Anorexia Nervosa: 'Being so sick gave me a different emotional muscle'
Irish International Rugby player and fitness and lifestyle coach Sene Naoupu opens up about her struggles with eating disorders and how now at 31, she is the fittest and happiest she has ever been
When Sene Naoupu came to Ireland with her husband, Connaught Rugby's George Naoupu, she had no idea that she would end up lining out for Ireland's Six Nations-winning women's rugby team.
The 31-year-old New Zealander has had to come a long way (not just in terms of air miles) before she was able to rediscover the sport she has loved since childhood. And Sene is embracing the opportunity with open arms.
"I came here at the end of 2009, in December for six months to Galway and then we went away to Japan for a year and then came back to Galway," Sene explains. "We came to Galway because of my husband's work as a professional rugby player and really love it.
"I have been involved in sport from a young age, I represented New Zealand at a junior level since I was 14 in basketball and I was also involved in rugby academies.
"I played since I was 13 and I was playing in a women's rugby team for my hometown Oamaru, which is North of Otago in New Zealand," Sene tells me. "So I have been playing for a really long time, I'm 31 now. I did take a few years off though.
"It was a funny thing because I went to the Sports Institute for basketball, but then ended up playing rugby very seriously throughout university and getting into academies for rugby to focus on getting into the national team for New Zealand, so there was a lot of training along with my university studies," Sene adds.
However, after a time all of these simultaneous challenges - the high intensity training, the serious studying and working to pay her way - took a toll on Sene's health.
"I got very sick throughout that period of my life; I developed a number of eating disorders, which led me to stop playing for a few years at a time when I knew if I had given the sport my all, I could have represented my country," Sene says.
Sene was diagnosed with anorexia, among a number of other eating disorders, which took hold for two years from the age of 22.
"Weight wise it was very bad and I was hospitalised a few times," Sene remembers. "I got very, very, very skinny and then I got much bigger than I naturally am, so I was almost at both ends of the scale.
"I had to balance that out over time and it took a good while to recover. It's a disease that unfortunately takes a long time to get over. They say it takes over a decade to fully recover and I think that is true, but thankfully it was a long time ago now and I'm very well."
Sene's life changed when she met her husband George through friends.
"After travelling around a lot, when we finally felt a little bit settled here in Galway, I began working as a health and lifestyle coach and through my business working with groups and individual clients every day I found myself getting much fitter. I felt like I'd never been fitter actually, even when I was younger and it helped me to realise that I could actually take up rugby again."
Sene was slightly hesitant on account of her age. She was at this point the grand old age of 28, which in sporting terms can be a time of winding down. However, her determination overcame this niggling self-doubt and she tried out for, and made, the Irish Women's Rugby Sevens Programme, which led to her Irish International call up.
"I felt I was fit enough to go and see if I could make the programme, and I did. So after training there for a while I ended up getting back on to the rugby scene and that's how I then got involved in the Irish Rugby team," Sene explains.
"Through that, I guess, they must have seen something in me and at the same time I believed that I was good enough; I believed that I had something to give here in Ireland and I still do.
"I think because I was so sick before and out of the game for a long time, I am more intrinsically motivated now, I have a different emotional muscle. My goal was to see this through and become an international rugby player after being out of the game for so long and that has happened."
Sene's love of sport, her studies in the area and her experience with such a crippling illness at a young age, has led her to pursue a career in holistic lifestyle and fitness coaching.
She studied holistic lifestyle coaching in San Francisco to complement her education in sports performance and now mixes the two areas in an all-encompassing health and fitness programme. The programme - The Senshaper Series - focuses on both high and low-intensity exercises, including strength and endurance training and plyometrics, which are then balanced with overall wellness strategies for a healthy life.
"Through studying sport performance and training I found myself immersed in a fitness lifestyle and then the interest in the health side of it came after a number of years; after I saw firsthand how important it was," Sene says.
"A lot of my health and lifestyle coaching is about mainly good lifestyle habits. After my illness I became really into that holistic sense of the body. So that features a lot in the one-to-one coaching that I do and the group classes then are very sports-inspired, but there is always that balance.
"We have a range of really high-intensity classes, but we also have the yen yang aspect to everything, so we also have the Flow Yoga to balance it out.
"We also fine tune what they are eating, but it is all very individualised. There is no cookie cutter solution."
So what is Sene's first step when it comes to setting people on the road to health, fitness and wellbeing?
"You must realise that it is a lifestyle change," Sene explains. "You are not going to lose lots of weight in a week and there is no quick fix. The first step I advise many people to do is to simply set themselves the challenge of having breakfast and focusing on that for the first week. Sometimes changing just one thing at first, as opposed to every single little thing, can work very well."
The Senshaper Series is taught by over 20 instructors throughout Galway and Athlone, and the programme is launching in Dublin next month.
For more information on the Senshaper Series, see senenaoupu.com.
Health & Living