In her final year as Cougar, Kaylee Smiler reflects on how her Maori heritage has shaped her basketball career 

BYU women’s basketball player Kaylee Smiler is a New Zealand native, and her rich Maori culture not only enriches her life, but the lives of her teammates and many other BYU students. 

Smiler embodies principles of her Maori heritage while playing basketball, particularly the idea of “oneness or connectedness”. By recognizing the connection between her teammate’s success and her own, she plays with greater unity and effectiveness on the court, Smiler said.

“When I’m playing with my teammates, you know, it’s all about teamwork and being on the same page so we can be successful. We have a strong emphasis back home that it takes a village; your success is because of the success of others,” Smiler said. 

Smiler said love, humility, and integrity keep her “balanced on the court” and remind her of who she is. 

Mottos and mantras

Last year, Smiler and her teammates wrote down a quote that would be their “mantra” or “motto” for the season. Smiler chose a phrase in her native language: “Ruia taitea kia tu ko taikaka anake”.

To Smiler and her team, it meant “We only want those who are all in, who are willing to sacrifice and fight for each other and give their best effort every single day”. 

This phrase stems from an old story that has been passed down for generations. The story begins when a Maori tribe falls under attack. The women and children are sent off to an island, to protect them from the dangers of war. Their leader asks if any of the men would like to join the women and children. The leader then says it is okay if any of the men choose to leave because he only wants the men who are “all in” to stay for the fight Smiler said.  

Smiler, and the rest of her teammates, resonated with this story. So much so, that it became the team’s motto for the rest of the year last year. They would repeat it before games, and it helped them not only remember why they were there but also why they wanted to be there, playing basketball at BYU Smiler said. 

A familiar face

Teammate Arielle Mackey-Williams, is another New Zealand native, but from a different part of the island. The two girls enjoy “banter back and forth” on and off the court and find comfort in having a familiar face on the team, a taste of back home. 

“We have our little sayings and jokes. She’s an awesome teammate,” Mackey-Williams said. They not only understand each other’s language but each other’s upbringing and culture. 

The two New Zealanders have a special connection. When Mackey-Williams first came to BYU, Smiler was already established at BYU and really helped Mackey-Williams establish herself and settle into this new culture. 

Smiler made sure Mackey-Williams was taken care of.  “That’s what we do back home,” Mackey-Williams said. “It’s going to be sad when she’s gone this year.”  

This is Smiler’s final season as a Cougar and Mackey-Williams hopes to carry on her legacy and example. 

At the Big 12 media day this year in Kansas, Nani Falatea talked about how much she can depend on teammates like Smiler. Falatea said that as long as she has Smiler on her side, “everything is going to be alright.”

Beyond the basketball court 

Along with bringing her Maori culture to her team, Smiler shares it with thousands of BYU students when she represents New Zealand in BYU’s annual luau. 

“I grew up Polynesian dancing. It’s another one of my passions besides basketball,” Smiler said. “BYU has a luau every year, and I volunteered to be the section leader which means I get to choose and teach students the songs, dances, poi and haka of my tribe from back home. It really keeps me grounded and I will use every opportunity to share my culture.”

She is in charge of hundreds of students. She not only teaches the traditional dances but also about the culture and traditions behind the dances. 

A change of pace 

The United States has been quite the change of pace from New Zealand. 

“America is so fast-paced, always go, go, go. Not to say New Zealand isn’t, but we take more time to slow down and appreciate what’s most important, which is the relationships we have with one another,” Smiler said. 

She looks forward to each time she can return home and ground herself again and just breathe, Smiler said.  

Smiler finds rejuvenation in New Zealand’s slower pace. To her, it’s a place where she rekindles genuine connection. “I don’t like going home because of the beaches, hikes, and food but because of my family and friends,” Smiler said. 

Visiting home gives Smiler a mental refresh to then return to America ready to get back on the grind. 

Smiler is excited to play her last season as a Cougar in the Big 12 and she looks forward to the competitive nature of this conference. And she’ll continue to rely on her rich Maori culture to guide her throughout the rest of this season.

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