Disability Doesn’t Stop Auckland Paralympian in Swimming or Life

Family and faith make the difference for Tupou Neiufi

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She’s called Tupou. Tupou Neiufi.

She is a Paralympian. And like other Paralympians, she has lived with a disability and moved beyond it. 

                                  

The 29th Para-Athlete selected for Rio’s 2016 Paralympic Games (over 4,300 eventually received an invitation), she participated in one of the 152 medal events that took place in swimming. There she became part of a tradition in New Zealand for sending teams that have won medals in Para-Swimming at every Summer Paralympic Games since NZ began competing in 1968.

Yet, who is Tupou Neiufi?

Her earliest memory of swimming is of a wonderful feeling of freedom. When she was in the water, she didn’t have to wear her leg splint or hand splint. At two and one half years old she had started life over again after being badly injured by a speeding car that hit her and kept going.

Tupou recalls, “When I woke up from a coma, I couldn’t move my legs, arms, head. I couldn’t even sit up on the bed or walk. I was like a new born baby, and the doctors told my parents they’re not sure if I’ll be able to walk again.”

For months afterwards, she endured “a lot of intense therapy” which she describes as “crying, up’s and down’s.” She moved forward with determination, but was able to walk only with the support of a leg splint.

 

During the accident she had sustained a severe head injury that included “deeps cuts and bruises to the brain, and left-sided hemiplegia which means,” she explains, “the whole left-hand side of my body is smaller and weaker than my right side.”

Tupou began swimming as part of rehab to force her to use her left side.  “If not, I’ll sink,” she remarks.

“My swimming instructor had picked up quickly how competitive I was against the able-body kids, and suggested to my parents that I should take up competitive swimming and mentioned the Paralympics, and my journey started there.”

Who else is Tupou?  A member of the Howick Pakuranga Swim Club. On September 17th at 9:25am NZ time, the club posted the following:

“Tupou Neiufi has done herself, family, club, supporters and NZ proud this morning. The youngest NZ Paralympian at the Rio 2016 games, finishing 7th in her first Paralympic Final with a new personal best of 1:14.94 and an unofficial new New Zealand Record. Congratulations Tupou. Enjoy the moment, and see you at training on Friday!”

                                            

Tupou had been a reserve for the New Zealand team. At the last minute, she was selected to take the place of Bryall McPherson who withdrew from the team “due to illness and injury.”

During her first actual Paralympic heat, she admits: “While I was in marshalling, waiting to be called up for my race, I felt really nervous. But once I was on the block the nerves had gone, and I was just focusing and thinking about my race plan.”

Her goal for the Games was “to inspire people to give things a go because, like my mum always says, ‘You’ll never know unless you try.’”

She fully enjoyed the entire Paralympic experience. “Rio is a beautiful place,” she says. “The people are friendly, and the crowd was amazing. The cheering, singing, and dancing really pumped us swimmers up for our races.”

But Tupou is someone besides a Paralympian.  She is, for instance, a 15-year-old girl whose best friend is named Chance.  “We've always hung out whenever possible due to my schedule. She's always been there for me like I have been for her. I wouldn’t have asked for a better best friend.”

She is also a teenager who is “sometimes . . . not allowed to do certain things that my siblings are allowed to do because I might injure myself.”

Before the Paralympics, she represented her high school at the 2015 NZ Secondary Schools Swimming Competition. It was the first time Otahuhu College had someone to represent them in over 20 years, and she brought back six gold medals and one silver.

She proudly notes, “Last December at the school’s sports award I was awarded the Junior Girls Athletics award, the swimming award, and the Best Individual Sporting Performance of the Year award. The sports co-ordinator told me, in the 20 years he’s been at the school and, as far as he knows, in the school’s history, this is the first time ever that a junior has won the Best Individual Sporting Performance of the Year award, let alone someone with a disability.”

                                         

Tupou is also a member of a family, a family that belongs to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).  She is the first child of Fineasi (father) & Lose Neiufi and the oldest of four girls and three boys.

“Life in a large family in NZ is great,” she comments.  “I don't know what it's like with other large families in NZ, but our parents have made a lot of sacrifices so that each of us kids are able to give different things a go and find what we're good at and try and excel, whether it be in sports or academically.

“For example, my siblings and I all play sports on Saturdays. Mum takes the girls to netball and then one of my brothers to their rugby game, and Dad takes me to Saturday morning training, and then takes one brother to football and my other brother to his rugby game.

“We think we're just like other families, except there's more of us.”

She continues, “My siblings and I feel truly blessed to have wonderful parents. They are the greatest examples of love, sacrifice and support. . . . I know for sure that I wouldn't have gotten this far if it wasn't for them, and I'm forever grateful.”

Fineasi and Lose, referring to Tupou’s accident, say, “We never questioned why, why our daughter? We were told with the impact of the accident they don't know how she survived, but we believed that it was because her mission here on earth wasn't complete.

“We have seven children. Tupou's story is just one, but we've made many sacrifices for all our children to be able to let each child experience different opportunities, and it is always worth it. Heavenly Father has blessed us with these wonderful gifts, and it is our duty . . . to teach our children, give them opportunities to be able to excel and flourish. We enjoy watching each child grow, not only mentally and physically, but most importantly spiritually.”

“My journey hasn't been an easy journey to get to where I am now,” admits Tupou. “But prayer, having strong faith, and listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit have helped me overcome many obstacles and helped me continue to move forward and work hard."

Have faith in Heavenly Father, for he has a plan for each of us. BElieve in YOUrself. You must always believe in yourself, but most importantly, BE YOU!”

                                     

Tupou continues:  “There is a quote that I always refer to [that] has helped me during my journey, by Dieter F. Uchtdorf: ‘Our destiny is not always determined by the number of times we stumble, but by the number of times we rise up, dust ourselves off, and move forward.’

“Being in a high profile situation as a young Mormon has been amazing, but I would like to think of it as more of a blessing. My goal is to one day become a world champion, but through my journey I hope to inspire others to continue to strive towards their goals and dreams, because ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’" (Philippians 4:13).

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.