Nova’s game plan taking sport to the people

Having grown up in a large sporty family, Nova Isa'ako is taking sports to Auckland parks to motivate people to play, for free. 

Growing up with seven siblings, Nova Isa'ako was used to playing sport and then following her family around Auckland to their legion of sporting activities.

From a young age, she realised that sport wasn't just a game, but a way of connecting communities.

Being able to understand and uplift people from different backgrounds is what motivates the 23-year-old Aucklander to get people moving.

Isa'ako played a multitude of sports as a kid - softball, touch, volleyball, rugby, badminton, basketball and netball - and she knew how hard it was sometimes to travel to them.  

Now her family-orientated sporting initiative is breaking down barriers, taking sports to the communities and encouraging more people to be active.

She’s following the lead of many influential women in her life and using her cultural and spiritual values to show that sport and play are for everyone.

Isa'ako runs a social enterprise with her partner Romero Tagi called 'Pop Up Play'. On weekends, they take sports equipment to Auckland parks and encourage participation for free.

Their goal is to motivate people of all ages across Auckland to be active and interact through a variety of sports, like soccer, basketball, table tennis and volleyball. It also caters to communities with less opportunities to play sport. 

Without any experience in starting a business, Isa'ako and Tagi founded Pop Up Play a year ago. Both realised they missed playing team sport while the studied at the Auckland University of Technology (he studied business and sports and recreation, while she studied social sciences and law).

Table tennis is a popular activity at the Pop Up Play free park sessions. Photo: supplied. 

So far, they’ve set up in the suburbs of Mangere and Grey Lynn, and late last year, they ran free sessions every Saturday at Potters Park in Mt Eden. On Waitangi Day, they will be part of Waitangi ki Manukau celebrations at the Manukau Sports Bowl.

“There’s a stigma around sports sometimes that only fit people do it, or only a certain type of person is made for sports,” Isa'ako says.

“Another barrier is having the resources to get active or get fit. But if it's near them, with people who they trust, they're more likely to come."

Providing resources and a safe environment ensures everyone has the chance to get involved. Isa'ako explains that its about creating safe spaces for people to come and play sport and feel part of a group. “The people that come are regular people who have busy lives but want to be able to get involved in sport,” she says.

At their park sessions, they set up equipment from rugby and basketballs to hula hoops, table tennis tables and elastics.

Although they’re based in Auckland, they hope to take Pop Up to Play to other cities and towns. Pop Up Play also has packages for events like team building, work functions and kids birthday parties.

While running the enterprise, Isa'ako also works as an executive assistant at an accounting firm.

Always multitasking, Nova Isa'ako does macrame while watching a rugby match. Photo: supplied. 

Serving others is a part of who Isa'ako is. As a Catholic woman, faith is a major part of her life. She says her grandmother, Telesia Isa'ako, has also been a huge source of inspiration.

Before starting the business, Isa'ako was doing volunteer work with the Society of St Vincent De Paul, a Catholic organisation giving aid to those in need. That work encouraged her to make an even larger impact and reach more people.

Helping the community fulfills her, she says. “It makes me feel happy. I love connecting with people and it just makes me want to do more."

Isa'ako would love to work full-time on her business and increase participation in sport - not only for Pacific people, but people with disabilities, the elderly and those who feel they aren't able to play.

Her work saw her selected as a scholarship recipient to the Sport NZ Women + Girls Summit in Wellington last October, where she was a speaker.

"I really enjoyed it, I learnt so much,” Isa'ako says. “The questions that were raised made me a little more aware. But it's empowering knowing that people have the same beliefs as you, that there can be more participation in sport for females.”

At the summit, Isa'ako got to meet one of her idols, former world discus champion Beatrice Faumuina, who she admires for her commitment to give back to the community, being involved with girls in sport and in Pacific businesses.

Isa'ako has also taken guidance from her aunt Celia, Romero's step-mother Wyndi and her grandmother. “Aunty Celia isn't a famous athlete but just an everyday mum who’s always been inspiring; she’s so strong-minded," she says.

Wyndi is a former cyclist who’s motivated Isa'ako through the obstacles she faced and her determination to keep going.

Isa'ako has also looked up to athletes like ‘Flo Jo’ – sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner - and the late NBA basketball great Kobe Bryant.

Outside of work, she loves to bake, play board games and spend time with her family.

Isa'ako also models on the catwalk; her first experience was at the Pacific Fusion Fashion show in South Auckland last year. “It’s cool because you get to see diversity and it builds confidence,” she says.

One of the designers she’s walked for, Amy Lautogo of Infamy Apparel, “is really big on body positivity and accepting plus-size into high-end fashion.” For Isa'ako, it’s also part of embracing her Pasifika culture.

No matter what she’s doing, Isa'ako always leads with positivity and love. Her selflessness and persistence is an example for the next generation of leaders.

The success of Pop Up Play has allowed Isa'ako to grow and has made her want to achieve even more.

"I didn't think I was capable of doing something like this,” she says. “I've realised that no matter who you are or how small your influence, you can always make a difference."

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