Rivals on the rugby field, sisters Nina and Caterina Poletti will race together in the Coast to Coast – and in both, their late dad will be alongside them.
Every time the Poletti sisters run onto the rugby field, or over a mountain pass, their dad, Pat, is in their hearts and in their heads.
A rugby-loving farmer and father of four girls, Pat Poletti passed away in June last year from cancer.
Whenever his eldest daughter, Nina, and youngest, Caterina, take the field in the Farah Palmer Cup or compete in an adventure race like the Coast to Coast, they’re reminded of what their dad taught them.
“Because all of us girls are six feet tall, or thereabouts, and solid, it was very much Dad who supported us through puberty, with body image issues and stuff like that,” says 24-year-old front rower Nina. “He was always like ‘Use your strength and put it on the rugby field’.
“That was probably the biggest thing that he left us. All the key skills we’ve got now for our rugby and adventure racing, like ‘Don’t give up, you can do it’ and the ‘Go-hard-or-go-home mentality’, a lot of those things are from Dad.”
Twenty-year-old loose forward Caterina adds: “He’s definitely in our hearts each game, so we always remember him. I always think in my head, ‘What would dad say in this situation?’”
The sisters, who grew up on a hill country farm in Taranaki, have both played in the Farah Palmer Cup. They’re in the wider training squads for the upcoming FPC competition – Nina with Canterbury, and Caterina with Manawatu.
And although they’re donning different jerseys on the field, they’re joining forces to compete together in the two-day event of the Coast to Coast early next year.
Caterina picked up adventure racing in high school and was part of the winning team in the 2017 five-day Hillary Challenge and the national schools’ 12-hour adventure race. Nina, “more your couch Coast-to-Coaster” is a recent convert to the sport.
They’ve also managed to get another sister, Connie, into multisport racing. “So now we need to work on the last sister, Roma, because that will be awesome if we’re all doing it eventually,” Caterina says.
The siblings grew up “in the wops” – in the settlement of Makahu, 45 minutes inland from Stratford. They didn’t have a TV until the 2011 Rugby World Cup, “when Dad got sick of going to the neighbour’s house to watch the footy”.
Nina got into rugby at New Plymouth Girls’ High School in Year 11 and could only play sevens because there weren’t enough numbers to make a 15s squad. Caterina started when she was younger, coached by her father.
She changed positions to lock from loose forward after moving from Taranaki to Manawatu and thought about her father’s advice straight away.
“I know Dad would say ‘Just get on with it, do your job and never look back’,” says Caterina, in her second year at Massey University studying veterinary science.
Nina has been a sounding board for her younger sister this season, but there’s still that sibling rivalry banter between them.
“Hopefully we end up on the pitch this year against each other. I’m looking forward to meeting Nina on the field,” Caterina laughs. “We’ve played one game together in a Stratford club team which was fun, but we’ve never played against each other.”
Although Caterina has been involved in multisport events for years, this will be her first Coast to Coast. She will do the first bike ride and kayak, and Nina will do the run and second ride. That’s 243km in total.
Nina admits she got into the sport on a whim because she worked for Kathmandu, the naming sponsor of the Coast to Coast. She’s now a communications advisor for Farmlands Cooperative in Christchurch.
When she competed in her first mountain race, Pat was still alive. He passed before her second event, this year’s Coast to Coast.
“I did that race for him,” she says. Instead of her name, her race bib read: ‘For Dad’.
“Each time I passed a supporter they would yell ‘Yeah, do it for Dad’ which made it really special.
“It’s one achievement I know he was particularly proud of, as I was always that kid who would fake a stone bruise to get out of cross-country races.”
Their rugby mates think the pair are crazy. But the sisters don’t think injuries will be a concern because the Coast to Coast is in February, rugby’s offseason.
“It’s actually complimenting rugby in a way,” says Caterina. “With rugby, you do a lot of cycling in the gym and stuff, and running and kayaking help with the endurance aspect of the game. Endurance can affect sprinting, though, so it’s trying to find the balance between the two.”
Caterina has women’s rugby legend Dr Farah Palmer as her mentor as part of the Tania Dalton Foundation scholarship she received last year.
A torn ACL and meniscus in 2018 temporarily set Caterina back, but this year she wants to see how far she can go in the sport.
“That was really hard mentally because I was coming to university and hoping to spread my wings into a national level,” she says. “But because adventure racing was nicer on my body during that period [after rehab], I ended up doing my first of a couple of 24-hour races.”
The Black Ferns are still a goal, but it’s a matter of performing at her best at each level.
“That’s club, and then Manawatu and then if the Black Ferns come around then that would be a massive honour to be able to put the fern on your chest,” Caterina says. She won’t be giving up adventure racing and her goal to complete the testing GodZone event.
Nina, too, wants to rekindle her love for rugby. Since first making the Canterbury team in her early 20s, she’s worked towards making the Black Ferns. But when her dad died, she struggled with the pressures of rugby and being in Canterbury’s high performance squad.
“Dad was very much our rugby person, so after he passed, I kind of lost the love of it for a little bit,” she says.
Asked to describe each other, Caterina says she always looked up to Nina when they were younger. If they had to pair up for games, they would normally form a team because they have similar opinions.
“That doesn’t mean we always get along,” Caterina explains. “But I always know I have a sister that can talk really good rugby chat and now adventure racing with. I would classify her as quite laid back. I suppose we were sort of the sons of the family.”
Nina says Caterina is what Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson describes as “the hardest worker in the room”.
“It’s not just in sport – she was head girl, she got scholars, she’s really clever. For me, it’s just trying to catch up with ‘the golden daughter’ really,” laughs Nina.
“She’s determined to the point of no return. Once she’s got something in her head, she’ll just go for it and get it done. I use that a lot in my training and if I don’t want to do something I’ll think ‘oh nah, Cat would’ve done it’. It’s a big motivator.”
The sibling’s similarities will come into play when they have to tag team, racing 243km from Kumara to New Brighton next February.