Triple threats

By Rachel Helyer Donaldson
Photography by Anna Briggs

Featured in Capital #72

This is part of Capital’s 10 year birthday retrospective, where we
look back at some of our favourite stories over the past decade. To
read an update of this story, see
issue #90 of Capital.

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Is three a magic number or a crowd? Rachel Helyer Donaldson talked to three sets of triplets about sibling rivalry, special bonds, and finding your own identity when you’re identical.

“It’s actually quite hard to tell them apart,” one of the three Tu’inukuafe brothers is overheard saying, when they meet another set of identical triplets for the first time at Capital’s photoshoot. The 20-year-old law students are face-to-face with the 22-year-old Pilitati sisters. At first glance, each set of siblings can seem uncannily similar, but there are quickly recognisable differences, too.

“Oh! You’re the Westlake triplets, we’ve heard about you!” says Tearii Pilitati, referring to the Tu’inukuafes’ old high school. The six are all talented sportspeople and chat about basketball and rugby.

The third set of triplets in this feature, the 10-year-old non-identical Snelling siblings, are keen to meet the adult triplets. Interestingly, everyone automatically lines up in birth order when asked for a photo. The triplets in each set were born a minute apart from each other, and it seems that those 60 seconds make an important difference, sometimes more than they care to admit.

Other commonalities: growing up, the Tu’inukuafes and the Pilitatis wore colour-coded clothing to help teachers. Being mistaken for each other was frustrating, but confusing the opposition in sports had its advantages. All are competitive, and have a unique connection on the sports field. But don’t ever call any of them “the triplets”. As Jackson Tu’inukuafe says, “I guess we look the same, but we are still each our own person.”

Band of brothers

Like many first-year students, Auckland brothers Cale, Jackson, and Max Tu’inukuafe left home to start university. But for the identical triplets, shifting to Wellington in 2018 was “a shock”, says Cale.

Growing up on the North Shore, they shared the same friends, were prefects at Westlake Boys High School, played in the second XV North Harbour rugby team, participated in the school’s Pasifika group, and jointly coached a basketball team.

At Victoria University, the close-knit trio were split up from each other for the first time, living in different halls of residence. “We’d never really felt alone before,” says Cale.

Cale was keen to get out of Auckland. An open day convinced all three that Victoria was the right move, says Jackson. “Mum and Dad pushed for separate halls. But we wanted that, too.” The experience helped them grow as individuals. “It was like we needed it,” says Max. “We had different experiences, we developed a lot more confidence in ourselves and we became way less reliant on each other.”

Now third-years, the brothers, who are half-Tongan, half-Pakeha, are all studying law alongside another degree. They sit together in law lectures, and they all play for Old Boys University Colts (Under-21s). All Blacks prop Karl Tu’inukuafe is Dad Andrew’s cousin.

But they also have their own interests and want to follow their own paths. Max is doing a Bachelor of Commerce, Cale is majoring in Film for a Bachelor of Arts, and Jackson’s BA major is Development Studies.

Since second year, they’ve been flatting together in Kelburn. After striking out on their own, what prompted that? “We work so well together, and you need that in a flat,” says Max.

Their flatmate, Finn, has been their best friend since primary and fits in naturally, says Jackson. “He’s pretty much our brother, he’s like the quadruplet!”.

Disputes between the brothers are interesting. “We’re equally close to each other. But either someone has to take a side or someone in the middle might mediate.”

The best thing about being a triplet, says Cale, is “always having your two best mates around, two people who will always get you, who you know you can always count on.”

The worst thing is constantly being compared, says Max. “It’s understandable, we’re identical. But everyone is always trying to put us in a box: the sporty one, the smart one. We appreciate when people take the time to get to know us as individuals, rather than grouping us as a whole.”

The brothers have always been competitive. Mum Rebecca believes this is because they are “pretty much the same sports-wise and academically. There’s not much between them at all.”

Does birth order make a difference? It’s hard to know, she says. Sometimes, they do fit the stereotypes associated with oldest, middle, and youngest. “Cale takes responsibility for things, for example. I don’t know whether that’s birth order or whether it’s the way we’ve unconsciously raised them.”

It was “really, really important” to treat them as individuals. “Sometimes people think it’s like having one child, but it is actually three separate human beings, with three separate needs and demands on your time.”

The brothers turn 21 in February. Big celebrations are planned. As they get older, they feel more individual, says Max. All three have striking hazel eyes and a calm demeanour. But differences in their facial shape and mannerisms are soon apparent. “We probably do look more different as we get older,” says Cale. “We were pretty identical back in the day,” adds Max.

Their connection remains as strong as ever. “In sport, we have this understanding of each other, we just kind of know,” says Max. “If we weren’t triplets, we’d still be best friends,” adds Jackson. “Our bond is one of the most important things in my life,” says Cale. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” 

A family hat-trick

It was not exactly expected,” says Geo Snelling carefully, as he’s asked to explain, in front of his three children, how he and his wife discovered they were having triplets. “We just wanted one.”

“Oh?!” say Pyrenees, Octavia, and Caspian in unison. “But we didn’t realise how amazing you guys would be,” Geo replies. “If we’d known in advance we totally would have said three!”

Annette Snelling was seven weeks pregnant after undergoing fertility treatment when the couple, who are American and were then living in Los Angeles, found out they were having two. “At nine weeks, we were told that it was three.”

The shock was seismic. “We were just getting our heads round having two,” says Geo. “I didn’t go to any more appointments because I didn’t want four.”

The Snellings have lived in Wellington since 2013, when they came here for Geo’s job as a lead software engineer with Weta Digital. En route, the family lived in Vancouver for two and a half years while the kids were toddlers, moving to Aotearoa as they turned four.

