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06 August 2020 | in FISU Athletes, 3x3 Basketball, NUSF News

There's no stopping Cook Islands baller Ajiah Pepe

Ajiah Pepe 1

Few people around the world have found themselves well suited to personally grapple with the current COVID-19 global crisis, but Ajiah Pepe has taken it in her stride. The basketball player who represents the small Pacific nation of the Cook Islands exemplifies the old saying of controlling the controllable.

 

Ajiah Pepe 4Pepe’s inherent flexibility in the face of change was clear in her experience of representing Lincoln University (New Zealand) at the 2019 FISU University World Cup 3x3 held in Xiamen, China. As an athlete who focuses on 5x5 basketball, Pepe found it easy to adopt the new format. “For me, I didn’t think it was that hard with my personal playing style," Pepe said.

 

“Obviously when you’re in a team playing 5x5 everything’s quite structured, everything’s quite organised. It can almost get a little robotic, and then there are people who play in the park for fun, like pick-up games, that’s kind of like 3x3. I feel like that’s how I play basketball in a 5x5 situation.”

 

Being the first FISU event in which Pepe participated, the 2019 University World Cup left a lasting impact on the 21-year-old. “The atmosphere in that environment is something I’ll always remember. When you’re there at the moment it’s surreal, they treat you like you’re celebrities,” Pepe said.

 

Beyond her university, Pepe has played for a multitude of teams including the Cook Islands National Team and the Canterbury Wildcats of the New Zealand NBL, among others.

 

Ajiah Pepe 5Although born in Auckland, New Zealand, Pepe lived in three different countries before the age of 10. With cultural roots in Samoa, Niue, and the Cook Islands, Pepe came to play for the latter through her mother’s side of the family.

 

“That was a huge thing for me. I’m Samoan, Niuean, and Cook Islander. My dad’s full Samoan and so growing up I was mainly brought up with my Samoan family and learned about Samoan culture,” Pepe said, “having this opportunity to represent my mum’s side and get to know a bit more, was a huge thing. It made her happy.”

 

Pepe is currently residing with her family in Brisbane, Australia, the same city in which she spent many of her formative years as an athlete. Although the move has been logistically difficult due to travel restrictions and mandatory government quarantines, Pepe has handled the transition with ease and is now enjoying increased time with her loved ones.

 

“I’m so happy to be back. It was always hard leaving. When I was in Christchurch my schedule was really busy,” Pepe said, “Being a scholarship athlete we have requirements of our own to fulfil on top of training and university work, so it was pretty full on.”

 

Ajiah Pepe 6Although Pepe spends much of her time away from her family as a student-athlete, she continues to find ways to connect with her local communities, especially as a member of the Cook Islands National Team. “There’s an island culture embedded in the team.  It’s really family orientated, we are really big on togetherness and morals.” Pepe said.

 

“When I came into the Cook Islands, I was one of the newer ones. They had already played a competition together and there was another girl and I that were the only new ones in the team, but they were really welcoming, really big on team, on family, kind of like a sisterhood.”

 

Pepe’s apparent knack of adapting quickly lends well to her education, as she pursues a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Marketing and Supply Chain Management. Keeping her options open, Pepe hopes to find a career as a supply chain manager or to work within a corporate marketing team upon the completion of her degree.

 

Currently studying virtually from Brisbane, Pepe has embraced the freedom that online education brings. “It allows for a lot of flexibility. When you’re going to university in person, you’re on a schedule. But being here and being online, the lectures are recorded. So if I do miss something, I can come back to it and then I have time to train or work.”

 

Beyond her commitments in the classroom and on the basketball court, Pepe serves as the Cook Islands representative at the FISU Volunteers Leaders Academy. The programme, which for the first time this year is being conducted virtually, looks to encourage cultural exchange in solving problems in global university sport.

 

Recent social movements have caused Pepe to revaluate her role as an elite athlete, and the significant impact she herself can have on the people around her.

 

“When the Black Lives Matter movement was happening, I realised I wasn’t as aware as I thought I was," she said. "So, it made me reflect on my own life, the things that happened around me, and how to think moving forward."

 

Asked what she draws from this moment moving forward, Pepe notes a heightened sense of personal pride. “It made me take a bit more pride in myself, especially my cultural background.”

 

It seems there is no stopping Pepe and her go-with-the-flow attitude in overcoming any hurdle that comes in her way. “It’s something that I’ve learned, that there’s no point in really stressing about anything because it doesn’t help you," says Pepe. "I think that’s what’s helped me, especially in this situation. To just stay calm and take what I’m given, and roll with it as best as I can.”

 

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