It’s been a vintage year for our sportswomen in Tokyo. Think Lisa Carrington and her cluster of canoeing medals. Sarah Hirini and her “sisters” in the sevens rugby. Emma Twigg in the single sculls rowing. Valerie Adams and Lydia Ko. Paralympian gold medallist Tupou Neiufi. Others too.
Then, back here, there’s been the host of netballers focusing on the national championship which ended with Sulu Fitzpatrick leading the Mystics in the grand final against Jane Watson and the Tactix.
Dale’s been talking to Sulu about that, but also about her whakapapa and the struggle she’s had after being a teenage star and then not such a great success — until recently, that is, when a more mature and thoughtful Sulu fought her way back to the top of the sport.
Those who know Sulu’s family (and have been aware of the sporting genes flourishing there) haven’t been surprised by this latest development. For instance, there’s an uncle (Olo Brown) who was an idolised All Black. And both Sulu and her sister Theresa have made their mark in rugby. In fact, Theresa is one of the sevens sisters who returned from Tokyo with a gold medal.
Here’s Sulu telling Dale about how she overcame her personal struggles.
Talofa, Sulu. Let’s start with you telling us how you came to be named Sulu.
That’s from my grandmother, Toesulu Brown, who was the first woman of our family to come over to New Zealand. She came from Sāmoa on an education scholarship.
My full name is Toesulu Mauailegalu Tone Fitzpatrick. My middle name, Mauailegalu, is a taupou name from my village in Sāmoa. But I was born in Auckland, although my birth parents, Olive and Konelio Tone, then moved to Sāmoa.
Actually, it was my grandmother who brought me back here to New Zealand from Sāmoa. That was to support my birth mum who had three young children. And from then on, I was attached at the hip to my Nana and Papa Sola.
Then, when it was time to go to primary school, I went to my uncle and aunty in Mt Albert, Greg and Rosi Fitzpatrick. Aunty Rosi is my birth mum’s sister. And they’re who I consider my parents because they’ve raised me here in New Zealand for most of my life.
I’m very blessed because I have siblings with my parents here, but I also have a strong connection to my birth parents and siblings in Sāmoa and Australia.
I’m guessing that your nana came over here in the 1960s.
Yes. She was studying to become a teacher here in New Zealand. She got qualified in Auckland and then went back to teach in Sāmoa for five years.
After she returned to New Zealand, she taught at Auckland Girls’ Grammar for 30 years.
Where are you among your brothers and sisters?
I was born in 1992 and I’m the oldest of six here. So, I have five siblings in New Zealand that I’ve been raised with. And I’ve gone back and forth to Sāmoa, and Australia as well, to spend time with my birth parents and my three birth siblings.
That’s been my upbringing. And I’ve felt blessed to be part of a big family. All I’ve ever known is big families.
I know that, for high school, you went to St Cuthbert’s. But what about primary school?
I went to Richmond Road Primary in Grey Lynn. And us kids were lucky because it’s a bilingual school and we were in the Sāmoan unit. That’s where I learned much of my Sāmoan.
Richmond Road has been a pretty forward-thinking school because they had a Māori bilingual unit there too, didn’t they?
Yes. Sāmoan bilingual and Māori bilingual. I loved that school. I’m really grateful that I went there from an early age and was exposed to such a range of cultures and worldviews.
When was your first success on the sporting field? Was it in netball?
We grew up playing all sorts of different sports. When you come from a sports-crazy family, that’s just a given. I’ve always been surrounded by everyone playing sports.
But I wasn’t a natural athlete. I wasn’t very good at all. For me, it was just a place to have fun. Sport was nice because you could just play. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from.
Our parents made sure that we all played a range of different sports: karate, athletics, touch, whatever. I was blessed that they supported us to do all those things.
And it wasn’t till high school that I started to think that, possibly, I could take sport seriously.
How come you went to St Cuths? There wouldn’t have been too many Sāmoans there at that time.
St Cuthbert’s was a last-minute decision. I think my parents had seen something in the newspaper about a scholarship for Māori and Pacific Island students. So, they applied, and I got in.
That was in Year 5. It was never planned. But it’s a very, very good school, although I didn’t appreciate how good it was until I’d left.
When I was there, there were hardly any brown faces, let alone Sāmoans. So, we were automatically the ones selected for the hip-hop group or things like that.
