One of three athletic siblings, Samalulu Clifton is edging towards her dream of representing New Zealand in two water sports. But lockdown has whipped up an unexpected family challenge.  

Samalulu Clifton is no stranger to paddling her way through rough water.

But the aspiring surf lifesaver and kayaker has had to brave a completely different storm in the past two months – with her parents stranded 8500km away during lockdown.

And the couple are still stuck in the Falkland Islands – with no idea when they will get a flight back to New Zealand.

“I’m just at home with my siblings, but luckily we’re all pretty much adults,” the 21-year-old Clifton says. She has a brother, Tuva’a, who’s 22, and an 18-year-old sister, Aotea – all three are athletes who live in the family home in central Auckland.

“It’s definitely made us realise how much our parents actually do for us,” laughs Clifton. “But we’ve made a roster for cooking and chores so we’re all keeping in check.”

Clifton says her parents had just recently married and decided to visit the territory in the South Atlantic Ocean where her dad is from, before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

“They haven’t travelled anywhere my whole life, they waited 25 years to get married – and then this happens,” she says. “They have limited WiFi access so they try to call us when they can.”

Clifton has had to balance challenges on the fitness front during the coronavirus lockdown, too.

“I’ve definitely had to be more creative with my training,” she says. A friend provided gym equipment so she could set up at home, and she borrowed a rowing erg from her kayak club.

Clifton has become deft at balancing, while competing at the top of two sports. She started surf lifesaving at the age of nine, which led to picking up kayaking at 13.

The water sport combination has proved fruitful. Last year she travelled to Japan to compete in the Sanyo Cup with the New Zealand surf lifesaving team, and in November, she made the New Zealand invitation squad for kayaking.

While she’s managed to maintain her fitness over the last two months, a big test of how she’s fared during this unusual time will come later in the year.

At the end of the one-year opportunity with the kayaking squad, Clifton will discover if she is bumped up to a carded athlete – a position which brings support from High Performance Sport New Zealand.

Samalulu Clifton competing at last year’s national surf lifesaving championships. Photo: Jamie Troughton/Dscribe Media. 

Representing New Zealand at pinnacle events in both sports has always been the ultimate goal for Clifton – the Olympics for kayaking, and the world championships in surf lifesaving.

“I’ve been in a Junior Black Fins team and New Zealand development team but making a New Zealand open lifesaving team for a world championship would be the end goal in that sport,” says Clifton.

“And I’d say the 2028 Olympics is more realistic for kayaking – but maybe 2024 if I get really good, really fast.”

Growing up with both sports has been relatively easy, but Clifton admits she will eventually need to dedicate her time to one code.

“I feel lucky I’ve been able to do them both for this long because the training kind of crosses over. In surf lifesaving, I mainly specialise in surf ski which is pretty much a kayak in the ocean – just twice as heavy,” she laughs.

In the past, Clifton has been able to juggle both sets of training. During the summer, she would kayak in the morning and then head to the beach in the afternoon for surf training.

This summer was the first time Clifton could not commit to both as the kayaking invitation squad programme is a “full-on” training schedule with the New Zealand women’s team.

While also striving to succeed in sport, the young Samoan-Kiwi is studying part-time towards a Bachelor of Food and Nutrition Science at the University of Auckland. The three-year full-time degree will take her six years part-time, but Clifton needs the workload to fit in with her aspirations.

Clifton’s schooling from early childcare to intermediate was in full immersion and bilingual Samoan language units.

“My nana settled here from Samoa and my mum has always wanted us to keep learning [about our culture]. I have a pretty good understanding of Samoan, but I find it hard to have proper conversations,” says Clifton.

Her mother was involved with a parent group who helped set up the Samoan bilingual unit, Gāfoa le Ata, at Kowhai Intermediate, and the Clifton siblings have all followed in the same schooling.

They have all followed the same sporting pathways too – all three competing in surf lifesaving and sprint kayaking.

In fact, Tuva’a Clifton has qualified for the postponed Tokyo Olympics, representing Samoa in the men’s K1 200m event.

Samalulu was one of the foundation scholarship recipients of the Tania Dalton Foundation, which helps aspiring young sportswomen with mentoring and funding. It has helped her, she says, in more ways than one.

“It’s provided me with so much support the past couple of years – financially, mentally and socially. I’ve formed quite a few friendships,” says Clifton, who is in her third and final year of the programme.

Samalulu Clifton (back row, third from right) with her Tania Dalton Foundation scholarship group. Photo: Tania Dalton Foundation.

Meeting other aspiring athletes has been the most enjoyable part of being a foundation member.

“I never would’ve met them because we’re all in different sports and on our own paths,” Clifton says. “So it’s been really cool to form friendships and learn what other girls are doing.”

Every year, a new set of 12 recipients are awarded scholarships into the programme. The participants meet for workshops on different skills including goal setting, presentation tips, and learning about personality types.

Each scholarship winner is also teamed with a mentor for the duration of the programme. Clifton is paired with Shelley Bryce (nee Stephens), New Zealand’s former No.1 women’s tennis player.

“It’s been cool to have her as a mentor. We meet up every few months and hang out, and it’s like having an extra friend. We don’t do the same sports, but she’s been an athlete so she has the knowledge about what it takes to do that,” says Clifton.

The foundation has provided skill sessions throughout lockdown, including a ‘Wednesday wisdom’ session, involving all of the scholarship groups talking to mentors and senior athletes.  

The most recent call with former New Zealand netball and volleyball player Anna Harrison (nee Scarlett) was a standout for Clifton.

“It was interesting to hear from another athlete who has competed in two sports. It was cool to hear how she handled juggling the two and then how she had to choose one,” she says. “It was just cool to hear about her journey, because it’s similar to mine.”

And the Covid-19 levels slowly lower, Clifton will get back to navigating her own journey across sometimes choppy seas.

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