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Young baller driven by the love of her sister

A leader on and off the court, Rotorua teenager Waiata Jennings is well on the way to realising her dream of wearing the silver fern in two different sports. 

Sixteen-year-old Waiata Jennings is a great example of how anything is possible, with support, diligence and tenacity - and some special motivation.

The Rotorua teenager is excelling in two sports – basketball and netball - and has already represented her country on the world stage. She dreams of becoming a double international.

She speaks fluent Māori and is a cultural leader – among her many prefect roles – at St Peter’s, Cambridge. The Year 13 student, who also does some modelling, wants to play college basketball in the United States next year, while studying law.

Her motivation to achieve all of these things comes from her elder sister, Te Manaia, and the challenges she faces.

Te Manaia has severe congenital scoliosis – a sideways curvature of the spine, caused when vertebrae don’t form normally before birth.

“My sister would do anything to be able to play sport at a high level,” Jennings says. “So I work every day to achieve my goals and make my sister and my family proud.”  

It was watching Te Manaia playing basketball that first led four-year-old Jennings on to the court. When there weren’t enough players in the team, their mum, who was the coach, put the pre-schooler into the game. And the rest is history.

Basketball is where Jennings is so far making her biggest impact. Last year, she played in the New Zealand U16 team, and she's just been named in the national U17 side to play in the Oceania championships in Noumea in August. 

Jennings was also part of the St Peter’s side who became the 2018 national secondary school champions, earning them a place at  the world schools basketball championships in Greece last month.

It was the first time a female team from New Zealand had competed at the tournament, held every two years for high school players, and Jennings' team finished fifth in the world. 

St Peters won five of their six matches in Greece, including a 61-60 thriller over Israel, who hadn’t lost a game in over two years. The Kiwis then went on to defeat Denmark, Chile, France and a Greek school side.

For Jennings, it was an experience of a lifetime. “It’s something not many girls my age would experience. So it was about leaving everything out on those courts, because when am I ever going to get to do that again?” she says.

Jennings is also a solid defender for the St Peter’s premier netball team, and the Hamilton City U17 side. But she says it wasn’t until her family moved to Adelaide when she was 12, that she began taking netball seriously.

“My netball took off when I moved to Australia,” she says. “I went to a netball trial and I really didn’t want to go. I was just dreading it, but my parents forced me.”

She made it into a team and then realised “maybe netball is my sport”.

Her parents’ decision to move the family overseas for a new cultural experience was “the best decision they ever made”, Jennings says. She gained invaluable skills and a great work ethic during her time playing netball in Australia, which shaped her into not only a better athlete, but a better person.

“I developed this really good mindset and mental toughness, I guess, and then when I moved back [in 2016] it kind of came with me. I was able to keep that up and achieve goals that I had,” she says.

This year, Jennings’ potential in both basketball and netball was recognised with a Tania Dalton Foundation scholarship. Jennings is in just the second intake of scholarship recipients, and is grateful to be able to carry on the legacy of a New Zealand sports legend like former Silver Fern Dalton.

Waiata Jennings receiving her three-year scholarship from the Tania Dalton Foundation. Photo: Tania Dalton Foundation.

“Being under her name is such a privilege. The cause is so amazing and I’m never going to take this opportunity for granted,” she says. “I think all of us girls who are representing her are just really appreciative.”

As part of the three-year scholarship, Jennings has a mentor, gets guidance in her personal development and financial assistance. Her mentor is Katie Snyman, who as Katie Fay was an outstanding goal keep in Otago netball in the 1990s, and is now a doctor in Rotorua.

In her final year at St Peter’s, Jennings juggles her sporting commitments with her roles as a cultural leader, head of house and head of boarding house prefect.

Growing up in a strong Māori household - of Ngāti Maniapoto, Te Arawa and Ngai Tūhoe heritage - Jennings has always been very involved in her culture. She speaks the language fluently, takes it as a subject at school and is part of the kapa haka group.

“I think being a cultural prefect at my school is really important,” she says. “I really value my Māori culture and so does my family. My parents have done kapa haka and performed at Te Matatini, and my family work in a kura kaupapa [Māori language immersion school].”

The second eldest of four children, Jennings says her family play a huge role in her life. “They mean everything to me; I don’t know what I’d do without them really. They push me all the time and, when I lack motivation, they’re always there to pull me up.”

When Jennings’ isn’t on a court, she can be found making fun videos with her sister, for her YouTube channel ‘Waiz Life’. It’s an insight to her funny and outgoing personality.

She also enjoys modelling, which she does occasionally with Monarch Models. Te Manaia, a talented artist, takes most of her photos and Jennings jokes that her sister knows all her best angles.

Being from Rotorua, Jennings is inspired by NBA star Steven Adams. Like Adams, she wants to be a great example, especially for her younger cousins who have big dreams of their own.

One of the key things Jennings believes is important for success as an athlete is knowing why you’re doing it. For her it’s about giving back to her community and family, and her passion for sport.

Her parents have also taught her to “just be yourself and having the courage to be yourself”, she says. “It takes a lot to do. But I feel like I'm quite confident in myself and who I am. Once you know who you are, walk it, own it because you know, you only live once and that's just kind of my motto."

Jennings aspires to play for both the Silver Ferns and Tall Ferns, but first she wants to go to a college in the United States and continue her basketball there.  

She is carving up an incredible story, and with heart and determination, there is no doubt she will go a long way.

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