14 Apr 2021

Katelyn Vaha'akolo: the rugby league star with a voice for change

From Champions of the Pacific, 6:08 am on 14 April 2021

A year ago, Katelyn Vaha'akolo had never played rugby league. Now she's a Kiwi Fern international and eyeing a trip to the World Cup in the United Kingdom.

The 20-year-old of Māori and Tongan heritage, started playing the sport to spend more time with her friends, but it wasn't long before her short career picked up pace, catching the eye of representative selectors. 

Katelyn Vaha'akolo made her debut for the Kiwi Ferns just months after picking up the sport.

Katelyn Vaha'akolo made her debut for the Kiwi Ferns just months after picking up the sport. Photo: © Copyright Andrew Cornaga 2020 / www.photosport.nz / Photosport Ltd

The young winger's campaign for the Akarana Falcons in the inaugural NZRL National Women's Premiership, which included a stunning 80-metre solo try against Mid Central, saw her called up to the New Zealand squad.

In her first game for the Kiwi Ferns against Fetū Samoa at Mt Smart Stadium in November last year, Vaha'akolo threw the last pass for retiring legend Honey Hireme-Smiler's ninth-minute try and scored a try of her own in the opening minute of the second half. 

It's a memory she still can't quite comprehend.  

"I've always loved sport, it's always been an outlet for me, but I didn't really think that I was capable of getting to that level until I was offered the opportunity," she said. 

"I just feel so privileged. I'm around so many women with so much knowledge and so much experience and I got to play next to Honey... it's not everyday you get to do that." 

Katelyn Vaha'akolo (R) is a rising star in rugby league.

Katelyn Vaha'akolo (R) is a rising star in rugby league. Photo: Supplied

And if you thought the name Vaha'akolo sounded familiar, it might be because her older brother Freedom is also making a name for himself, signing with the Highlanders on a short term contract.

"I'm so proud of him, he's so deserving. He's always encouraged me and challenged me to go hard for my goals and he's definitely someone I look up to when it comes to my sport.

"I just love [that] not only do I get to succeed in this, but so do my family...I didn't really talk about [playing] until it came about but I know they're proud of me. They've encouraged me and supported me through every single phase of my life and my sport so I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them."

Vaha'akolo's had a taste of international rugby league and now also played against the world's best women's rugby union players, flying the Tongan flag for Moana Pasifika in their debut appearance at the Takiwhitu Tūturu rugby sevens in Wellington on the weekend. 

Now she's aiming to compete in the Women's Rugby League World Cup in November this year. 

"It's been challenging because it's really pushed me out of my comfort zone. I wasn't used to playing rugby league or contact sport but I've enjoyed being able to be in a space where I can improve and I can go to a higher level than I thought I was capable of."

"[The RLWC] that's my goal, but no matter the result I've taken away so much already. I just want to keep growing and I just want to keep achieving whatever I can to get there."

Katelyn Vaha'akolo represented Moana Pasifika against the Black Ferns 7s.

Katelyn Vaha'akolo represented Moana Pasifika against the Black Ferns 7s. Photo: Supplied

While Vaha'akolo is achieving dreams on the field she's also kicking goals off it, advocating for mental health and the revitalisation of Te Reo Māori.

Having struggled with mental health throughout her high school years, she's using her social media platforms, known for her health and lifestyle videos, to encourage youth to believe in themselves.

"I'm not a counsellor, I'm not qualified in anything when it comes to mental health and that, but I just like to be an ear. I want to talk about things that young people feel they can resonate with so that they don't feel alone."

"I guess my main goal is to provide a space, especially for Polynesian youth, where there's no expectations, where they're not going to be judged, and a space where they don't feel like they have to act a certain way in order to be accepted."

Vaha'akolo believes there needs to be more services or spaces where young Pasifika women feel safe to talk.

"I don't think there's enough spaces that cater to how we've been brought up. I can't speak on behalf of everyone, but I think there needs to be more, I think we need to do better as a community and as people to provide spaces for young woman where they do feel safe and where they do feel like they can talk about anything. "

"We're getting there, slowly, but I guess that's definitely something that I want in the future for our young people."

Everyday she's reminded of her journey with mental health and how far she's come, inked through the tā moko across her chest; a symbol of healing and growing.

"It basically explains my journey with finding myself and learning to be vulnerable, learning to love myself and what that journey looks like. It's a symbolism of healing, growing and of learning to not letting my insecurities define me or define what I'm capable of."

Katelyn Vaha'akolo is kicking goals on and off the field.

Katelyn Vaha'akolo is kicking goals on and off the field. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Talei Anderson

Vaha'akolo said learning Te Reo Māori has helped with the healing process while inspiring her to learn more about both her Māori and Tongan culture. 

"I wanted to learn Māori because before that I didn't really know anything about my culture and I didn't really understand my whakapapa," she admitted. 

"My culture ultimately forms my identity, I take it everywhere with me and it's everything that makes me who I am...I definitely carry more of my Māori side because I'm more knowledgeable of it now, but I definitely want to be fluent in Tongan one day that's definitely one of my goals."

After spending a year in the full-immersion course at Te Wananga Takiura, she's now taking up a teaching degree to keep the language alive. 

"I just want to help revitalize Te Reo Māori because I think it's really important, especially in Aotearoa, I think it's important for me to know where I come from, because that's who I am and that's a part of what makes me me.

"Even with sport when I go out and play, I'm wearing Māori on me, I'm wearing my Tongan culture on me because that's who I am...being able to see things from a completely different perspective has been a real privilege for me and if I could, I would honestly just never speak English again."

The proud Māori-Tongan wahine might be new to the sport, but she's motivated and encouraged to see Polynesian women leading the way in contact sports.

"I've never been able to express myself in this way like how I can with sport. I can let out all of my feelings whether they're happy, whether they're angry, whether I'm upset, whether I'm in a really good space, this for me is my outlet."

"I've seen so many Polynesian woman come through this this level of sport and it's been encouraging to me and it's made me feel a lot more comfortable. It's made me want to encourage other Polynesians to play or to just give something a go in whatever they want to achieve."