Symone Tafuna’i is producing the fastest times of her burgeoning sprinting career this summer – while coming to terms with her mental health struggles.  

Every time rising New Zealand sprint talent Symone Tafuna’i settles down in the blocks to compete, she glances down at the back of her hand.

Written in marker pen is the word ‘smile’.

The quirky ritual acts as a reminder to relax and be happy – a little antidote to her mental health battle. A building block to help guide the Aucklander through her struggles.

On the track, Tafuna’i is in outstanding form right now. Last month she set a 100m personal best time of 11.84s in Hastings. She lowered that to 11.83s in Christchurch earlier this month and maintained her excellent recent streak at the Porritt Classic in Hamilton by recording 11.84s for second place behind Olympic hopeful Zoe Hobbs. On Saturday, Tafuna’i will compete in the Sir Graeme Douglas International meet in West Auckland.

Off the track Tafuna’i is also thriving, after landing a dream job with TVNZ.

Yet, although in “a good place” with her mental health, she admits it’s an ongoing battle and she hopes her story can act as an inspiration to others.

In 2018, the west Auckland-based sprinter recorded her first sub-12 second 100m to sit joint sixth on the annual New Zealand rankings with a best of 11.95s. But by the end of that year, she was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.

“Just getting to the start line was really hard for me,” Tafuna’i says.

“My winter preparation [for the 2019 season] started off great until I tore my post tibialis tendon in a freak accident during a training session. This was the start of the rapid decline of my mental health.

“I had dropped down a dress size, I wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping, I was going through a number of personal issues, which triggered the depression and anxiety.”

Symone Tafuna’i is balancing her running career with a new job at TVNZ. Photo: Alisha Lovrich Photography. 

Among the multiple issues she was dealing with included the sudden death of her aunty Sesa, who was “like a second mum” to Tafuna’i. “She always video chatted with me every week to check in. So not having those regular catch ups with my aunty really affected me.”

She emerged into the 2019 season “in a dark hole.”

Perhaps counter-intuitively given her struggles, Tafuna’i enjoyed a solid domestic campaign that summer. She finished a highly creditable fifth in the senior women’s 100m final at the national track and field champs – only for her mental health battle to tighten its grip as the year progressed.

She describes it as the worst year of her life. Tafuna’i was studying towards a degree in communications at the time.

“Normally I’m a very good student but my grades started dropping. I was only just scraping through. I was starting to develop dark, suicidal thoughts. I trialled multiple therapy sessions, but nothing seemed to work,” she says.

Some days getting out of bed became a trial. She skipped some training session and lectures. As a last resort she went on anti-depressants. The drugs helped but had the side effect of leaving her lacking in energy – not the perfect scenario for a sprinter.

“It took time for me to adapt [to the anti-depressants],” she explains. “I felt numb, it took a lot to feel excited or hyped and when I did, it exhausted and fatigued me mentally and emotionally.”

Thankfully, the support that she continuously receives from her parents (both of Samoan heritage), her older sister, coach James Mortimer, mental performance coach David Niethe and physios Anousith Bouaaphone and Peter Lee, has also helped Tafuna’i with her on-going mental health journey.

A key element to her recovery has been taking on an attitude to be kinder to herself – hence the introduction of her pre-race routine to write the word ‘smile’ on the back of her left hand and her mum to do the same on Tafuna’i ’s right hand.

“To be kinder to myself is the most important lesson I’ve learned over the past two years,” she says. “I was super harsh, which impacted on my self-confidence and self-esteem.

“When I used to prepare ahead for a competition, I would swear at myself, thinking it would help me to feel angry or excited. But all it did was put me down.”

Writing the word smile was suggested by her mental performance coach.

“It helps when I’m in the blocks – when I look at the back of my hands, I automatically feel relaxed which allows me to run better,” she says.   

Symone Tafuna’i trains with Zoe Hobbs, the national 100m champ. Photo: Seb Charles.

Starting her running journey from the age of three after joining Avondale Athletics Club, Tafuna’i also featured as a national standard swimmer until opting to focus her sporting endeavours solely on athletics from the age of 16.

The decision proved inspired, as she snared national U18 bronze medals in the 100m and 200m. But she feels a key moment in her athletics development came after joining the training group of current coach Mortimer in 2017.

“James is very understanding and makes his athletes’ feel comfortable in the training environment,” she explains.

“With the training squad he has cultivated, he acknowledges we all have individual goals but that we all respond differently to his training programme. He’s always patient and takes the time to check we are all okay, and never puts any pressure on us.”

Tafuna’i is also delighted to call New Zealand’s fastest woman’, Zoe Hobbs, a training partner. Hobbs, who earlier this season blitzed to a New Zealand resident record of 11.35 – within 0.03 of the 28-year-old national 100m record, says it is “a honour” to train alongside the 2019 World Championship representative and she has learned a lot from her fellow sprinter. 

“I have a lot of respect for her because we are quite similar in that we are both very goal driven,” she adds. “Zoe is amazing to watch as she puts the same amount of energy into everything she does, both on and off the track”.

In her life off the track Tafuna’i  has also excelled – graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in communication in her goal to becoming a sports reporter. Last year she was given a golden opportunity after successfully applying for an internship at TVNZ – where she was mentored by former Black Fern, journalist and presenter Melodie Robinson.

Tafuna’i is now working as a desk assignments co-ordinator alongside other aspiring journalists and reporters, and she’s been working with the America’s Cup production team.

“When I had the opportunity to be mentored by Melodie, I took it with both hands,” she says. “After battling with depression and anxiety I felt like the goals I set out for myself started to align.”

TVNZ have also been accommodating Tafuna’i’s athletic goals, including her training five days a week. 

The North Harbour Bays Athletics runner knows mental health issues have not magically disappeared but a more positive, carefree mindset has helped.

“I’m running well and I think that it’s because I’m generally happy with myself. But it took a long time to get here,” she explains.

“I’m managing my mental health and it’s reflected in my results and day-to-day life. However, I still have my good and bad days and that’s okay. I’m kinder on myself, and as a consequence having more fun training and competing.”

Steve Landells is an Auckland-based freelance sports writer. He has 25 years experience in the industry including four Olympic Games, three Commonwealth Games, Wimbledon tennis and world athletics championships.

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