Knowing what she’d gone through to get there, it was hard not to shed a tear watching 18-year-old Tupou Neiufi receive her first world championship medal – a silver in the S8 100m backstroke – in her first world championship final in London last week.
The Auckland teenager, who left school last year to focus fully on swimming, stood on the podium visibly holding back tears of happiness, her emotion infectious.
You could see what representing her country meant to Neiufi – and how her work ethic, dedication and courage have helped her to overcome her disability and her disappointments.
The world Para swimming championships in London – where she swam a string of personal best times – was not her first major international competition. Neiufi was just 15 years old when she competed for New Zealand at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Wide-eyed, she made the most of the experience – having initially been left out of the team.
She qualified for the women’s S9 100m backstroke final in Rio, where she finished a creditable seventh. She was far from disappointed with the result, knowing it was just the beginning of her career.
Neiufi has hemiplegia – paralysis on one side of her body – and a traumatic brain injury, after being hit by a speeding car when she was two years old.
Her left side is weaker and smaller than her right, and to complicate things further, her brain injury means that she tires quickly.
She says her disability adds another level of complication – she has to make sure she’s working hard enough to improve, but not so hard that she burns out. Her training has to be meticulously planned to get the best performance.
“It’s a constant balancing act, trying to get my recovery right so I can get the most out of my training and competition,” she says.
“Some days are harder than others, but we’re always trying to be better than the day before. And as long as I’m making improvements, then I’m happy.”
When it comes to competition, it’s the recovery between heats and finals that is crucial for Neiufi to succeed.
“I have to get my recovery right so I am rested enough to swim faster in the finals,” she says. “Like my training, it’s a balancing act, and it’s not always in my control.”
Neiufi was first introduced to swimming at the age of eight, after she tried playing netball but struggled with catching the ball and running, because of splints on her hand and leg. Her physio suggested swimming, and she loved it from her first dip in the pool.
At the 2016 national trials, Neiufi was thrilled to swim a qualifying time for the Rio Paralympics, but she was left off the team because there weren’t enough slots available.
Disappointed and confused, it took her time to regain her confidence to continue training and to find her love for swimming again.
“I was lucky to have a supportive family and coach; they helped me get through a tough time,” Neiufi says.
A little over a month out from the Games, she got the surprise of her life when she was told a spot had opened up on the team. “And it was mine if I wanted it,” she says.
“It was overwhelming and amazing to get a call and to be told I was now going to Rio. Because I had to leave so soon afterwards, I didn’t even really have time to process the whole thing,” she says.
Less than a fortnight later, Neiufi and her coach Sheldon Kemp were on a plane bound for Orlando to join the rest of the team. The 15-year-old took the whole experience in her stride and made the most of being an unknown on one of the world’s biggest sporting stages.
“I was inspired by everything I experienced in Rio, and the team were so supportive. If anything it helped me grow as an athlete and inspired me to want to keep getting better and go to Tokyo,” she says.
Neiufi’s next major international competition was last year’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Again, she was seventh in S9 100m backstroke final, but this time the result left her a little disappointed.
She now realises the Games were a great opportunity to reflect on how she could improve.
To help achieve her goal of representing New Zealand at her second Paralympics, in Tokyo 2020, Neiufi chose to leave Otahuhu College last year, at the start of Year 12, to focus solely on swimming.
“I decided to leave school because I know I can always go back. But I won’t always be able to swim at this level, so I want to make the most of it now so I won’t have any regrets,” she says.
While it’s the right decision for her swimming, Neiufi admits she misses the social aspect of school and seeing her friends.
“They’ll text me and ask if I’m coming out, and I’ll have to say no because of training or a swim meet. It’s disappointing, but I’m focused on my swimming, and I have to prioritise that,” she says.
“But they’ll text me before a meet to wish me luck. It’s little things like that, that mean a lot to me.”
Ahead of the world championships, Neiufi wasn’t focused on winning medals, but on improving her times and learning from the opportunity to compete.
“I always want to move forward; if I can improve my times then I know all the training and hard work I’m putting in is working, and that’s enough for me. It would be nice to qualify a slot for Tokyo or win a medal, but that’s not my sole focus,” she said.
She took that mindset into last week’s world championships, and achieved her goals.
She swam a personal best in her heat of the women’s S8 50m freestyle in London, finishing eighth in the final. She went quicker than her previous best in the women’s SM8 200m medley (but was disqualified for ‘alternating kicks’ underwater).
But it was the women’s s8 100m backstroke where she made her greatest impact, swimming an Oceania record in the heats, and then grabbing silver and a slot at the 2020 Paralympics in the final.
“I definitely felt nervous,” she admitted. “But I just kept telling myself, ‘Trust the process… I’ve done all the work, I’ve done all the hard yards, and all I need to do is show everyone how it is’.”