Introducing – Samalulu Clifton

We bring you the lowdown on the life and times of the 21-year-old NZ women’s squad member.

Water background

Born the middle of three children to a Samoan mum and father of European descent, Samalulu was raised in Grey Lynn, Auckland – where she still lives today.

Her parents were keen for Samalulu to be water safe so at the age of nine took her along to Muriwai Volunteer Lifeguard Service, where her formal sporting story began.

“I enjoyed spending time at the ocean, even though when I was younger I was scared of the big waves,” she admits. “I really started to enjoy surf lifesaving after I got over my fear of the waves and became a lifeguard.”

Kayak beginnings

While many paddlers start out in surf-ski (surf lifesaving) before later graduating to kayak, for Samalulu her paddling journey came the opposite way around. She was advised to start out in a kayak as good practise for surf-ski and at the age of 13 was taken through her paces by North Shore club coach, Gavin Elmiger.

“I must have fell out at least 100 times (in those early days) – the kayak is so tippy, but over time I found I really enjoyed it,” she explains. “I kept going back and eventually after six months or so progressed to a K1.

“Working in a K1 gave me a good paddling base. Gavin worked hard on my technique and it fully translated when I hopped into a ski.”

National medal

Samalulu made her competitive debut at the 2013 New Zealand Canoe Sprint Championships and was hugely excited to win a bronze medal in the U14 K2 500m alongside Sarah Lockwood.

“I’d not won anything before,” she says. “It was the best day of my life, I couldn’t stop smiling.

Samalulu continued combining kayaking and surf lifesaving –and later switched to the Mairangi Bay Surf Life Saving Club – claiming national medals in both sports. In sprint kayaking she fondly recalls some momentous head-to-head clashes in the age-group divisions with Danielle Watson and Alicia Hoskin – both of whom also today feature as part of the NZ women’s kayak squad.

“Alicia and I had many battles over the years in the 5km,” explains Samalulu, a former Avondale College student. “I would try every tactic in the book to beat Alicia (over 5km) but she always pipped me on the line.”

International gains

Samalulu’s form saw her earn a call up for the 2016 World Junior Championships in Minsk, Belarus. Competing in the K1 200m she reached the semi-finals and learned much from the experience.

“Just to be able to focus on kayaking was great as was the fact I was receiving one-on-one coaching every day,” she says.

Twelve months later she returned for the 2017 edition of the World Championships in Pitesti, Romania. Competing as part of the Kiwi K4 500m crew alongside Alex Bermingham, Olivia Brett and Danielle Watson the quartet performed commendably to place fourth in the B Final.

“It was cool to experience racing on the world stage,” she says. “I learned so much from racing internationally, like getting used to racing in start gates, and on a world-class course against some world-class athletes.”

National call up

With a quiet determination to succeed, the Aucklander has slowly made improvements and in November last year was called up as part of the New Zealand women’s squad based out of Lake Pupuke.

Now aged 21 the Bachelor of Food and Nutrition student at the University of Auckland is enormously proud to have made the squad and believes she has continued to progress.

“The experiences over the past ten months have been really positive,” she explains. “The volume of training is now a little greater (than previously) but I’ve found it really refreshing to just now just be able to focus on kayaking (up until joining the national women’s squad she was still combining canoe sprint with surf lifesaving).

“My coach Jasper Bats is really awesome he has helped me a lot with my technique and that’s where I feel I’ve made huge improvements. It has also been cool to be around the elite girls. I’ve looked from afar for many years but it is great to see their work ethic and commitment – it is really inspiring.”

Dogged determination

Earlier this year at the 2020 National Championships, Samalulu placed seventh in the K1 500m and eighth in the K1 200m and believes her greatest strength is her determination to improve.

“I feel I’m good at executing training and that I’m resilient and never give up,” she adds. “I think this comes from my surf background, where you can be leading a race and then somebody catches a wave from the back and comes through to win. In surf you never give up because you could be that person. I’ve taken that mindset with me through to kayaking where you should never count yourself out of a race.”

Pandemic challenges

During the pandemic Samalulu has remained focused and disciplined with her training.

“I had no lack of motivation training in lockdown and trained right through,” she explains. “I borrowed an erg from my club and I set up a home gym with borrowed equipment from friends. I don’t think I’ve ever run as much in my life! A classic session was a 30-minute paddle, followed by a 30-minute run and then a 30-minute paddle.”

The pandemic also created an unusual situation for her parents Feeonaa (a Canoe Racing NZ Board member) and Neville, who married in February after 25 years together in February.

The couple decided to go on a six-week trip to take in the Falkland Islands, her father’s country of birth, and South America. After only two weeks borders closed because of the Covid-19 crisis and the pair became stranded on the Falkland Islands. Their planned trip turned into a five-month period stuck on the remote islands situated in the South Atlantic, until a New Zealand fishing vessel, the San Aotea II, took them home.

“It was five months with myself, older brother, Tuva’a (who has qualified to kayak for the Samoan team) and younger sister, Aotea, at home without parents,” Samalulu says.

Speed Queen

Naturally suited to the 500m – Samalulu also loves competing in the K4 500m because “it is the fastest boat and you reach speeds you normally can’t reach on your own.”

In the longer term she is aiming for a spot on the New Zealand team at either the 2024 or 2028 Olympic Games.

Yet above her personal ambitions, she fully embraces the daily pleasure of kayaking.

“I just love being out on the water every morning,” she says. “I’ve been paddling for eight years now. and I love it more than ever.”