BY ZOE MILLS

When you think of the average 18-year-old, you tend to think of a student filling out university applications or rushing to finish an assignment.

Meet Tupou Neiufi.

Since she was 15-years-old, she’s graced the national and international stage, representing New Zealand at the 2016 Rio Paralympics and the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth games. Now at 18-years-old, the swimmer has established herself as one to watch for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Paralympic games. Tupou took a break from her busy training schedule to chat to me about the 2020 Paralympic games, family, and living with an impairment.

Hey, Tupou! So – you’re a swimmer. How did you get into swimming?

Because of the accident that happened when I was two years old, my physio decided to put me in netball, but because of my disability [leg split] I couldn’t run properly…I couldn’t catch the ball properly because of my finger split, and just couldn’t keep up with the girls in general. That was when my physio suggested that I try swimming – it took a while to start, but even from the first swimming lesson I just fell in love with the sport, and everything just went from there.

How did you get into swimming competitively and meeting your coach?

My swimming instructor noticed at the time how competitive I was – she always saw how I was trying to overtake the swimmers at the front or trying to swim as fast as I could. That was when (my swimming instructor) asked my mum if she’d ever considered putting me in competitive swimming – the pool I was swimming at had a club as well (Mangere swim club). She asked my mum if she’d heard about the New Zealand para-swimming team and gave my mum all of the info about getting in touch with certain people. 

I went into Mangere swimming club, and I was there for a few years, but then I had surgery and I switched to Pakaranga swimming club. I was swimming there for quite a while, and that’s where I met my now coach Sheldon Kemp.

Back in 2011, you were scouted for the para-swimming identification program (Pathway to Podium) – how has your life changed since that first initial scouting?

Being selected for the Pathway to Podium program was a really big thing for me, because the program acknowledges potential Paralympic medalists and podium winners. Being able to be surrounded by athletes that had the same mindset as me and were all working towards the same goal of trying to get to the top was amazing – it inspired me, and it gave me a lot of motivation to do better and improve every single time that I swim.

Your first Paralympics was back in Rio in 2016, what was that experience like for you?

No words can describe how amazing it was – the atmosphere was just crazy! Swimming with other athletes from all around the world all with one goal: to either podium or do our best and get up to the top. Just knowing that we all came there for the same reasons and that we all worked just as hard as each other to get there was just amazing. Seeing all the different countries their supporting their swimmers, especially the family and friends – it was amazing!

You are currently preparing for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo! How are you getting ready for that? What’s your training schedule like?

We’ve changed our (training) schedule quite a few times, only to figure out what’s best for me so that we can put it into action sooner rather than later. So by the time I reach Tokyo, I know what my goals are and what I’m aiming for. I’m trying to work on every single thing, big or little, to try and get on top.

You’re a professional athlete, but you’re also 18! How do you balance school and your life around training?

I’m not actually in school at the moment. This year was supposed to be my last year (Year 13), but after last year and the commonwealth games, I decided to put school aside. The good thing with school is that you can always come back to it later on in life – I had a talk with my parents and explained to them that [school] just wasn’t working for me – especially with all the travelling, assignments and deadlines at school. I decide to leave school for my final year and just focus and give my everything in swimming. Once I’m done with swimming, then I can always turn back to school and decide where to go from there.

What or who inspires you and motivates you to keep on working hard and pushing forward in your training?

My family – they’ve been there for me through the thick and thin – no matter how much we have our ups and downs they’ve always been there for me. They’ve being supportive no matter what. If I had a really bad race, or had been doubting myself, they always cheer me up and give me reasons to not give up, telling me that they’re always going to be there for me…[My family are]…pretty much my main inspiration, because they’ve done so much for me and sacrificed so much for me – the least that I could do was give swimming my all. 

Your impairment is Hypertonia – could you tell me about your story with your impairment?

When I was about two-and-a-half, I got hit by a speeding car in a hit-and-run accident, which left me with hypertonia – but I just call it a left side brain injury, or traumatic brain injury. Basically, the left side of my brain is smaller than the right, which causes me to have slower processing sometimes. 

How has your impairment affected your everyday life?

Right now, it doesn’t change much or make me think any differently from anyone else – but I’d say that [as a child], I did have a lot of problems with my disability, just because I wasn’t  allowed to do certain things with other kids because they thought that I’d get hurt. I had the mindset of “I’m the only disabled kid in school” – I thought that something was wrong with me and that I wasn’t normal. My family have always been there for me through all the ups and downs. They taught me how to love myself for the person I am. I may be different, but that’s what makes me unique. 

What are you most looking forward to in the future?

I’m looking forward to seeing where this journey leads me, where swimming takes me. If I skip 5 years or 10 years ahead, I’d love to be able to look back at how far I’ve come, and all of the obstacles I’ve overcome.

QUICKFIRE QUESTIONS:

What are you currently binge-watching on Netflix?

Stranger Things! I’m on season three.

What is your go-to hype song to get you excited before a race?

Either Six60’s Greatest or Stan Walker’s Give.

Who is the person you admire the most and why?

My parents! They’ve sacrificed so much for and they’ve been there for me since day one. 

Describe yourself in 3 words

Observant, Outgoing and Bookworm.

What is your best advice you’ve every received?

My mum found this quote – BE YOUrself.

Feisty, always up for a debate and smashing down the patriarchy, ZOE MILLS is a politics nerd with a huge passion for social justice. Keep up with her antics on Instagram: @zoeemills_

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