Routines are important, says Annette, who parents full time. Born at 30 weeks, Caspian (weighing 1,200 grams) and Octavia (1,400 grams) spent six weeks in the neonatal care unit. Pyrenees (1,100 grams) was there for three months due to feeding issues. It was a nerve-wracking time, but “kind of a blessing, too”, says Annette, as the nurses trained the babies to feed and sleep on schedule.

The Snelling kids, who are in Year 6 at Worser Bay School, turn 11 in September. They are all keen footballers and the proud joint owners of pet mice Cernel and Domino. Octavia and Pyrenees are a dynamic duo on the netball court. They have their own hobbies, too: Pyrenees designs intricate toy clothes, Caspian’s favourite video games include Minecraft, and Octavia likes diving.

The best thing about being a triplet is “never being lonely,” says Pyrenees. “You always have someone to annoy,” says Caspian. They all get on but take turns at ganging up on each other. “Sometimes it’s me and Caspian picking on Pyrenees, and sometimes we gang up on Caspian!” says Octavia. “They capture me in blankets!” he says.

They were born one minute apart. Pyrenees was out first. “We say she got the party started,” says Annette. Octavia is the middle child, but the tallest. “People usually think Octavia’s the eldest,” says Pyrenees. Does birth order make a difference? “No!” say the kids. “Not all the time.”

If you’re a triplet, or parents of triplets, you can expect a range of annoying questions. “Are they natural?” is one which surprised Geo. “Acquaintances made it the basis for small talk.”

“Are they identical?” is another, despite Octavia’s long red tresses, Pyrenees’s white-blonde waves and Caspian’s dark-brown curls. “We call them the Irish one, the Danish one, and the German one,” says Geo. “It’s as if all of our recessive North European genes passed through a prism.”

The kids dislike classmates thinking they’re responsible for each other. “I don’t know if Octavia’s free for a playdate and it’s not my problem if Caspian’s being annoying,” says Pyrenees. Sometimes people mix up the girls. They all hate being called “the triplets”.

There’s a special bond, says Geo. “We’re not telepathic!” says Caspian. “No you’re not,” says Geo, “but you do have a certain need to be around each other, which is pretty unique.”

Will they be friends when older? “Mmm-hmm,” they reply warily. “I’ll still be friends with my siblings,” adds Pyrenees. “I think they’ll get tighter as time goes on,” says Annette. “There will be more connection together.”

Parenting triplets can be “bittersweet”, says Geo. “Kids go through beautiful phases and you know you’re not going to get it again.”

The power of three

“Pure instinct” is how Robert Pilitati describes the way his daughters Dalen, Natasha, and Tearii – who are identical triplets – would play sports at Newlands College. Robert was their basketball coach. The sisters represented New Zealand in under-16s basketball. “You could see the connection they had on court. They could throw the ball anywhere and the other one would be there.”

Now 22, the Pilitatis all live separate lives – Natasha in Karori, Dalen in Porirua, and Tearii studying Communications at Massey in Palmerston North – with their respective partners, Tommy, Taisson, and Tahana.

Dalen represents the Cook Islands in basketball, Tearii plays basketball for Massey and premier league netball for Palmerson North, while Natasha plays netball for Wellington East’s top team.

The only games they play together now are social, says Dalen. “I miss that full strength. When we’re on the court together we feel really powerful!”

Natasha says sport drove their competitive streak. “I never wanted to compete against my sisters, I wanted to compete alongside them, as a tactic, so it would be even better.”

The sisters were born a minute apart: Natasha first, then Tearii, and then Dalen. “It’s a very, very important minute and there’s a definite rank,” says mum Rikki. Those precious seconds separating them were all-important growing up.

“I’d have to do something because I was the youngest or Natasha got her own room first all because she was older by two minutes!” says Dalen. “I’d have to push a little bit more, just to get a bit more attention!”

Individuality was encouraged, says Rikki. The girls were never dressed the same and they had different jobs around the house. They always trialled for different positions in sport so they were never competing against each other.

Older sister Aysha, 26, is very much the eldest, adds Rikki. “She tells them straight what she thinks. But the four of them together, it’s so loud but it’s just great, seeing how happy they are together.”

Rikki was 11 weeks pregnant when Aysha came home from kindy announcing she wanted three sisters. But it was still “out of the blue” to be told she was expecting triplets. Rikki’s mum, Tearii, was “really excited” and quit work to help. She died unexpectedly, at 51, on Boxing Day 1997. They buried her on New Year’s Eve, and the babies were born on New Year’s Day.

Robert, who is a Samoan New Zealander, and Rikki, whose heritage is Cook Islands, come from large families and they all pitched in, as did neighbours. “We had a great support system.”

Rikki says the girls had a secret language when young. “Tearii was mega-shy. If someone asked her something at school, she’d look at her sisters. They’d say exactly what she wanted them to.”

The sisters still pick up on each other’s feelings, says Tearii. “If someone’s down, we don’t need to ask them if they’re okay. We might change the subject and bring it up later.”

Once, Natasha got concussed during a basketball game and had a seizure. “It felt like we were all in pain,” says Dalen.

Leaving home was a big deal, says Natasha, who moved out first. Tearii went flatting and loved “the challenge” of meeting new people. Dalen headed to Fiji on a gap year, and then to the US on a freshman basketball scholarship. “That was really big for me, being overseas.”

Being apart has made the sisters realise how special their relationship is. “Now that we’re older, we’ve become a lot closer,” says Natasha. “We realise that we need each other.” “Three is the perfect number,” says Tearii. “It’s never a crowd, it’s always fun.”


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