Silver Ferns icon caught in Paris’ spell

Irene van Dyk reckons she “hit the jackpot” when she was asked to mentor Paris Lokotui.

There’s certainly something special about this 17-year-old schoolgirl from Wellington, the Silver Ferns legend says. “She’s definitely going to go places.”

In her final year at Queen Margaret College, Lokotui has already represented New Zealand in three different sports – basketball, netball and water polo.

She’s nearing the stage where she may have to narrow it down to focus on just one sport. But, right now, she’s making it work.

When you know her background, it comes as no surprise that Lokotui - who’s also a top academic student and deeply involved in Maori and Polynesian culture at school - seems to handle the load with ease.

She’s grown up travelling the world with her rugby playing dad, Lua Lokotui. The Tongan lock, who went to two Rugby World Cups, also played for clubs in France, England and Japan before settling down with his family in Wellington.

“We would go to his trainings and watch him play, so we were always exposed to that professional sporting environment,” Paris, the eldest of three siblings, says.

She’s picked up her dad’s work ethic, too, and van Dyk sees all that experience coming through in her young mentee.

Van Dyk has been paired up to help Lokotui for three years through the Tania Dalton Foundation. Van Dyk was the late Dalton’s team-mate in the Silver Ferns, winning the World Cup together in 2003.

Lokotui meets her mentor for coffee on weekends whenever van Dyk – who now lives in Napier – comes to Wellington. Earlier this year, they went to a Silver Ferns test, sitting together on the television commentary bench.

They weren’t exactly strangers to each other. Van Dyk helped to coach Lokotui in the Wellington U17 netball team when they won the national title in 2017.

“One thing that really stands out about Paris is that she’s extremely good at whatever she does. Academically she is incredibly sound, she’s very popular with her team-mates, and she’s great at every sport she takes part in,” van Dyk says.

And Lokotui loves being part of as many sports as she can.

She’s played basketball for the Junior Tall Ferns and, in 2017, went to India to play a vital role in the New Zealand U17 team qualifying for the world championships.

That same year, she was goal keeper for the New Zealand U16 water polo team, and played in Fiji with the Aotearoa Māori netball team (she is Ngāi Tahu, Ngati Kuri, Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri - and Tongan - descent).

This year she played for the New Zealand secondary schools netball side in a four-test series with their English counterparts.

Talented defender Paris Lokotui hopes to continue to represent NZ in netball, right up to the Silver Ferns. Photo: Troy Han/Netball NZ. 

She’s also given volleyball, athletics, swimming, hockey and underwater hockey a go, and this year she decided to try sevens rugby too (though she’s promising to keep that to a bit of summer fun with her school team).

Van Dyk says it’s not just Lokotui's attitude on the court, field or pool that makes her exceptional. 

“I don’t know if this is something from my era, but I’m really impressed with her manners - the way she carries herself, and the way she respects older people,” van Dyk says.

“And I also like the way she responds to advice and guidance. She has that ability to listen – if something works, she will run with it. If it doesn’t, she will come back to you and say ‘Look it’s not working, shall we do this?’”

“The players around her relish what she brings. She’s not overpowering; she brings them in and guides them. And she’s humble.

“I’m pretty stoked, because I think I hit the jackpot with her.”

Lokotui feels the same way, in reverse.

“Irene is so cool. She’s teaching me how to give back to the community,” says Lokotui, who’s been coaching young netballers. “And I’m learning that sport should not be my priority yet; that school and education have to come first.”

In Year 13, Lokotui has just been sitting her mock exams, but the next month is dominated by sport again.

She has back-to-back national secondary schools finals: first, the basketball championships in Palmerston North, and then the netball championships in Nelson (she’s been playing in the Queen Margaret senior A netball team since she was in Year 9). She says she gets a lot of support from her school to make all of her commitments work. 

In November, Lokotui starts training with the Central Pulse squad; last year she played in the defensive circle for Central Manawa, who won the Beko League for a third year running. That, she says, was one of her sporting highlights so far - right up there with wearing the silver fern, and watching her dad play at a Rugby World Cup. 

She’s a bit of a “tough nut”, too, van Dyk reckons. Lokotui suffered an ankle injury in the middle of the Beko season, that also sidelined her in the Wellington team in the WBC (Women’s Basketball Championship). But she "left no stone unturned” to get back on the court before the season ended, says van Dyk. 

Even at 17, Lokotui's leadership comes out on the netball court. 

“When she plays goal defence, she's the one who drives the ball down court. She has great vision, and sometimes delivers the ball straight into the shooters,” van Dyk says.

“She reminds me of [former Silver Fern] Sheryl Scanlan. Paris is not the tallest player, but her presence is bigger than Ben Hur.”

Lokotui hopes to continue playing both netball and basketball at the top level. “Netball is an all-year sport, where basketball is the middle of the year, so they still work together. I’ll keep playing both until I fully decide what I want to do,” she says.

But water polo had to be the casualty this year, as her academic demands grew.

“It was a hard decision at the time, because I still love water polo. But once the trainings stopped, I realised I also had more time for rest and recovery,” she says. 

She's still playing water polo for school, which helps with her court sports, she says, especially with her lung capacity and upper body strength.

Paris Lokotui is one of 12 young sportswomen in the second wave of scholarships through the Tania Dalton Foundation. Photo: TDF.

Lokotui plans to go to Victoria University next year to study computer science and commerce. If a basketball scholarship to a US college came along, she would have to seriously consider it, she says.

“But then it all depends on where my netball is heading."

She's drawn up a netball plan. She would like to be signed on as a player for the Central Pulse, become part of the New Zealand team defending their title at the 2021 World Youth Cup in Fiji, and ultimately become a Silver Fern.

Lokotui wants to stay close to her cultural roots, too. At school she's been a member of kapa haka and a leader in the Poly Club. Part of her legacy she leaves at Queen Margaret College is a waiata she has written for the school to sing.

It’s another long term goal to learn more of both the Māori and Tongan languages.

“I learn Te Reo Māori from my Nan, who’s fluent. Hopefully I can pass it on to the next generation,” she says.

Lokotui is one of 12 young sportswomen in the second wave of the Tania Dalton Foundation scholarship programme. Along with her mentorship from van Dyk, she receives financial assistance from her sponsor, building contractors LT McGuinness, and help with her personal development.

“It’s been really incredible. Not only with the funding and spending time with Irene, but being able go to workshops in Auckland and meet girls from other sports,” she says.

Van Dyk is taking something from it, too.

“It’s just amazing to be part of this young woman’s journey," she says. "And it’s a great way to give back to Tarns’ memory.”

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