education only adds to the anxiety.
For the Tmetuchl brothers, excelling in sports at St. Johnâ€™s School in the late 1980s and early ’90s was just the surface of lifeâ€™s challenges at a young age.
Uchel and Ngirai moved to Guam first in 1983. Glib followed a year later. The boys stayed with a trusted sponsor in Mrs. Sam Inay in Dededo until later settling into the family condo.
â€œIt was hard,â€ Uchel remembers. â€œFirst, it was culture shock because Palau isnâ€™t as big as Guam. Then we were forced to comply with (our sponsor). We didnâ€™t have a choice. We had to follow what Mrs. Inay said, so it was hard for the first couple of years, let alone St. Johnâ€™s was always hard.â€
Former school administrator Dale Jenkins, who is now retired and lives in Palau, was teaching when the young brothers arrived at St. Johnâ€™s.
â€œThese guys set the culture for sports at St. Johnâ€™s. They came in and they were like a test case (for the school). They were the first ones on student visas (I-20). It was mostly a white school. Luckily for me, I served in the Peace Corps in Palau, so at least I understood a little bit where they were coming from.
â€œThey helped develop that school, adding a great deal of culture there. They took the standards imposed by the school and took it to the next level,â€ Jenkins said.
â€œI donâ€™t remember any islanders (at the school) other than the Castros,â€ Ngirai added.
Palau was a brand-new nation, becoming the Republic of Palau in 1981 but experiencing civil unrest at the time. So parents Roman and Tua Tmetuchl decided to send their sons to Guam to attend school.
â€œPalau was so complex at that time. Our President (Haruo Remeliik) just got assassinated. So even if I explained it to (my classmates), they wouldnâ€™t understand, so I decided not to talk about it,â€ Uchel said.
â€œWhen I came in, (my brothers) were telling me â€˜donâ€™t talk about this, donâ€™t talk about that.â€™ It was things (about Palau) that was out of our control,â€ Glib said about Palau’s political unrest.
The transition to Guam was hardest for the youngest of the three.
â€œWe adjusted well,â€ Ngirai said. â€œIt was Glib who had a hard time.â€
â€œI had to sleep with Uchel for the first couple of years,â€ Glib admitted. â€œYou miss your parents, so most of the time Uchel would calm me down.â€
For the first few years, the Tmetuchls couldnâ€™t play sports because they didnâ€™t have a ride after practice. Hitching rides home after practice would be the eventual solution to the problem.
Uchelâ€™s quiet demeanor and natural talents at all sports he played set the bar high for not only his brothers but other teammates as well.
â€œWe had no idea Uchel was fast. He would just blow people away (on the track),â€ Jenkins said.
As the schoolâ€™s high-school student base slowly grew, the brothers usually possessed the highest of athletic skills on the Knights teams â€“ placing the biggest targets on their backs for opposing teams.
â€œWe were just so excited to play, there was no pressure,â€ Uchel said. â€œWe were the laughing stock of the league so there was no pressure at all.â€
â€œIt was literally one-on-five with these guys but they never complained,â€ Jenkins jumped in. â€œThey had good sportsmanship.â€
â€œBut we have a very competitive nature,â€ added Ngirai. â€œIf we play Nintendo, we would fight. We wanted to win.â€
Ngirai was a star at volleyball, basketball and even as the Knights goalie on the soccer team. But it was his love for volleyball that he remembers the most. â€œI would go home and set for hours on the wall,â€ he said.
â€œI loved beach (volleyball). I would go down there at lunch time. In fact, I recruited Hillary and Gerry Toves at the beach to be our volleyball coaches at St. Johnâ€™s.â€
Not only was he skying for the Knights in interscholastic competition, he was also a top member of the volleyball club PIVA under legendary coach Ernie Abanes.
Glib had some huge shoes to fill with his older brothers setting the athletic pace. He had a taste of success but admitted, â€œThere were too much extracurricular activities!â€
According to Jenkins, St. Johnâ€™s started its baseball team because Glib had the skills to shine in the sport.
â€œIt was to try to keep him out of trouble,â€ Jenkins laughed.
After St. Johnâ€™s
Uchel went on to get a degree at the University of San Francisco, never to play competitive ball again.
Ngirai was a member of the Guam Menâ€™s Volleyball Team in the 1992 South Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea before going to college at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.
Glib dabbled with baseball at Lewis & Clark in Portland.
Strong Guam connections
Friendships they created while at St. Johnâ€™s continue to be strong, including those with their opponents such as Pete Valdez (JFK), Harry Chang (FD), Joel Quitugua (GW) and Art Mariano (GW).
â€œI had to fight twice as hard against those guys,â€ said Ngirai. â€œAnd today, weâ€™re really close friends.â€
â€œThose (years) are most of my memories,â€ Glib added. â€œI had no education (leaving Palau) and I was able to get into college because of St. Johnâ€™s.â€
Though theyâ€™ve been back in their home nation for more than 20 years now running the family businesses, all three brothers feel like outsiders in their own home.
Apparently, being away for all those years left a void in their Palauan lives.
â€œMost of my stories are from Guam,â€ Ngirai said. Uchel agreed. â€œMost of our friends are from Guam.â€
â€œWe missed the family part of Palau,â€ Uchel said. â€œPalau is big on high-school classes and reunions and none of us are a part of that. Weâ€™re not alumni here.â€
â€œThereâ€™s missing years,â€ Glib added. â€œItâ€™s a transition weâ€™re still in. It doesnâ€™t really go away overnight.â€
Building Palauâ€™s sports
Jenkins and the Tmetuchl brothers are bringing what they started at St. Johnâ€™s to Palau. They’re part of the group that formed a sports organization similar to the IIAAG.Â It’s in its first year.
â€œI feel the kids should play in high school, because itâ€™s probably the only thing theyâ€™ll ever play,â€ Uchel said. â€œAnd I learned that playing on Guam. My kids arenâ€™t going through the same things I did playing here in Palau.â€
Meanwhile, Ngirai is getting a taste for coaching, leading Midzenty High School’s volleyball team, which Jenkins’ youngest son Jeter plays on.
Talk about coming around full circle.
Source: Knights of Palau