Aifili Tuita’u started playing organized rugby her junior year of high school just for fun because a couple of her friends convinced her. She never thought for a moment that she could play in college.
“I didn’t think I was gonna go to college. But showing how committed I was, and how much passion I had for the sport, the opportunity came to me,” she said.
Tuita’u is currently playing at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, which is about half an hour away from St. Louis.
Tuita’u found the school through a connection from a family friend and fell in love with the idea of going out of state for school. But that came with its own challenges. “It was kind of just me by myself and I’m not a very social person … Even my teammates tried to push me to get out there more,” she said. “I was just too homesick.”
It took Tuita’u’s first time traveling home to help her rally herself and gain the confidence to break out of her shell.
Her journey to find the sport she fell in love with was a unique one. With the 2020 pandemic, people were looking for ways to get outside and active. Federal Way High School didn’t have a rugby team or club so she found her home at Kentwood where she learned to love the game.
“I grew up playing other sports like volleyball and basketball. I was like, ‘Rugby sounds interesting, something different.’ [I] came out and tried out and made the team. I just fell in love with it after that,” Tuita’u said.
Before choosing to play at Lindenwood, she had another option to play closer to home in Ellensburg at Central Washington University (CWU). “I didn’t really want to be close to home. I was like I’m gonna go explore,” said Tuita’u.
However, in her first year, the Lions traveled to CWU to take on the Wildcats. It was an emotional and special day for Tuita’u. “It was nice. I cried because it was their first time watching me play,” she said.
After her first year in college, she plans to major in psychology and possibly be a mental health care professional. She even takes that approach into one of the most physical sports someone can play.
“It’s more about the mental game. It’s like therapy for me because there’s focus on concentration … Overall conditioning and pushing yourself mentally instead of physically,” she said.
In her first year, she battled through a dislocated shoulder injury she sustained in Florida. Tuita’u was tackled and fell right on her shoulder; She didn’t know it was dislocated and continued to play.
Even in the middle of the night, she didn’t seek help from the trainer, but rather took it into her own hands. “I woke up and realized it was dislocated. I grabbed a blanket and wrapped it up and went back to sleep,” Tuita’u said.
Tuita’u goes back to Missouri on Aug. 15, all healed and ready for year two. “I’ve been on recovery lately, but I’m back to full strength now,” she said.
When a high schooler is going over their options to play college sports, the traditional sports are basketball, volleyball, and football, among others. But not many go the route of rugby.
It all comes back to the love of the game for Tuita’u.
“If you’re in love with the sport show that you are and represent it. Show you’re committed … Put in a lot of work, but when you get down to the end it’s going to feel worth it,” she said.