The future’s looking bright for Junior Tall Fern Leah Mafua – pursuing a US college scholarship in basketball, and a business degree that’s focused on the sea.
Leah Mafua must feel like her ship has come in.
The Junior Tall Fern is happy in her new life at Otero Junior College in Colorado, USA – playing basketball and studying business, her two great passions.
And even if she decides a basketball career isn’t for her, the teenager from the Hutt Valley knows she’s found another future pathway offshore – in shipping.
Yes, you read it correctly: shipping.
“I’ve taken a big interest in shipping companies. I’ve found information around what the industry looks like, what kind of jobs there are, and how business can run on an international scale – it’s so interesting,” says Mafua, who’s studying international business.
Mafua will be at the junior college for two years and plans to transfer to a four-year university scholarship when her initial degree is complete.
Concentrating on the education opportunities in the US was inspired by Mafua’s older brother, Samuel. He was the first in their family to get into basketball and gave his sister sound advice from the beginning.
“He said ‘basketball is going to be there no matter what, but a free education overseas only comes once in a lifetime’. That kind of changed my perspective on things,” says the 19-year-old.
So far, Mafua has loved her college experience, having started at OJC late last year.
As US scholarship offerings in New Zealand increase each season, the college options can vary significantly, from small community colleges to Division I state universities. Mafua says it really depends on someone’s personality when it comes to enjoying their college experience.
“If you feel like you can mingle with 30,000 other students in comparison to 1300 students then, go for it. But for me, I like smaller communities,” says Mafua. “I’ve been at Hutt Valley High School in Wellington and there are 1600 kids there, so coming overseas to a college that has around the same amount of students, I get that comfortable vibe. Where I am right now is exactly the perfect place for me.
“Some young athletes are fixated on college status with scholarships. But I think the reality is, there are so many amazing things you can experience in smaller types of schools,” says Mafua.
She led Hutt Valley High to a Wellington title in 2018 and they were then runners-up at nationals (Mafua made the tournament team that year). She also represented New Zealand at age-grade level in 2017 and 2018, and travelled with the Junior Tall Ferns to Guam in 2017 for the FIBA U17 Oceania championship, and India the following year for the FIBA Asian championship.
Being in a place where you can grow is important to Mafua. And that’s showing in her basketball achievements with OJC.
The skillful guard made the 2019-20 NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) Division I women’s basketball All-American honorable mention list in her first year, and was the division’s player of the week in January.
By late March she was also named on the World Exposure honorable mention All-American list.
Next year, she will be joined at OJC by her younger sister, Jenna-Rose, who has just received the same basketball scholarship.
As the Covid-19 global pandemic started to shut down borders, Mafua returned to New Zealand in early March after receiving advice from the college.
“I was so blessed and grateful when Mum booked my flights on the spot. She called me and just said ‘Make sure you get to the airport on time’,” says Mafua. The Māori-Samoan athlete was raised in Wellington and comes from a tight-knit family with three siblings.
When she made it to the airport in Los Angeles, Mafua says the scenes were “insane”.
“People were rushing to terminal gates, demanding earlier flights and when a flight would come up ‘cancelled’ on the screen, everyone would panic. It just felt surreal because you only see that stuff in movies, not in real life,” she says.
Once she was back in New Zealand, lockdown provided some much-needed rest for the young student-athlete.
“I came back and I slept for two days. And then for the next two weeks, I was just resting because I was so tired,” Mafua says.
“When you’re training three to four times everyday, on top of study, you become drained.”
Keeping up with fitness and training was also difficult to maintain, Mafua admits, but she tried to focus on her nutrition during lockdown.
“Because everything was off-limits – the gyms were closed, and we couldn’t really get onto public courts – for me it was about watching what I ate,” she says. “Even though takeaways were closed, you were tempted to go to Countdown and get fatty food. So nutrition was definitely a big test.”
Away from the court, Mafua loves playing the piano and admits she likes to think she’s good on the keys.
“It’s kind of like a self-medication thing for me to just chill. I love doing stuff that will treat my well-being. So I like drawing and playing the piano – anything to get my mind off the basketball floor and study,” says Mafua.
“For someone who is self-taught on the piano and also at drawing, I really love the idea of creativity. When you’re drawing, you can do whatever you want. And when you’re on the piano, you can pick certain keys to create a masterpiece in your eyes.
“The cool thing is my family can sing. I wasn’t blessed with pipes but I got the long fingers for the piano.”
As an inaugural recipient of a Tania Dalton Foundation scholarship, Mafua has enjoyed the commitment the foundation provides. The foundation was set up to support talented young females in their sporting development as well as helping to give back to their communities.
“It’s amazing. It’s not even the financial side of things, it’s how they take the time to create workshops about leadership, and all the great things that a good role model should be,” Mafua says.
Mafua admits it was hard at times to keep up with the workshops and staying in touch with her mentor Donna Wilkins (nee Loffhagen) – a former New Zealand netball and basketball representative – and her scholarship partners Paul & Liz Blackwell – founders of the New Zealand Breakers.
“I know deep down in my heart, and I hope they know deep down, that I have so much respect for them it’s crazy.”
She’s planning on showing her gratitude as part of her ‘pay it forward’ project – an activity the recipients present as part of their wrap-up of the three-year scholarship programme. For now, she says, her gift is a secret.
Mafua’s basketball coach at OJC was hoping to have their lead scorer back in Colorado by mid-August, even though the season is delayed until next January.
“Our coach mentioned if I was to go back now, it would be straight study and training. I wasn’t sure about going back because of what’s going on in their country. But at the same time, I really want to stay on top of my study because I know how important it is,” she says.
She’s decided to head back to college at the end of this month, and will be making sure her versatile skills are put to good use on and off the court.