Saelua said she expected to find more people familiar with her culture when she came to UNC, but was disappointed when she realized the scarcity of Pacific Islander representation on campus.
“I felt so alone,” Saelua said. “No one knew anything about my culture, or where my island was even on a map. I know it’s a very small place, but it’s very depressing trying to relate to someone who doesn’t even recognize your culture exists.”
Saelua signed up for the women’s rugby team listserv her first year but decided not to play because she was afraid she wouldn’t have time. One of her friends from home played rugby at East Carolina University and encouraged her to attend their match at UNC.
“Everything I saw just baffled me,” Saelua said. “There’s a huge huddle of people just smashing into each other. You’re lifting up grown-ass people into the air. It just seems so crazy, and afterwards everyone is just laughing and having a good time, even though you just threw someone into the dirt.”
That experience ignited her passion for the sport, and convinced her to join the team her sophomore year. She soon found out that the club president at the time, Malia Suhren, is also Samoan.
“She was the only other Samoan I had met on campus,” Saelua said. “We just instantly had a great connection, and that inspired me to learn more about the intersection of Pacific Islander and rugby culture.”
Saelua may not have known much about the sport before she joined the team, but head coach Johnathan Atkeison said it didn’t take long for her to pick things up.
“Sometimes new players have some difficulty adjusting to the physicality of the game, but Zenora didn’t have any trouble with that,” Atkeison said. “She’s like a sponge – she’s so smart and she learns so quickly. She also has natural leadership qualities and has become more of a vocal leader on this team.”
The Women’s Rugby Club President Aliyah Cruz said she knew right away that Saelua was going to be a great addition to the team.
“She is so delightful,” Cruz said. “She’s such a grinner and she always has a great attitude. She’s also willing to work hard, she’s not afraid to get dirty and tackle someone. She’s the exact kind of person we’re looking for.”
This summer the team played in sevens, a condensed version of the game where teams are made up of seven players playing seven minute halves, as opposed to 15 players playing 40 minute halves in a regular match. During the shortened match, Saelua scored a try — the rugby equivalent of a touchdown — for the first time.
“It was absolutely exhilarating,” she said. “I definitely want to score again this season.”
Atkeison said the biggest challenge Saelua has had with rugby is that she’s also heavily involved in other club activities.
Saelua is president of the Pacific Islander Student Association – a club she helped begin her first year in 2015. The mission of the club is to create a community for Pacific Islanders at UNC, and to educate the masses about Pacific Islander culture.
“It’s so rare to meet someone else on campus who understands your culture as a Pacific Islander,” Saelua said. “So being able to find people who understand my perspective and go through the same things I do is really special.”
Saelua said the bond she shares with her fellow Pacific Islanders is not unlike the connection shared with rugby players – both teammates and opponents. After a match, opposing teams will often come together to hug and take group photos.
“Anytime you meet someone else who plays rugby, it’s like an instant connection,” Saelua said. “I love it. The girls on the team are like my sisters. I feel like it’s a connection that will last a lifetime.”