Professionally, it has been the year from hell for netballer Maria Tutaia.
It took everything the Northern Mystics captain had not to crumble in the face of immense pressure, as her side slumped to the bottom of the ANZ championship ladder, winning only one game out of 13.
But rather than succumb to her critics, the shooting star has emerged from the woeful season “a new, improved Maria Tutaia” – and life, as she so happily says, could not be better.
“I’ve grown so much as a person this year, I can’t quite believe it,” she says with a smile.
“This season was rough. It was hard, I’m not going to sugar-coat it. But I have learnt so much about myself and what I can do. Being a captain changed me. It made me into a more mature, responsible and empathetic person. I think that going through what we endured this year has forced me to grow up a bit.”
Maria (26) is an eternal optimist, albeit one with a sense of realism and a hint of sarcasm. She strives to see the good in negative situations, or – as she says – “toughen up and get over it”. Despite the fighting talk, though, she admits to times over the last few months where she has struggled to put on a brave face for her team.
“It got to the point where I was waiting for something horrible to happen every week,” she recalls, referring to the multiple injuries that saw more than a third of the entire Mystics team benched throughout the season.
“There was so much stress. Everything went wrong. But I learnt that you cannot control everything in life, and that even though I felt huge pressure as a captain, I couldnot do everything myself.”
All this from the player who didn’t even want to be captain in the first place, because she didn’t think she was good enough for the job.
“I said no instantly the first time I was asked. I didn’t feel like I was worthy of the responsibility,” she says, thoughtfully.
“I thought Anna [Harrison] would be better – she’s a great leader, the whole package. But then she got pregnant, and I received the call telling me I had no choice."
“But now, I think it was probably the best thing that could have happened. I mean, little did I know what was coming around the corner. I took every problem – and there were many – and tried to solve it the best I could.”
And with her long-term partner, Roi Hansell-Pune, currently playing rugby in France, there hasn’t even been someone to come home to, something that Maria admits made things even harder.
“It would have been nice to walk in the door after a bad game and have your boyfriend there for a cuddle, but it’s just part of our relationship,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“I’m pretty independent, and we’re used to having a relationship over the phone. You do miss the little things, like the hugs, but it’s not like I’m going to sit and have a cry about it. We’re both sports people, we get it. "
“And my dad gives great cuddles!” she adds. It was her father Fuisami and mum Niukini that convinced their daughter to take a shot at the captaincy.
It’s her parents and Roi that influence every decision the gorgeous Maria makes. And although he’s on the other side of the world, Roi still finds time to be Maria’s number-one supporter, and the person she vents to the most.
“He’s always really positive, but sometimes I just want him to say, Ria, you played terribly!” she says, with a laugh.
“But he’d never say that. And if he did, to be honest, I’d probably go off at him because he’s so positive.”
Maria can’t believe how far she’s come since her dream of being a Silver Fern was just that – a far-fetched fantasy.
“It’s such a cliché story,” she smiles.
“When I got into the Ferns, mum told me that when I was seven, I was watching New Zealand play Australia with my face two inches away from the screen. Apparently, I turned round and said that one day I’d be in the black dress too. They were like, ‘Oh yeah, good on you Ria, dreams are for free, but good on you!’”
It has been eight years since she made her debut against Jamaica, and while her long bombs have made her one of the nation’s best-loved athletes, she’s quick to point out that success hasn’t come witout its fair share of hardship.
“There have been a lot of sacrifices, but it has helped me be the person I am. You only live once, and while there’s been a few negatives, you have to weigh the positives against them. At the end of the day, I’m just grateful that I’m doing what I love for a career. It’s my world, my passion,” she says.
With a trip to France to see Roi in the next few weeks, Maria concedes she’s looking forward to a break from netball after a testing season. While the sport is still the most important thing in her life, Maria says the break will be refreshing.
“It’ll be nice to go somewhere for a while where no-one knows netball,” she says.
“Don’t get me wrong, I know I’m no blimmin’ Hollywood celebrity, but it will be nice to go to the grocery store and just grab the bread and milk without getting held up for 40 minutes. In saying that, people are so nice, and I love talking to them."
“I still have a huge passion for netball, and it’s the will to win that drives me. You don’t wake up at 5am every morning for 6am training to come second. For us, if you’re not first, you’re last. And my teammates drive me, too. They’re lifelong friends, you share so much success and triumph with these girls. They become your motivation – you want to win for them.”
Maria relishes the career opportunities that are ahead of her, but, is equally aware that her playing days will be over eventually.
“I realise you have to take every opportunity you get,” she says.
“Netball isn’t forever. At the moment, I’m just trying to make everything fit – family, friends, sponsor stuff. I’m not very good at balance! It goes out the window. I just have to make time.”
And, as she admits, she’s not getting any younger, with kids to fit in somewhere down the track.
“It’s a fine line between knowing when to give it all up, or have a break to have kids, and also knowing when to go back to the game,” she says.
“I want seven boys – a rugby sevens team. I don’t want girls. I have nieces, beautiful nieces, but girls are too high maintenance for me,” laughs the netballer.
For now, though, Maria’s sole focus is her sport, and she’ll be damned if some young whippersnapper will take her cherished goal attack bib away just yet.
“If this year has taught me anything, it’s to make the most of every gift life gives you, and to just go with it."
“So that’s what I’m going to do!”
Maria on... Life after netball
“I know netball’s not forever, and I think after it’s over, I’d love to design shoes. There are so many women like me with big, long feet, and I’m sick of going to functions and having to worry about shoes, because I can never find nice, pretty ones! So I’d love to design shoes in size 12-plus to cater for those other women, like me, who want to look beautiful from head to toe.”
Maria on...Her secret ambition
“I’d love to sing! I want Beyoncé’s life. I can’t actually sing, like, at all – I’m terrible. But it looks like fun, it’s a long-harboured unrealistic dream. I’m addicted to The X Factor at the moment, my favourite’s Whenua. I think Team Ruby’s got it in the bag!”
Maria on... Body image
“Like everyone else, I’ve had my body hang-ups. But for me, beauty is about embracing what God has given you and making it your own. I was always the tallest kid – I’m 1.87m now – at school, and for a few years I was really self-conscious about it. But once I got to Lynfield High School, I didn’t give a damn, and of course it has helped a lot with netball. I wear six-inch heels and everyone’s always like, ‘Why on earth are you wearing such high shoes, you look like the Sky Tower?’ But I don’t care. I’m a girl, why not? I want to feel pretty and feminine, too.”