Temalisi Fakahokotau slips on the black dress of the Silver Ferns, just for size. It fits like a glove, just as it did when she last pulled it on three years ago.
“It feels so good to be back in the dress,” she says, grinning, at the end of five testing days of national netball trials in Papakura last week.
On August 7, Fakahokotau was handed the coveted dress to keep. Being recalled into the Silver Ferns squad of 16, for the Quad Series and three tests against England, is a reward for a year of physical upheaval and emotional angst.
The dynamic young defender who debuted for the Silver Ferns at 19, then “fell off the rails”, made the biggest decision of her life this year: to uproot herself from Auckland – the first in her family of nine children to leave – for a new life in Christchurch.
In spite of intense homesickness, and a marked drop in temperature, the shift has transformed Fakahokotau from a netballer lost to one of New Zealand’s most electrifying defensive prospects once again. She’s fitter, stronger, smarter than she’s ever been, and she’s changed her game for the better – “my aim is to get the ball, not take out the player”.
But, perhaps more importantly, she has fallen back in love with netball. “Moving away from my comfort zone, I’m so much hungrier, so much more determined to put on that black dress again,” she says.
And the honour is not just for her. More than anything, 22-year-old Fakahokotau wants to make her parents proud; to recognise the sacrifices her family have made for her, and to inspire her seven brothers and younger sister to “take the hard road” to success.
“Being the oldest girl and trying to pave a pathway for my young siblings is tough, but at the same time I want to see them succeed. And if it means me going down the hard road, and them seeing that struggle, I will take the hard road for them any day,” she says.
Fakahokotau grew up on Auckland’s North Shore, the fourth in line of nine children to Tongan-born parents, Fiafie and Mele.
Her dad continues to be one of her greatest inspirations: “He came here from Tonga, not knowing anyone, not knowing English. Just seeing him work three jobs to provide for his kids, so we could be who we are today, is huge,” she says.
“My older brothers played rugby, but I was the one who made it to the next level with sport. So every Sunday, Mum would take all the kids to church, and Dad would come with me to my rep netball games. My parents are definitely my backbone.”
She is also indebted to her brother, Sione, who left school and went to work to help fund his sister’s emerging netball career, including a trip to Australia with the New Zealand secondary schools team.
“As the oldest girl in an island family, I play a massive role. So it’s very tough when the oldest girl decides to get up and leave. But they have all been so understanding; they still have my back,” she says.
It was a decision Fakahokotau knew she had to make if she was to return to the very top tier of her sport. Bursting into the Silver Ferns in 2014, her first year in the professional ranks, she played two tests for her country and appeared to be on a steep trajectory to becoming New Zealand’s next great goal keep.
“Being in that environment was my ultimate goal; my Dad had always wanted me to make it up there and I reached that in my first season. But then I became too comfortable; I fell off the rails a bit. I don’t feel like I pushed myself; I wasn’t focused. There was no love for the game anymore - no passion, no hunger.”
For the next two seasons she floundered in the ANZ Championship, consigned to being an impact player off the bench for the Northern Mystics. “I felt I wasn’t going anywhere being in Auckland, just stuck in my comfort zone,” she says.
So she chose the move south to the Tactix, a side that had struggled to find its feet in the trans-Tasman competition and wasn’t expected to flourish in the inaugural season of the ANZ Premiership. That only gave Fakahokotau “a fire in my belly to try and change that”.
“I knew [the change] wasn’t going to be massive; one player can’t go in there and change the whole thing. So it was just trying to change one thing at a time, and towards the end of the season, we all came together and gelled,” she says.
Fakahokotau undoubtedly made a difference, as the most effective and consistent Tactix player through the season – second in the league for deflections, and fourth for intercepts. Her turnaround has been described by Tactix coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek as “phenomenal”.
She admits she now understands the game better, and her “enforcer” style of defence has been slightly tamed and refined.
“I now tend to go for the ball more than the player. And if I do bump into a player, I grab them so they don’t get smacked over,” she says and then laughs. “It’s just being more aware of everything happening around me. I have definitely changed from that 19-year-old.”
But the transformation has not come without its trials.
“The first few months I was really homesick. Throughout the season, I had three meltdowns, and I had to fly home and see everybody,” she reveals. “But I knew I had to stick with it, not only for myself, but for my family. For my younger siblings to realise that sometimes you have to be out of your comfort zone in order to be successful.”
Outside of netball, Fakahokotau has revived her goal of becoming a school teacher. She’s working part-time as a teacher aide at Kirkwood Intermediate in Christchurch, and plans to start her studies again. “My goal is to help kids to develop into whoever they want to be. I’m passionate about helping kids who are less fortunate. I want to end up teaching in low decile schools, or working with troubled kids,” she says.
Fakahokotau remains close to the woman who took her under her wing when she was a “naughty kid at primary school”, and nurtured her through her early netball career – North Harbour netball stalwart Michele Wallace.
“She saw my potential at a young age, put the time and effort in, let me go to netball clinics for free when my family couldn’t afford it. She is still my netball mother,” she says.
With the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the horizon, and the international retirements of seasoned defenders Casey Kopua, Leana de Bruin and Anna Harrison, it is the perfect time for a new, rejuvenated Fakahokotau to return to the New Zealand fold.
“I was grateful to be part of the Silver Ferns at a young age. And there’s obviously a bit of hurt that I haven’t been back. But I’m a strong believer that everything happens for a reason. The journey to get back here has been massive, and I’m happy I went through the dips, through all the troubles.
“If I don’t make it, I have other things in my life. But if I do, I’ll be thankful for the opportunity. And I’ll ride the wave.
“I am so determined to do whatever it takes to be back in this environment and keep that black dress on.”