AS Horowai Puketapu shuffles on a dining chair of his Napier home, the ta moko on his left arm peeps out from under the long sleeve of his sweatshirt.

The blood-infused ink Maori motifs, also on his chest and calves, are something Puketapu wears with a sense of pride.

Under his right eye, the 21-year-old sports a shiner while a welt rides high on the cheek bone - both, no doubt, obtrusive but transient in nature.

They are remnants of the battle he fought alongside his Napier Technical Old Boys premier reserve grade rugby teammates in last Saturday's winning semifinal.


"It's nothing compared to what I've been through," says the fullback with a level of confidence one often exudes after a significant accomplishment.

What isn't obvious to anyone who doesn't know him is what Puketapu has endured before he struts his stuff for the first time on the stage of the Nabba/WFF Deco Grand Prix at the Taradale High School on September 17.

He had Hodgkins lymphoma, which caused almost the entire left lung to collapse, diagnosed about this time last year.

The team leader and lifeguard at Ocean Spa was "pretty scared" when he was informed a swollen gland on the left side of his throat was a sign of a noxious intruder.

"It was huge, bro," he says, self-effacingly happy to have contracted the cancer, rather than it afflicting his two elder sisters.

"To me, I thought I was the strongest out of all of us so I thought better me than them," he says with the assurance of a player who ventures out to regularly collect high balls at No15.

He didn't dwell on the hand of cards life had abruptly dealt him, taking eight weeks of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation in his stride before Christmas.

Instead, Puketapu threw the cards back to the croupier at the other end of the table to ask the deck be reshuffled so he could take his chances with a fresh hand.

The medics warned he was going to have to deal with nausea after his third round of chemotherapy and to factor in the impending loss of hair. He experienced neither.

Some thought he was lucky to have come through the other side of the ordeal but Puketapu simply swam against the current of advice, cutting a track to the gym after chemotherapy and religiously attending work.

"Life goes on. I told everyone not to treat me any different because, at the same time, I realised there are other people out there worse off than me."

Exercising came to the fore. Eating healthy became the mantra as he surrounded himself with people who radiated positive vibes.

"To be honest, I thought to myself, 'What's life without challenges'."

He had shed kilos, from 120-plus to a svelte 82, before the shocking news.

"I trained a lot but it was the diet that I found the hardest but, once I got it, the fat just came straight off."

Under the unwanted excess lay dormant muscles which sprang to life through routine workouts and are now "cool as".

Takeaways were the norm, including "reheats" for breakfast rather than foraging on recommended red-tick habits to start the day.

"I wasn't eating cereals or anything like that.

"I was into junk and just not eating to moderation at all."

The transformation often tested his resolve but a staple diet of oats, cottage cheese, hummus, chicken, vegetables, almonds and protein shakes eclipsed the fast-food nemesis.

"Now, I'm starting to get muscles and cuts that I've never seen in my body before," he says, conscious of how the contours of his physique are becoming increasingly defined.

Puketapu is adamant he'll remain faithful to his newfound food plan, right down to weighing the amount to eat.

Every Sunday he gives himself a "treat meal", even though the hard-core types tend to label it "cheat meal".

"I say it's a treat meal because you've earned it," he says, not averse to a healthy burger or a few dollops of icecream to occasionally remind himself that he's not a mouse on a treadmill.

No form of cancer is palatable but what the doctors told him left an indelible mark on his life.

"They said if there's a cancer, then that is the one you do want, so that just boosted my attitude to life right there," he says, mindful that, at that time his maternal aunt, the late Amanda Pomana, was battling cancer, too.

"I saw her fight cancer for so long and I thought 'Why can't I do it?'"

Pomana, the wife of world champion powerlifter Derek Pomana, is among those who still inspire him.

For Puketapu, spreading the gospel according to his life's experiences is crucial because it's made him the person he is today.

"I see a lot of big people now and I'm just like, 'If I can do it, you can definitely do it, bro'."

The former Napier Boys' High School pupil harboured ambitions to join the New Zealand Navy in January but it was not to be because he didn't have full lung capacity.

"I was really fit and lean to go to the navy but I have to have a five-year stand-down period. That sucks. I can, like, go there and challenge most of them in fitness tests."

However, he tempers his resolve with a commendable sense of maturity that, should something happen to him out at sea, it would place undue pressure on others.

Enter sponsored bodybuilder Ephraim Craig, of Flaxmere, as a timely tonic.

Puketapu didn't entertain bodybuilding during that phase because the "look at my body" culture went against the grain of humility.

He "messaged" Craig for a second opinion and received endorsement on staying humble.

"But he said that each time you go on that stage, it'll show off all the hard work you've put in, because you're not doing it for anyone else but yourself.

"The way I see it is work hard, stay humble and have fun."

Puketapu was sold on the advice, aiming to cross another item off his bucket list.

"Maybe after this it'll be a powerlifting contest or something but I'm going to give it everything and if I get somewhere, I'll keep going.

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, I guess."

Puketapu has no qualms helping other people and offering advice, revealing he takes groups out for runs and does workouts.

"I do it free of charge because it took a couple of people to help me lose my weight so I want to be that one person for someone else, to return the favour," says the former Maraenui Primary and Intermediate pupil who, at 18, played softball for the Victoria State side in Melbourne and represented the Junior Black Sox (U19s) on a tour of Australia.

By default the bloke, who represented his country in baseball in Guam, has become a billboard of someone who has warded off cancer and trains hard but champions the belief that those who put their mind to anything can overcome adversity.

"No matter who you are or what you have, the mind is the most powerful thing in the world so whether you tell it something negative or positive, it'll react to it."

For him, it's about consistency, dedication and determination when coming to terms with anything in life.

His parents, Romana Puketapu and Gina Pomana, as well as other members of the family formed a close-knit support network to fuel him on the road to redemption.

"My nan, Julia Pomana, was a rock from day one."

Napier powerlifter Richard Watson, Matty Wilson, Craig and colleague and personal trainer Andrea Selvatico also helped him.

He emphasises he has no designs on becoming Mr Olympia, just someone who is the epitome of becoming the architect of his own destiny.

Puketapu will compete in the male sportsmodel division of the bodybuilding event here, a new WFF category. It was one of the largest for men in New Zealand last year, according to organiser Sarah Parr, of Napier.

It comprises two rounds - swimwear and sportswear.

"The competitors do not display the bulk or ripped physique of traditional hard-core bodybuilding but rather a lean, balanced body that would be on a fitness magazine cover," says Parr, who will take the stage in the equivalent female division after three years off the stage to accommodate motherhood.

The Nabba/WFF caters to all divisions, from hard-core bodybuilding to weight-restricted categories, including the bikini model and sportsmodel which broadens the appeal.

The organisation is a marriage between traditional bodybuilding (Nabba) and the American weight-restricted discipline (WFF).

The Art Deco event here is in its second year and will start at 1pm with "Bertie" (John Cocking), a 70-year-old bodybuilder, hosting it. Tickets are available at the Nfinite Health and Fitness gym in Napier.