New Zealand’s newest swimming star speaks to Madeleine Chapman.
Tupou Neiufi eats with her right hand, writes with her right hand, and pushes a supermarket trolley with her right hand. In everyday life, she heavily favours her right side after being hit by a car at two years old and left with a traumatic brain injury and hemiplegia. Hemiplegia results in one side of the body being bigger and stronger than the other side. For Neiufi, it’s her right side that does the heavy lifting. But in the pool, such favouritism doesn’t work.
Earlier this month, while her Māngere East neighbours were in lockdown, Neiufi was in the pool in Tokyo, winning gold in the 100m backstroke – S8. She had the preferred middle lane and went into the race ranked in the top five, but says she had no expectations and “just really wanted to get there and beat my time from earlier this year”. Trailing throughout the first lap, Neiufi closed the gap before developing a comfortable lead in the final lap. In doing so, she won her first Paralympic gold and the first in New Zealand’s 2020 campaign.
Back in Auckland now, the 20 year-old, who grew up in Māngere East with Tongan parents and six younger siblings, has been sleeping “till like 12” in MIQ while she waits to go home. Her rest is well-earned. Prior to the Games, Neiufi was training full-time. She had been studying as well but gave it up to focus on Tokyo, given the sheer volume of training. That volume included a weekly timetable of between six and eight two-hour swim sessions, two 90-minute weight sessions, and four cardio sessions. “We work just as hard as other athletes,” she says, noting that her weight sessions work to her own strengths and weaknesses. “For deadlifts, I can’t grip with the left side so I strap in one hand.” For individual weights and single reps, her right side lifts more than her left side.
It’s an adjustment in the same way everyone adjusts in the gym, but has been a source of frustration in the past. “It’s quite hard to build muscle on the left side, I don’t know why,” she says, laughing. “I’ve been trying for years and it’s not really getting far.”
Neiufi took up swimming at the suggestion of a doctor, who said it would be good for her physical rehabilitation. She was nine years old and had been playing netball but was having trouble keeping up while wearing her arm and leg splints. In the pool, there were no splints and no way to completely isolate half of her body. She immediately took to it, and was soon on the radar of Paralympics selectors. Even now, a decade later, the benefits of her swimming career extend far beyond gold medals. “I know for a fact that if I wasn’t training as much as I am or swimming in general, my left side at the moment would probably be quite stiff and really weak.”
Neiufi says as she gets older, her left side is still stiffening up and weakening, which has meant a change in competition classification from S9 to S8. Para athletes are grouped by the degree of activity limitation resulting from an impairment, from 1-10. The lower the number, the more severe the activity limitation. “Some people just get classified once and that’s it for the rest of their life,” Neiufi explains. “But [for] some people, like me, they believe that they should reclassify every few years just to have a look and check up on our disabilities. With me, they believe that it will deteriorate, where it gets worse over the years.”
She’s always known she’d have to “face something after sport” and plans to return to studies after swimming but for now, Neiufi is simply happy to have given her family, community, and culture something to be proud of. “The support from the [Pacific] community and South Auckland was so overwhelming, there were so many posts,” she says of the reaction to her win. “You know there’s Valerie Adams, there’s so many other athletes that grew up in South Auckland and I just felt so honoured and happy to be able to help them shine light on our area and give our kids in South Auckland… I just hope that we were able to help them know that you’re able to achieve any goal and dream as long as you put your mind to it.”
The South Auckland part is important. After her win, which came in the midst of a delta outbreak heavily affecting communities in South Auckland, many fans asked why Neiufi wasn’t being identified as a swimmer from South Auckland in all the positive news stories. “Growing up, when we’ve had bad stuff happen in our area it is always classed as South Auckland and then when good things happen it’s known as just Auckland or New Zealand,” she says. “For me, it would be nice if they’d include South Auckland, especially since South Auckland’s been having it pretty hard with the Pacific community over the last couple of weeks. I would like to have South Auckland there because it gives our little area a little light to shine.”
While she’s been ordered to rest, Neiufi is already looking ahead to the 2022 Commonwealth Games and the 2024 Olympics. She’s had an exercise bike delivered to her hotel room and has largely been staying away from the news and media, especially when it’s about her (“the last thing I want to be hearing is my voice”). Once she’s out, she plans to head straight back to the pool and the gym, and then home to South Auckland.