Lithuanians from Geelong, Australia, to compete at Lithuanian sports games in Cleveland

Eddie Obeliunas & Jonathon Payne outside of the Neptunas Basketball Hall. Photo by Elijus Kniežauskas.

It is a monumental tournament for the club and for Lithuanians in general as they will celebrate their homeland’s 25th year of independence from Soviet occupation at this sporting carnival.

Geelong is a beautiful regional town of about 200,000 people located on the south east coast of Australia. It is home to the surf mecca that is Bells Beach, and one of the oldest professional football clubs in the world – the Geelong Cats (established in 1859).

It is also home to a small, tightly knit community of Lithuanians.

The community started to form in the early 1950’s after the arrival of many displaced persons from WWII.

My grandparents Sofija and Adolfas Obeliunas were two such people who happily made Geelong their home and who were actively involved in the community.

In 1953, the Geelong Vytis sports club was formed and has been actively participating in local sporting leagues, without break, ever since.

Basketball is the main sport the club is concerned with although it has produced some high profile athletes in other sports too – World UCI cycling gold medalist Rebecca Wiasak tops this list.

See Rebecca Wiasak’s story.

My grandfather was president of the club at one point, also having coached and supported teams through tournaments and practices for over 50 years.

My father, Jonas, and aunty and uncle – Lily and Peter, are all life members of the club with Dad and Peter also being life members of ALFAS (Australijos lietuvių fizinio auklėjimo sąjunga).

Since early childhood my cousins, my sister and I have also represented the club – it goes without saying that the Obeliunas name is synonymous with Geelong Vytis.

The golden years for Vytis were in the 70’s when the men’s division one team won the Geelong Men’s championship title for three consecutive years.

During this period, my father was named “Geelong Sportsman of the Year” in 1971 for all sports in the region whilst also playing for the State and Geelong Representative teams.

Vytis also won numerous Sporto Šventė throughout this time.

Across the world we have seen the era of WWII displaced Lithuanians assimilate and disperse throughout the societies in which they have come to live.

This is true of Geelong Lithuanians too.

In a town of less than 300 people of Lithuanian origin, one would understand the difficulty in assembling men’s and women’s basketball teams, but the club has continually been able to field teams in local competition and at Sporto Šventės for over 60 consecutive years- a feat other Australian Lithuanian sports clubs with much larger Lithuanian communities have not been able to achieve.

Upon the first signs of Lithuanian numbers dropping off in the 1980s, Geelong Vytis, lead by the likes of Stan Sutas, Lucy Koszela, Alex Wiasak and many others, started actively recruiting members for their children’s teams to keep the club alive.

Throughout my age group I was one of two Lithuanians in the team.

The others were all school friends and kids of parent’s friends, overall anyone who was happy to play for Vytis.

My younger sister was the only Lithuanian in her Vytis team growing up as well.

The vital point was that the club was able to remain active and represented.

Lithuanians were able to play for a Lithuanian club and their friends and colleagues were welcomed with open arms.

Looking back 20 years down the track, I can say that some of my best memories were formed sharing experiences with Vytis team mates of various backgrounds.

They learnt about our tiny Lithuania and its culture, and proudly represented the club.

They learnt about Lithuanian culture and proudly represented the club.

The current Vytis committee of four is comprised of two non Lithuanians, Stan Rebis and Simon Jovic, both life members of the club.

Another non-Lithuanian life member of the club, Michael Watach, has been involved with Vytis for over 40 years.

He has been granted “Honorary Lithuanian” status by ALFAS, along with his wife and children, for their significant contributions to the community which also involve Lithuanian dancing and scouts.

In 2012, new rule changes were implemented by ALFAS, requiring clubs to field teams with players of only Lithuanian heritage.

This had a crippling effect on Geelong Vytis, and as such the club resigned from the ALFAS organisation.

Unable to fill teams at Sporto Šventės with only Lithuanians, the club was left with no other option.

Furthermore, Geelong Vytis could simply not condone having to tell its non Lithuanian members who participated and supported the club over many years that they were no longer welcome at the marquee event of the year, the Sporto Šventė.

Previously at Australian Šventės, teams required a minimum of three Lithuanians to participate which allowed smaller clubs like Hobart, Canberra, Brisbane and Geelong to enter.

Despite the rule changes in the Australian-Lithuanian sporting world, Geelong Vytis participated at the 9th World Lithuanian Games in Klaipeda in 2013.

This side, which had featured four non-Lithuanian members (all of whom had developed with Vytis as juniors) advanced to the quarter finals.

It’s ironic that the World Lithuanian games allow for up to three non Lithuanian members per team, but the new Australian rules allow for none.

Golfer, Andrius Belkus, was able to win the gold in the golf at these games as a Vytis member.

The Club also won medals in women’s tennis with Rhonda and Sharna Sutas.

No other Australian basketball teams participated at these games, the first time ALFAS has failed to enter a team in the history of the World Lithuanian games.

Lead by a united and proactive committee, Geelong Vytis continues to grow as a sports club and spread its message of equality across the world in 2015.

It currently has six active basketball teams in local competitions, more than most Lithuanian sports clubs around the world outside of Lithuania.

On June 5, the Geelong Vytis men’s team will begin its campaign for SALFASS glory in the opening game of the tournament against home team Cleveland Žaibas.

The team has been extremely lucky to have NBA star Nik Stauskas provide some coaching tips as they prepare in Toronto with warm up games.

Whilst the club may not be able to participate in Lithuanian competitions in its own country, it wholeheartedly encourages all its members, Lithuanian or not, to continue to enjoy sport at home and abroad.

The club’s next major endeavor is to send a team to the 10th World Lithuanian Games in Kaunas in 2017.

Being Lithuanian is unique – no one can take that away from us.

Being Lithuanian and able to embrace and accept others into our culture is something far more special, and essential to the survival of dwindling communities.

Updates and photos of the club’s participation at the tournament can be found on their Facebook page.

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