But I have good memories about the way it embraced all our cultures. People may have this perception that it’s quite snobby, but that’s far from the truth.
Being the eldest of six kids, did the extra pressure of being the tuakana ever weigh heavily on you?
I think it was more that I was struggling inside — and probably a lot earlier than I’d realised.
As far back as primary school, I was having those internal struggles. I felt out of place, I wasn’t happy, and I struggled to connect with other kids. So, I was having my own internal battles, and then it became more of a thing as I understood my position in the family, with being whangai’d and physically looking different from my siblings.
So, it was really my younger sister Theresa who acted as the older sibling. I was often the black sheep. I made all the mistakes you can think of in terms of decisions and choices. And Theresa and I would clash.
But we’re only a year apart and I’m pleased that I got to grow up with her, even though, at times, it was a struggle. Theresa carried me through a lot of struggles and challenges growing up, and I hope my daughter, who’s named after her, grows up to be like her aunty.
From the outside looking in at successful sports figures, they often seem to have it all. But, of course, like the rest of us, they can have internal battles. So, we’re indebted to John Kirwan and Naomi Osaka, for instance, for sharing their kōrero. And you deserve a compliment, too, for not keeping all your struggles hidden.
Well, I took a long time to confront the issues that had always been there. I would put on a mask — and I used food and alcohol to help me get through what was going on inside.
I mean, when I look back at my last year of high school, I was deputy head girl at St Cuths, and everything looked good on the outside, but inside I was spiralling.
Everything was happening so fast, and I didn’t handle it well. I went straight from St Cuths to the Silver Ferns, which should have been a blessing. But I was struggling with alcohol, with my weight — and, within a year, I was dropped.
Then I was given a chance to play for another team in Dunedin. My family supported me to go there, and that’s when I found out that I was three months pregnant. I was the captain of the Under-21 national side at the time. And I had to give all that up.
In our culture, you don’t have children till you’re married, so that was a massive struggle to tell my parents. And then to go to the scan with my mum and find out they were twins — that was a very hard time for me.
After the twins were born, I suffered from post-natal depression, and I found alcohol again. It was a while before I really sorted myself out.
Talking openly to friends and family has been big for me. It’s really cool to see the narrative change, with people speaking up about their struggles — sharing all the different shapes and shades of ourselves, and not just talking about the things that are good.
I’m all for that because I want my kids to know that they can show all of themselves and not just a part. And to know that they’re loved for all of them.
Yeah. It’s not easy, but I think that everyone’s moving in the right direction.
What was it that helped you through your struggles? Was there any one thing or person, or a particular moment that really made a difference for you?
A few years ago, I was in a church service. I was 25, and I’d come to an important time in my life when I knew things were going to go one way or the other. I was going up and down and just constantly in that battle with myself. I wasn’t being the best mum to my children. I was a bit lost in my netball career. My lifestyle wasn’t the best. And I’d moved away from my faith.
And I thought: “Enough’s enough.” I made a deal with God, and I said: “Please, please, please, please help me. I’m done.” And so, I made the choice to get baptised, and that was massive for me.
And within a month of that, I decided to go to Sāmoa with my family and receive a malu.
After I got the malu, I decided to give up alcohol properly, and to connect with good friends and surround myself with good people.
And to take the blessing of my career in professional netball seriously and make the most of it. Because I do know that I’ve been blessed with this arena to make a difference.
And now you’re back in the Ferns, and you’ve captained the Northern Mystics to its first ever win of the premiership title. Congratulations, by the way, on joining the proud Sāmoan wāhine who’ve received the malu in the traditional way. It’s a wonderful celebration of your Sāmoa-tanga, just as the moko kauae is for our wāhine Māori.
Receiving the malu was a spiritual experience. I went with my mum, and it was a good connection time with my papa as well. I know he was there with me the whole time in spirit and that was transforming for me.
I’m proud to wear it — proud in the sense that I’m working hard to live by the values of a Sāmoan woman protecting not just my own children and family, but our culture as well. And also serving other people in the community.
That’s what I strive to do every day. I think of it as an honour for all of us who are blessed with wearing the malu or the pea (the male tatau). We’re just guardians of it.
We have a special platform in sport. The only time my malu is out is when I’m playing netball and wearing a netball dress. So, I want to make sure that when people do see it, that I’m reflecting the values of our people.
