Her voice is enthusiastic and friendly. Her accent has hints of that unmissable warmth you find in people from the American Midwest.
She’s a young athlete from the United States, living more than 10,000 kilometres from home, and talking about how her family gives her strength.
“I’m an American Maori girl,” she says, casually. “I’m proud of those two different sides of me. It’s awesome. There’s so much support.”
Wait. What? Did she say an American Maori? Dead right.
Meet Te Tori Dixon, a rising star on the international volleyball scene who plays professionally in Azerbaijan, was a member of the United States women’s team that won the recent World Championships in Italy – and is a very proud Maori athlete.
The 22-year-old is the daughter of one of New Zealand’s best known exports to American professional sport, David Dixon.
David, who was born in Papakura and raised in Pukekohe, played 11 seasons for the Minnesota Vikings as a 150kg, 1.96m guard in the famed National Football League (NFL) between 1994 and 2004. His iwi are Waikato-Tainui and Ngati Te Rangi, and he stands alongside Christchurch’s Riki Ellison (of Ngai Tahu) as one of only two Kiwis to play American Football at the top level.
No surprise then, that fine athletic blood is running through Te Tori’s veins. She is seen as one of the brightest young stars in the world of international volleyball, having left her college career at the University of Minnesota last year.
The 1.91m ‘middle blocker’ is into her second season as a professional player in Azerbaijan, where she plays for the Rabita Baku club.
While Azerbaijan seems like an unusual place to play pro volleyball, the nation actually has one of the best women’s leagues in the world.
Massive state investment has poured into the sport over recent years thanks to an oil boom in the Far Middle Eastern state. Along with the investment, the league has no cap on international players, so they are attracted.
That’s different, she tells me, by way of skype from Baku, from other top European competitions where, in Turkey for instance, they allow only one foreign player on the court at a time.
“In Azerbaijan,” she says, “you can have an entire court full of foreign players. It makes the level of player pretty high – which is good.”
Her mum, Pamela, is a Texan who David met while playing college football in the States, and the Dixon base has been a small town in Minnesota. So Te Tori has had to make some adjustments to cope with life in a Middle Eastern city on the Caspian Sea.
“It’s a complete 180,” she says. “It was a crazy transition. When I’m with the US national team, I’m in Anaheim in California, which is obviously a lot closer to home, but it’s all quite crazy. I’ve been everywhere and back, ten times in the last year.”
After training with the American national squad through 2014, Tori was selected for the 2014 World Championships in Italy in September/October – where the United States defeated China in the final.
Her appearance in the World Champs for the US begins a path, potentially, towards the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics for this ‘Maori American’, who played 30 games for the US in 2014. She admits the prospect of being an Olympian is definitely on her mind.
“There are three majors in volleyball – the World Championships, World Cup and Olympics,” she says. “We are one from one in this quad, this four-year cycle, so we’re going to keep building as a team.
“Hopefully there’s a spot for me on the roster [for Rio], but either way, I’m just going to try and keep working hard. But it definitely is a goal, and winning gold is a bigger goal.”
Tori says her success as a sportswoman comes from the support of her family, and from the assistance of a Kiwi, Hugh McCutcheon, the legendary ex-coach of the US men’s and women’s national volleyball teams – and a good friend of her father’s.
Hugh, who took the men’s team to gold at the Beijing Olympics and the women’s team to silver in London, was Tori’s coach for her final two seasons at the University of Minnesota.
“Hugh basically re-taught me how to play volleyball the right way,” she says. “He’s a very technically sound coach [and] he still serves as a mentor for me.”
Despite her Kiwi heritage, Tori has visited New Zealand only three times. Her last visit was when she was 16. She remembers going to a marae in Papakura as a little one – “everyone with the tattoos – it was incredible” – but admits a future visit re-connecting with her heritage might be a wee way off given her busy club, and international, schedule.
Nevertheless, she is proud of those roots, and appreciates the support she receives from Aotearoa.
“On my dad’s side, my whole family lives over there,” she says. “Everyone’s Maori, and part of that Kiwi culture. I don’t see them a lot, but I catch up with them as much as I can on Facebook.
“They write to me any time they hear about me and my volleyball stuff, which is awesome.
“It’s great to be part of a culture that’s so supportive, and wishes me the best – even if it is not for someone who plays for New Zealand, but for the United States. It’s still awesome to be part of.”
Come the Rio Olympics, Maori sports history might have a new Olympic champion to add to its ranks – even if she speaks a Midwestern accent, and is wearing the red, white and blue.
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