Zeena Suavaga: Wheelchair Basketball, Film, and Focusing on Ability

Tell us about yourself – who are you, where are you from?

That’s a simple yet complex question. Who am I? When I’m faced with this question my mind has a tendency to go in many different directions, mainly questions. For example; Am I really who I say I am? Am I lying if I believe I’m one way and others tells me that I’m not like that? What makes me, me? Am I an amalgamation or an imitation of people I’ve been exposed to? In which case, the answer I generally give is ‘Hi, my name is Zeena Suavaga and I’m from Auckland, New Zealand’ – it’s the easiest.

How did your story begin?

My story begins in Central Auckland. The first born child of Isapela Va’a and Sauilemau Suavaga, Samoan immigrants that migrated to New Zealand in the 70s. When I was 4, I became sick with an illness – Transverse Myelitis. Not much was known about the illness at the time. It’s still somewhat a mystery today. Basically, it’s inflammation of the spinal cord, and in my case, left me paralyzed from the waist down. It changed my parents life dramatically, not so much me at the time because I was so young. In my mind it was a new adventure. I don’t remember much of my childhood. The most vivid memory is the day I stopped walking. I had been playing with my brother John. We were jumping on the bed while my mum yelled at us. She sent me to have a bath and was calling me to get out and I told her I couldn’t. I had lost all feeling in my legs in a matter of minutes.

Through your work, how do you hope to make a difference?

My motto in basically everything I do is “No limitations”. Throughout most of my life people have tried to box me in. Told me I can’t do this, or how can she do that? She’s in a wheelchair. I don’t blame any of them – people are curious. It’s natural. As much as we’d like to think that we don’t judge people when we initially see them – the truth is, a lot of us do. The difference I want to make is to show people that limitations are what we restrict ourselves too. Limitations are what we allow others to put on our lives. When you have ‘no limitations’ you find new pathways to old problems. You understand that there’s always a solution – sometimes it may not be in the conventional sense but there’s always a way around a problem. In the last 6 months, I’ve taken up photography. I absolutely love it and am wanting to venture towards this as a career at some stage in the near future. Eventually I want to do wedding photography and I know that the hardest challenge will be trying to convince people that I am capable.

What have been the most challenging experiences in your journey so far?

The most challenging part of my journey has been myself – as the saying goes ‘you are your own worst enemy’. My dad died when I was 11 and that shook me to my core. Ever since then I’ve battled with depression. Some days are good and then others are super hard – ridiculously hard.

The second most challenging part has been leaving my friends and family in New Zealand. The first year was the hardest. I wanted to give up and just go home to my safety net. It’s still challenging today but I have a few amazing people around me that have built me up and pushed me to do things I never imagined I’d do. For example, last year I took part in a short film called Swish which was directed by Mohamad Mustapha. It’s a story about perseverance. It was entered in the Focus on Ability short film festival and won the Judges Choice Short film open entry category. It was an amazing experience and a first for me. I worked alongside Raquel Vaivao and Bellal Hassanein and it was so much fun. Mohamad really helped me to overcome my fear of being in front of a camera. I’m normally quite shy and reserved, I dislike having attention drawn to myself so this was a great learning curve for me.

I enjoyed it so much that I was part of another short film directed by Mohamad and it’s been entered into this year’s Focus on Ability short film festival. I was a lot more comfortable this time round and had so much fun working with Bellal again.

What were the most rewarding lessons?

I started playing wheelchair basketball in New Zealand in 2010. Glenn McDonald was my first coach and on my first day he basically just threw me into the game. I didn’t know the rules and had no idea what I was doing. It was the best lesson and introduction ever. From that I never looked back. In 2015 I was given the opportunity to play for Stacks Bears (now Metro Blues) and I left everything behind in New Zealand to challenge myself. 

My dad was one of the biggest driving forces for me growing up. He and my mother taught me that I could do anything anyone else could do, if not better. He pushed me to learn, to show people that I was more than the chair. My mum supported me when I told her of my decision to move to Sydney. Her words were “do what makes you happy”. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. In my first year of the Women’s National Wheelchair Basketball League I came here with the intention of being the best player I could be and I achieved that goal when I received the Best New Talent Award. This year I’ve been out with an injury but I’m slowly building myself up again to get to that elite level. The most rewarding lessons have been knowing that if I set a goal and truly believe and push myself to do it. I can!

What are the biggest misconceptions in your line of work? How do we feel we can address them?

I think the biggest misconception is when you tell people you play wheelchair basketball, they give you the ‘awwww, that sounds like a great hobby’ response as if it’s not a ‘real’ sport. The dedication, the vigorous training that wheelchair basketball athletes undertake is crazy, it’s like any other elite level sport. I have met so many wonderful people who have made me love the sport even more than when I first started in 20 The other misconception is that I won’t be able to fulfil job requirements. I’m currently building my portfolio in photography and I know that one of the hugest barriers I’ll face will be the mindset of others and minor logistics like stairs lol. The best way to address these issues are to be open-minded. To give someone a chance and let their work speak.

When you look back in 20 years time, what do you hope to be most proud of?

The next few goals I have include making it to the Paralympics, co-writing a feature film and establishing a career in photography. I hope to be proud of accomplishing whatever I’ve set out to do in-between then and now. Nothing is set in concrete and change is constant. Overall, I hope to be proud of achieving all goals I set myself.

What advice do you have for young Pacific people who might be thinking of pursuing a similar pathway?

Believe in yourself, believe that there is a way to overcome adversity and just put in the work. It’s great to dream and be motivated about something but if there’s no hard work behind it, your dreams remain just that – dreams. Pick up that pen – write something, draw something. Pick up the tools you want to work with and just do it. The toughest part isn’t starting, 

How can we support you and your work?

This year we’ve re-entered the Focus on Ability short film festival. We’d love to get your support and votes for Instant. We live in a world where connection now means its through social media, we share our lives online some way or another for others to see. On social media we can put up a facade and dress our lives however which way we’d like. Sometimes it gets lonely and there’s a disconnect. This story is about connecting with others – even if it’s just for a moment. Please check it out by clicking here, and please vote for us.

Also support your local wheelchair basketball teams. You’d be surprised at how intense games can get. 

We’d like to thank Zeena for sharing our story, and we wish her all the best with her dreams, goals and of course with this year’s Focus on Ability short film festival entry. Find out more about this year’s entry here, and connect with Zeena on instagram at @zeenaflorida

talanoa

Arieta Tora Rika is a Tongan-Fijian Freelance Writer, Digital Communications Specialist, and Talanoa’s Founder and Creative Director. Born in Darlinghurst in the late 80s, she spent most of her childhood in Fiji, New Zealand and Australia, and all of her teen years in Tonga. She now lives in Western Sydney with her husband Josese.