Glowing in England’s gentle winter sunlight, Cat Tuivaiti’s face softens further when she talks about her ‘boys’: husband Jimmy, and sons Sebastian (Bashy) and Leo. It’s a vastly different mana than the game day warrior – the strong, inspiring athlete – that fans see out on court. And as our chat ranges across many topics – family, netball, trolling, and the challenges of having both a miscarriage and a birth in Italy, I swallow – hard – realising that while Tuivati is almost 25 000 kilometres from New Zealand, in many ways, she’s come home.
There’s been a lot written about Tuivaiti over the years – the sassy shooter with moves like no other, the Samoan representative who had to stand down for four years before playing for the Silver Ferns, missing the 2011 Netball World Cup along the way, the woman who’s been targeted by trolls for her strength. And while all of these stories are in print, there’s another chapter being written now – that of Tuivati, the mother.
Due to a serious knee injury and three pregnancies, Tuivaiti has played very little netball since 2018. And so, training with the Severn Stars as the 2022 Vitality Netball Superleague season commences, the former Silver Fern is teetering between excitement and wondering if she’s lost her mind. She said, “The thing about me, is anything I’ve set myself to do, comes off the back of a huge possibility of failure, so I am excited and scared at the same time.
“I knew this was going to be hard, and I’ve cried more times than I’d like to admit. But that’s what keeps me going – not knowing how it’s going, but loving the challenge and loving pushing myself to the limit. Some days I love it, some days I hate it, but every day, I’m so grateful that I get to do it.”
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Making the move from Italy, where she’s lived with her rugby playing husband for the past three years, has been no small task for Tuivaiti. “Logistically, it’s been a nightmare,” she said. “I find myself doing a lot of things for my kids and not with my kids, which brings a lot of mum guilt because I’m trying to do this huge task I’ve set myself.
“Making sure they are looked after and warm, fed and happy, is my main priority, and the netball is just fun. So my mindset is very different this time around, and that makes it more meaningful for me.
“Not that it wasn’t meaningful before I had children, but it’s the ability to leave training and turn into a mum. They don’t care that I’m tired, or that I hurt, and that’s beautiful – it just makes me appreciate the game more.”
Having played elite sport since the age of 14, Tuivaiti has long been used to the inner focus that elite athletes need: a regime based on training, game day and recovery. Life is very different now. “My whole life changed the second I got pregnant with Bashy,” she explained.
“In essence, I was still playing when I fell pregnant, so I’d never had a taste of normal life without being a netballer. I pretty much had to bow out of the Sirens programme because I was grossly nauseous. It felt like I went from being a netballer to a mum overnight.
“All my priorities changed, so coming back to netball was only going to work if the team knew that being mum was absolutely number one for me.”
Enticed by the family-first ethos of Severn Stars, and strong connections with Kiwi compatriots in coach Melissa Bessell and player Liana Leota, it didn’t take Tuivaiti long to feel welcome. Initially concerned by the reception her children would receive, her mind was put at rest in short order.
“I was anxious about taking Bashy and Leo to training in the beginning,” said Tuivaiti, “because while I’d been around when other mothers did it, these children were mine!
“So Bashy running around, onto court, I wondered if people might get angry, and he’s just a baby so I didn’t want that. I was riddled with all these emotions I’d never experienced before. But very quickly I learned that it was okay and everyone loved them. I feel I can give the Stars everything because they love my babies as much as they love me.
“And my niece is here to help, so they’re looked after and I can commit. As I said to Melissa, if my babies are okay, I would give them everything I’ve got left in this tank.”
If the move was challenging for Tuivaiti, it’s been downright difficult for her husband, who is still playing rugby in Italy. “He’s been used to having us around all day, every day, walking into a mess at night with the kids screaming. The house over there has gone dead quiet now which is really rough on him mentally. We spend a lot of time calling him and chatting.”
Part of an incredibly close family, and one of ten siblings who she still speaks to almost daily, Tuivaiti found living through the pandemic in Italy both heartwrenching and also the making of her marriage. She and Jimmy had been together for 16 years, although their respective sporting commitments separated them for much of that time.
“We’ve lived apart for so long, as our sports took us to different parts of the world. So when we were forced to live together during the pandemic, it was great for our relationship.
“On the flip side, being apart from my family and facing the language barrier in Italy, especially after having my first child and learning to do everything on my own, was the hardest part. I didn’t have my mum or sisters around to help.
“Being so isolated I struggled through it mentally, not having that extra hand when it got hard, or I needed some sleep, or just someone to talk to.
“I love my husband to death, but he’s still a smelly boy, and I just needed to talk to a woman at times. So it’s been rough, just like everyone else in the world has found it, but I learned to get through things on my own, and that’s made me even stronger. I’m still standing.”
