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Pacific princess: Maria Tutaia’s happy homecoming

The Silver Ferns golden girl finds her bliss in Samoa

It’s a glorious, sun-soaked day in Samoa and Woman’s Day is cruising down an inland road with Silver Ferns stunner Maria Tutaia, following an old van with superhero Thor spray-painted on the back, along with the slightly confusing slogan, “Don’t heat da player, but play da game”.

“Well, there you go,” laughs 29-year-old Maria from the back seat of the car, her head tilted back as she drains every last drop of water from a coconut she just bought for 60 cents from a roadside stall. “That says it all, doesn’t it? Welcome to Samoa!” It’s been a frantic few days of photo shoots, but the netball star has taken some time out to lead a tiki tour of the small island nation, a special place that she calls her spiritual home.

“We’re in paradise,” she smiles, showing off attractions and locations from her childhood. “This trip has been a huge eye-opener for me and made me realise I need to come back here more often. I’ll be gutted to leave.”

Goals galore

It’s been a perfectly timed break for Maria as it heralds what promises to be her best year yet. She’s passionately back into netball, having just begun her season with the Northern Mystics, and is enjoying a new romance with Australian rugby star Israel Folau, and she’s even written a book, The Beginner’s Guide to Netball. But Maria’s excited to take a few days out of her packed schedule to get back to her roots and reinvigorate her love for her ancestral homeland.

“It’s like coming back here resets me, you know? It’s a very happy, serene feeling. I don’t know how to describe it – even the smell of the sea is richer here.” Although Maria was born in New Zealand – Tokoroa, to be exact – and she’s an exceptionally proud Kiwi, her Samoan heritage is hugely important to her and she spent many happy holidays here as a kid. Of course, she’s a bonafide superstar in Samoa too. What was supposed to be a 10-minute stop at a market in Apia turns into an hour-long meet and greet involving selfies, autographs and in-depth conversations with shoppers and stall-holders, all of them clamouring to tell their golden girl just how proud of her they are.

“They love the Silver Ferns here,” Maria nods. “And the All Blacks – there are still signs on the roadside from when they came last year. They hate Australia!” It’s during a visit to her aunt and uncle’s Return to Paradise Resort, in her father’s home district of Lefaga, that her celebrity and love of the culture collide. “It’s a beautiful resort, they show off our culture so well and they employ heaps of people from Dad’s village, which I really love,” Maria says.

As she’s enjoying an umu (hangi) during the resort’s weekly cultural night, Maria’s uncle Jim asks if she’ll lead the traditional siva Samoa dance, which is a huge honour. “Sure, I’d love to,” she replies, before turning around and admitting in a terrified whisper, “I’ve got no idea what I’m doing!” Flapping her arms from side to side in demonstration, she adds, “I can only remember one move.”

However, employing the old “fake it ’til you make it” strategy, Maria does beautifully, managing to turn her one arm movement into a reasonably elegant siva – although she does finish her routine with a series of push-ups, just to prove she’s as strong as the other dancers, who are all from her extended family. “That was so special,” she sighs afterwards, flinging herself into a chair and picking up her piña colada. “To do that for the first time in Dad’s village was awesome. I was scared, though. I hadn’t done a siva in so long and because we were in Samoa, I didn’t want to stuff it up and offend anyone! So I just smiled and tried to be graceful.”

Game on!

From her family’s resort on the beach, where the 1953 Hollywood film Return to Paradise was shot, the tiki tour continues, with stops along the way to meet locals and take a few more snapshots. One of Maria’s favourite spots in Samoa is To Sua, the famous ocean trench and swimming hole that’s only accessible by a dizzyingly steep ladder.

“We used to come here as kids all the time,” Maria says before jumping off the platform into the crystal-clear water. “It’s this unreal, hidden-away treasure Samoa has that so many people would love to experience but so few have.”

But perhaps the most special moment of the trip comes on the return journey. As we drive past a colourful fale with a dozen or so children playing out the front, Maria suddenly stops and turns, a huge smile stretched across her face. “They’re playing netball!” she exclaims as she walks up to introduce herself – but there are no introductions needed. “You’re Maria from New Zealand!” one of the girls, 11-year-old Aiava, squeals with delight. “I play netball too. I’m a centre!” Maria asks if it’s OK to take a photo, then all of the kids assemble on the steps, although the gathered aunties are quick to order one boy, who’s covered in dirt from head to toe, to the back of the group.

“I know you can’t understand what they’re saying, but they’re giving him so much stick,” Maria laughs. “There’s always one kid who gets mocked in a Samoan family and they give it back just as much.” As she bids farewell and tosses the almost-flat netball back to Aiava, Maria says this trip has reignited her dream to do something to help develop and grow the game on the island. “Until recently, I didn’t realise that netball wasn’t played at primary school here. I want to try to change that and help where I can. Samoa should really be one of the top five teams in the world.” And she’s taken the first step in teaching others about the game she loves by penning The Beginner’s Guide to Netball.

“I never thought I’d write a book,” Maria confesses. “When I was at high school, my strengths were eating and playing sports – well, not much has changed! So to do this is amazing. I’m super-lucky they approached me to do it.” The aim, she tells, is for kids, coaches and clubs to be able to refer to the book, not only to gain insight into netball, but also into how Maria transformed from a nervous eight-year-old playing at Auckland’s Chaucer Primary School into a Silver Ferns legend.

The thought of her book on store shelves has her a wee bit anxious, she admits, and she bursts into giggles as she envisages one day showing her own children the handbook. “How weird will that be?!” she laughs. “I don’t know how I’ll feel when that day comes. Well, apart from seeing my 28-year-old self on the cover and telling the kids, ‘See, guys! I used to be really good at netball – I wasn’t lying!’”

The netball star takes some time out to give Woman’s Day a tiki tour of the small island nation she calls her spiritual home.

“We’re in paradise,” she smiles.

“This trip has been a huge eye-opener for me and made me realise I need to come back here more often. I’ll be gutted to leave.”

Maria plays ball with some of the local children.

“They love the Silver Ferns here,” Maria says.

“It’s like coming back here resets me, you know? It’s a very happy, serene feeling,” Maria says.

Although Maria was born in New Zealand – Tokoroa, to be exact – and she’s an exceptionally proud Kiwi, her Samoan heritage is hugely important to her and she spent many happy holidays here as a kid.

Of course, she’s a bonafide superstar in Samoa too – with plenty of local fans coming up to get selfies and autographs from their golden girl.

Maria leads the traditional siva Samoan dance.

“That was so special,” she says of the moment.

Maria gets ready to take the plunge at the famed To Sua swimming hole in Samoa.

Maria says this trip has reignited her dream to do something to help develop and grow the game on the island.

“Until recently, I didn’t realise that netball wasn’t played at primary school here. I want to try to change that and help where I can,” the Silver Fern star says.

The star has already taken her first step towards that goal, penning The Beginner’s Guide to Netball.

The aim, Maria explains, is for kids, coaches and clubs to be able to refer to the book, not only to gain insight into netball, but also into how Maria transformed from a nervous eight-year-old playing in primary school into a Silver Ferns legend.

With a new romance (with Australian rugby star Israel Folau), a busy season ahead with the Northern Mystics and the debut of her book, her Samoan getaway has come at just the right time!

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