Meet Tupou Neiufi
Girl bosses who brunch is a series which seeks to celebrate the achievements of incredible Pacific women. All of my chats with the various girl bosses take place in a café and we discuss anything and everything ranging from their journey to success to how many people they pashed on the weekend (jokes, kind of). It is my hope that in sharing stories about successful women, this will inspire others to do better and be better.
I found Tupou on Facebook. This is the first time that I have ever Facebook stalked a young woman and tried to get in contact with her by slippin’ into the unruly realms of private messaging for our Girl Bosses Who Brunch series. I must say, even for a well and truly seasoned prolific Facebook stalker, I was totally impressed with my work. I was more impressed however, and extremely grateful to the outrageously talented and humble Tupou Seini Neiufi for being so kind, agreeing to meet with me and allowing me to share her story with you all.
The doctors told Tupou’s parents that she would never walk again, yet here she is. Reigning as New Zealand’s youngest high performance elite athlete and fighting for a well deserved place in the Rio Paralympics 2016. She is a pioneer in her own right, a champion for change and role model for her community. Tupou is inspirational, talented and fearless. This is her story.
For anyone who has ever had the pleasure of meeting Tupou, one of her most striking features is her gentle nature; which is most surprising because when she is in the pool, she is aggressive and absolutely dominates. Tupou Neiufi is a swimmer, vying for a spot in New Zealand’s Paralympic team heading to Rio later this year. She has already made the qualifying time, she simply needs make it again at the Paralympics trials in April.
Tupou’s journey to becoming a Paralympian is one that she has shared with her greatest inspiration, her family. When Tupou was just two years old, she was hit by a speeding car. From the accident, Tupou suffered deep cuts and bruises to her brain. As a result of this, the way that she processes information is slow. Her coordination was also seriously affected. She has hemiplegia on the left side of her body, which means the entire left side of her body is smaller and weaker than the right side. Although Tupou’s family were grateful that the accident was not fatal, Tupou could no longer crawl, stand or walk.
Despite the very difficult circumstances, Tupou’s parents never lost in faith in her ability to recover. Through intense rehab, she began to re-learn how to crawl and eventually stand on her own. Even from an early age, Tupou showed signs of resilience and perseverance, two qualities, which have made her an exceptional athlete.
As crazy as it sounds, being ranked in the world as a para-swimmer was not always in Tupou’s list of sporting goals. Tupou actually started as a keen netball player but she had difficulty catching the ball. When her physio suggested that she should try swimming instead, Tupou had no idea that swimming was going to be a sport that would come so naturally to her. Interestingly, when asked what she enjoys the most about swimming, it’s the social aspect of the sport that Tupou loves. “I like meeting new people and travelling”. Swimming has allowed Tupou to travel to competitions around New Zealand and Australia.
But it’s not all fancy hotels and fun meet and greets. Tupou’s routine is intense. When she is not doing her homework or spending time with her family, she is in the pool or at the gym. Tupou’s mother, Lose tells me that, “Swimming is an all year sport, it’s not like netball, where it’s seasonal. She only gets Christmas, New years and Sundays off during the year. Usually after nationals, they give her a couple of days off”.
With such an intense schedule, one of the challenges that Tupou faces, as a young athlete is learning how to juggle her training sessions with school. Tupou is currently a 4th form student at Otahuhu College. “It’s really full on. I’ve got assignments and then I also need to make time to train. I’ve got NCEA next year. I know that I won’t be swimming forever and I need something to fall back on. Ever since I was 5, I have always wanted to be a doctor”.
Planning to become a doctor in the future isn’t the only thing that Tupou hopes to achieve. “I actually want to start taking free swimming lessons but lessons for those who can’t afford it. Maybe have my own swim school or something.” Tupou recognizes that there is a lot of potential for young Pacific Islanders to excel in swimming, however one of the major barriers is the fact that swimming is an expensive sport. She hopes to play a key part in encouraging more young Pacific Islanders to take up competitive swimming.
Tupou is very appreciative of all the support she receives from her family, particularly her parents. “There’s seven of us, we’re all doing sports and for them to go out of their way and take the time to actually take us to our trainings, it’s pretty amazing”. Tupou’s mother Lose beautifully responds to her daughter’s gratitude by saying, “We want her to get the best in life. We don’t want to brush her disability to the side. We give all our children equal opportunities. It’s difficult but it’s worth it”.
She also credits her success to all the amazing people that she is surrounded by. Her coach, Sheldon Kemp from the Howick Pakuranga Swim Club, took Tupou under his wing as his first para-swimmer. “He knew nothing about my disability but for someone to go out of his way to research to give me a chance, that speaks volumes for the type of person he is. He’s an amazing person, very genuine and he has always wanted the best for me”. Alongside her coach, her great support team also includes her physio Lima and her strength and conditioning coach Emily. Tupou is grateful for all the incredible support she receives.
Tupou’s favourite athletes are Sophie Pascoe and Mary Fisher, both Paralympic swimmers and gold medalists. Like Sophie and Mary, her dream is “to stand on the podium at the Paralympics, listening to our national anthem as the flag goes up. That’s probably my ultimate goal”. A goal, which I’m sure, is well within her reach.
Thank you Tupou Seini Neiufi for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your story with TSW. Thank you for paving the way for many aspiring swimmers, I love everything that you stand for. Looking forward to watching your journey and will be cheering you on all the way! Ofa atu!