Tuivaiti moved to Italy shortly after the birth of her first son, who she swears will hear about that particular three day marathon when he is older. “He almost ended me! Every pregnant mother’s labour story is different, and of course I had to have a dramatic one.
“Parts of what I’ve learned through netball – getting through things physically and emotionally – really helped me. And Jimmy had flown in from Italy. He was giving me motivational statements that he used to give me when we were running shuttles and I didn’t want to – we’d have a fight, it would make me giggle, and we just got through it as a team.
“Once I saw Bashy’s gorgeous, squishy little face it all disappeared, but he is going to hear about it!”
Chatting to Tuivaiti is better than live comedy – she’s dry, witty, and vastly entertaining – but she’s also a woman who has suffered. Tears flow – ‘damn this pollen’ – when she talks about the miscarriage she experienced between her two sons.
On a short holiday with her husband and Bashy, Tuivaiti had to negotiate not only the loss of a much wanted pregnancy, but the difficulties of language barriers, a foreign hospital system, and the absence of the rest of her family.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t realise is very, very common. Fortunately it had never happened to any of my sisters, but I then didn’t think it would happen to me. And because of the circumstances – where I was and who I didn’t have around – it heightened our emotions.”
Initially, Tuivaiti found her loss difficult to speak about – she had a child to still care for, Jimmy was going through his own grieving process, and she struggled to talk through her tears. As the couple started to share their feelings, she was able to get angry – one of many emotions that bereaved parents can go through.
“I’d literally say to him, ‘I’m going to be a bitch today, and I need you to deal with it and don’t fight me.’
“And he did, because I had to do it. I had to be mean, I had to be unreasonable, I had to cry for no reason, and he had to understand that was my way of letting the emotion out.
“The next day he’d ask if I was done, and I’d say, ‘Well, for now!’
“We went through so much, with so many different emotions, and he learned to duck and watch out when Hurricane Cathrine was coming through.”
While miscarriage leaves permanent scars on the heart, it can also make it grow bigger. For the Tuivaitis, that growth included what they learned about each other. “We’d taken for granted how much we have grown. We’ve been together for such a long time, and encountered a lot of things in our relationship, but this reminded us how important it is to communicate properly.
“We also learned that it’s okay to miss our family at home, but we’ve got our little family here with us as well, and we can move forwards knowing how important that is.”
Tuivaiti is all too aware of how difficult it can be to speak about miscarriage, and while she still finds it heart-wrenching, she hopes that can change. “It’s not something I talk about often, but the more I do, the easier it gets.
“I think as a society we need to put some language around it, because it’s rough, it’s hard to pinpoint why, and it’s hard to articulate. Like so many other couples, we didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just a part of life. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t, but we will encounter many women in our lifetime that have been through it.
“We can move forwards, and I think that is easier to do if we can talk about our experiences. Sometimes we just need to hear people out.”
Falling pregnant again shortly after their miscarriage, Jimmy and Cathrine went through the full gamut of emotions – excitement for lay ahead, sorrow for what had just passed, and fear that they’d lose another baby.
“We were petrified,” Tuivaiti said. “I was too scared to say it, in case I had to say the other thing as well – that we’d lost another child. It was terrifying for the entire length of my pregnancy, to be honest. I couldn’t let go of the fear.
“And having a baby in Italy was quite an experience because it was so different to New Zealand. But after everything that I went through with Bashy’s labour, I knew that even if it was just a little bit easier, that I would be okay.”
Back onto court in 2022, and physically, Tuivaiti says the ‘mummy’ part of her is fine. While she still rehabs the serious knee injury of 2017, she has no pelvic floor issues, despite having given birth just six months ago, and no one bats an eyelid when she stops to breastfeed Leo.
“I have not wet myself once, and that’s a true issue as all mummies returning to sport know,” she laughs.
“I’m bottle and breastfeeding Leo, as I knew I wouldn’t be around all the time and needed to fully commit to netball. Emotionally that was a hard decision – I’d breast fed Bashy till he was one, even though we had a rough start – but he’s healthy, and I feed him when I need to.
“It’s often at public events like the training and the launch, but it’s welcomed, and that’s beautiful.”
Having lived a fairly quiet European life so far from New Zealand, being embraced back into the netball family gives Tuivati a sense of home coming. Known not only for her court skills, but her work with developing players, Tuivati said, “It’s really exciting to be a part of their journey.
“I’ve missed that, just as I’ve missed being part of a team – the feeling of game day, and particularly everything that surrounds the game – the work, the arena, and the fans.
“I’m so grateful to be back inside netball again.”