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Rugby: Kealakehe grad Paogofie-Buyten off to a fast start at Lindenwood


West Hawaii Today

Rugby helped Nika Paogofie-Buyten go to college. It also helped her go on an adventure.

Through her freshman season with Lindenwood University in Missouri, the 2016 Kealakehe graduate saw 20 states, took a trip over the Atlantic for a rugby tour in Ireland and accumulated a boatload of experiences.

Oh, and there was a national championship, too.

“It was everything I had imagined and more, but it definitely feels good to be home after such a busy year,” Paogofie-Buyten said. “Going to college and traveling so much opened my eyes to a lot of things. I learned a lot, and got to play a bunch of rugby.”

Lindenwood reeled off a 38-4 overall record during Paogofie-Buyten’s freshman year, proving to be one of the top women’s rugby powers in the nation. They further established their dominance with a victory in the USA Rugby College 7’s National Championships in May, along with runner-up finishes at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Sevens Championship and the USA Rugby D1 Elite Playoffs.

It was literally a whole new world for Paogofie-Buyten, not just because of the travelling , but because she simply didn’t get the opportunity to play a whole lot of rugby coming up on the Big Island.

With the Waveriders, she had a busy schedule, participating in volleyball, soccer, track and field and she even wrestled. But being able to suit up and actually play rugby — her passion — was just a once or twice-a-year occurrence, usually reserved for a select few tournaments off-island.

“At Lindenwood, it’s year-round rugby, which is completely new for me,” she said. “I learned so much and got to play against some of the top teams.”

The Lions signed Paogofie-Buyten to a scholarship — which covered the majority of her attendance costs — based mostly off potential and her obvious athleticism. The move paid off, as she was a contributor for the squad in her rookie season at Number 8 in 15s and prop in sevens play.

For those wondering what the numbers mean — 15s and sevens — it refers to the numbers of players on the pitch during a game. The rules are basically the same, but it results in a different style of game. Sevens is made for the quicker athlete, favoring speed and finesse rather than the brawn required for 15s.

“It is a drastic change and not easy to go back and forth,” Paogofie-Buyten said of transitioning between the two versions of the game. “You go from constant impact in 15s, to constant running in sevens.”

She proved she could do it all, and her standout year also helped her land an invite to the Olympic Training Center, where she got to train with the women’s sevens Olympic team.

“I could feel there that it was another level,” Paogofie-Buyten said. “Just being around that group of people I learned a ton.”

After being removed from the Olympics in 1924, Rugby was reintroduced to the Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio in the sevens format. Sporting the red, white and blue is definitely a goal on her radar, but not quite yet.

“It’s pretty much everyone’s goal to make the national team and go to the Olympics,” Paogofie-Buyten said. “Eventually, I’d like to get there, but right now, I’m really focused on college and trying to take in and learn as much as I can.”

Her focus is also locally, where a recent influx of Kona rugby stars are making their mark on the mainland, and beyond.

Those names include the likes of Isaiah Chinen, who plays for a professional rugby club in Seattle, Tama Paogofie-Buyten, Nika’s brother who recently graduated from Lindenwood, and most notably, Psalm Wooching, a former standout linebacker for the University of Washington who decided to pursue a career in rugby rather than the NFL.

“I was blessed to have my brother play rugby in college. He was a role model for me,” Paogofie-Buyten said. “I hope playing rugby, especially at the level I got to experience this past year, helps influence and open the eyes up of younger athletes on the Big Island that little sport or big sport, if you put your mind to something, you can eventually reach whatever you’re trying to reach.”

That’s a similar goal to Wooching, a Kealakehe grad who made headlines in just about every major news outlet for his move to pass up the NFL to pursue his passion of rugby. Most recently, he competed with the Harlequins — a professional club based out of London — at the Beachcomber World Club 10s in Mauritius last month

His path has been something that has resonated with Paogofie-Buyten, and the two Kona athletes actually crossed paths a few times on the rugby circuit.

“When Psalm left football to play rugby, it really inspired me. I started to look at the sport differently,” Paogofie-Buyten said. “He’s climbing his way up and it’s been really interesting to see what he’s doing.”

But no matter what the future might hold, Paogofie-Buyten is making sure that she’s not losing sight of what’s in front of her — a sophomore year at Lindenwood.

“The emphasis through all of it was having fun,” Paogofie-Buyten said. “I know I’m very fortunate to be having all these experiences, and I want to make the most of it.”


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