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Footy feat heightens Hala's hunger to help

Halamehi "Hala" Tuilomania gives two thumbs up to the camera on the boundary of a football oval.
Hala's horizons are expanding both on and off the football field.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

After proving to the world her disability was no barrier to achieving on the international stage, a profoundly deaf Fijian AFL star has switched her focus to ensuring everyone enjoys the same opportunities.

It is fulltime in the Australian Rules Football International between Papua New Guinea and Fiji, and Halamehi "Hala" Tuilomania is shaking hands.

Her opponent generously congratulates Hala on a good game. The young Fijian smiles and using gesticulations reserved for the sign language illiterate, explains that she can't understand what is being said because she is deaf.

Her opponent looks genuinely shocked, pauses briefly and then smiles broadly and throws her arms around Hala.

Halamehi "Hala" Tuilomania (left) and an Australian football player from PNG (right) walk across a football oval.
Victorious — Hala at fulltime in the match against PNG.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Moments like these illustrate how far Hala has come as a footballer and as person.

"Performance-wise, I feel really good," she says, via her mother Mere.

Many expert judges agree with her self-assessment and her dream of one day playing in Australia's premier football competition, the AFLW, remains alive — her disability is clearly no barrier to success. But Hala's focus has shifted somewhat, from herself to the cause of disability inclusion.

Hala's journey, and her mother's extraordinary devotion, has become legendary in the Pacific. When Hala was a young child, Mere abandoned life as she knew it, left her job, and intensively studied sign language until she became adept.

She then attended school with her daughter every day for eight years, interpreting every word the teacher said. She turned her existence over to the pursuit of a full life for her daughter. Hala has developed into a genuine star of the Australian Aid-supported women's AFL program in Fiji.

Mere, wearing a red coat with the hood up, gives a thumbs-up to the camera on the boundary of a football oval.
Mere has been by Hala's side every step of the way — even on the boundary line.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"We just decided that if she's here, we have to look after her," Mere says.

"We had to make quite a few choices in life. We just took a stand.

Those same words could be used to describe her daughter's change in focus. Hala has been forced, partly by financial pressure, to put her Library and Information Studies course at the University of the South Pacific on hold and instead has a scholarship to study disability at the Australia-Pacific Technical College.

It has given her a new perspective and she now wants to ensure others have the same chances she has had to pursue their potential in sport.

Among a group of Australian football players, a woman is mid-air having just kicked the ball, which can be seen top left.
Go for goal — Hala launches a shot.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"My drive right now is to be involved in sports with persons with disabilities and promote AFL," she says.

"And I am thinking of ways how."

"Now that I am studying this disability course, it has really focused me on what I want. That is what I want — for people with disabilities to be more involved with sports."

All the while, mother Mere's devotion has not wavered. She travelled with her daughter to the AFL International Cup in Melbourne, and translated every word for her daughter — from the words of the Fijian national anthem, to the inspirational speeches from the coaches. Mere also rode the full spectrum of emotions as the Fijians flew and faltered and flew again, ultimately finishing fifth in the world.

A group of women playing Australian football scramble towards a loose ball in mid-air.
Battle for the ball — Hala in action against PNG.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

And Mere might need to rug up and ride the boundaries in Melbourne again in three year's time, because her determined daughter wants the world to know Fijian football — the female, AFL variety.

"I'm just so focused now on 2020," Mere says, watching Hala's lips and hands tell the story.

Maybe Hala's work with Fijians with a disability may turn up another player or two just like her, to help make that dream come true.

Halamehi "Hala" Tuilomania crouches in a huddle looking off camera.
Hala in the huddle watching her mother signing the coach's words.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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