I’ve read what your Northern Mystics team members say about you, and they’re full of praise for your strong leadership and the way you pulled the team together by making everyone feel valued and loved. How would you describe your approach to leading the team?
“By Love Serve” was our school motto at St Cuths — and it’s a good life motto. This season, with the Northern Mystics, I was blessed with the opportunity to lead the team, so I knew the best way to do that was with love. These values come from my faith, my culture, and what I’ve learned as a mother.
God blesses us all with different strengths, and I know he’s given me a caring heart. In my younger years as a leader, I hid what was going on inside and when the pressure came on it was exposed through emotional breakdowns and outbursts.
Now, I’m comfortable with both the good and the ugly sides of myself, and I encourage all my teammates to share that side of themselves.
Sometimes success for young footballers and netball players can bring other pressures. It can be seen by the whānau as providing a ticket to wealth, perhaps buying a flash house. The whānau doesn’t mean to put that weight of expectation on the shoulders of their talented kids but it can come with the territory — and it can be a heavy burden.
Yeah. There needs to be a lot of education about that situation. Partly to understand how fickle sport is. But not only for sporting families.
I know there’s a lot of work going on now, at least in netball, to make sure there are support programmes in place — and that they have holistic wellbeing in mind. And, also, that players are prepared for life without sport, whether that’s through injury, ill-health, non-selection, or retirement.
Do you think you might have a role in developing and in delivering a programme of that nature, Sulu? I know you’ve been studying towards a social work degree. So, you may be well positioned to help deliver a kōrero of that nature to aspiring athletes and sports people.
I’d love to. I’m looking forward to making sure that we can put everything in place for athletes now and athletes to come. And for their families.
Motherhood used to be the barrier to sporting success. But now it seems to be a real boost. I’ve seen heaps of wāhine come back after becoming proud mums. Do you think you’re a better player now than you were before you had your twins, Tevita and Theresa?
Well, I also have my bonus children, Mason and Harley, with my partner Andrew.
l would definitely say that I’ve become a better person because of being a mum. Your perspective changes, and you’re putting other people before yourself. I think it’s helped me develop my nurturing side.
Being a mum also means that, when we come back into the sporting environment, we know that netball isn’t the be-all and end-all. We can enjoy the sport for what it is and realise that, in the bigger picture, it’s not something that we need to lose sleep over.
So, it’s a strength and a difference that we have as female athletes.
We’re embracing mothers who are coming back into the sport — and that’s all the way to the top, where there’s a tikanga Māori environment that’s being driven by Noels (Noeline Taurua, Silver Ferns coach). She believes that women can do both, and she’s supporting mothers returning to the Silver Ferns programme.
You’ve been lucky enough to have had some experience of Noeline’s coaching, haven’t you?
Yes. At first, back when I was still a teenager playing for the Magic in the Waikato, I was scared of her. Not because she was intimidating but because of her integrity and the way she carries herself. You just want to do your best for her.
We’re lucky in the Ferns environment to be driven by such a strong woman — and one who’s also very loving.
Having those two sides are why so many people, male and female, young and old, follow and trust her. I’ve loved having her as a coach over the years and I’m looking forward to working with her this season.
It’s been a beautiful kōrero. Thank you, Sulu. We could’ve spent way more time on your sporting experiences seeing that you’ve not only played for the Silver Ferns but almost all the provincial teams.
Perhaps we could finish with that heart-stopping premiership grand final three weeks ago, between your Northern Mystics team and Tactix.
I started my journey with the Mystics as a 17-year-old, as a very lost and awkward child. And then, here I was, 10 years later, leading a team who completed the season by holding fast and winning the national netball title.
I was so proud that we stuck to what we said we were going to do, and that we honoured those who were part of the journey — the wider village and those who paved the way for us.
Then to do that in Auckland with all our families and children there. That’s why the tears came. Such a sense of relief — and such a beautiful moment. It was just pure, pure happiness.
I saw the end of that game. And it was pulsating. Then it was topped off by brilliant post-match speeches from you and Jane Watson who’d led the Tactix to such a desperately hard-fought loss. There was so much grace shown by both of you. And so much whakawhanaungatanga that should be the hallmark of all sport. It was a fantastic advertisement for the game and for you players.
I was proud of what that showcased for netball and for women in our country. And the way that Jane spoke — and also the way that the Tactix carried themselves after that game — that was especially gracious and kind to us in allowing us to enjoy that moment.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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