For as long as Isaac Schuler can remember, September has always been about the AIMS Games.
Sure, there was a bit of rugby thrown in during his early years, when the 11-year-old’s father Kevin was coaching the Bay of Plenty, but otherwise New Zealand’s biggest sporting tournament has been front and foremost every spring.
It started when he was still in nappies and less than a year old, and oldest brother Angus - now 22 - played basketball at the 2007 tournament. Sister Morgan followed, in swimming, hip-hop and basketball, then came two more brothers, Josef and Loui.
Now it’s Isaac’s turn to make waves, joining the fray as a Year 7 in the Aquinas College open water polo team for next week’s games.
“I’m so excited,” says Isaac. “I’ve wanted to do AIMS ever since watching my brothers do it. It just seems so fun and exciting to get out there with friends and do the sport you love.”
Isaac will be one of more than 10,000 athletes competing this year, with more than 320 schools all over New Zealand and the Pacific playing 22 different sporting codes.
And his former All Black dad will be right there alongside as coach.
“He’s been coaching me for a couple of years, ever since I started with FlippaBall,” explains Isaac. “He’s just always put his hand up to coach my teams - basketball, water polo - and I love having him there. It’s really good.”
Kevin Schuler won’t be the only famous face at the tournament; Dame Valerie Adams is speaking at the opening ceremony, Black Sticks striker Katie Glynn is coaching Auckland’s Diocesan School for Girls’ hockey team, while former Silver Fern Leonie Leaver is helping guide the Saint Kentigern College netball squad.
Schuler senior was more than happy to take control of the school water polo team, despite limited experience in the pool.
“It’s a big change from throwing around a bit of leather,” he laughs. “I’m a bit green on some of the finer details, and if you put me in a pool and ask me to play water polo, it would be a different story.
“My wife Michelle reminded me that she managed most of the older kids’ teams and she’s got a bronze, silver and gold medal to show for it - so no pressure!
“We love to be involved in our kids’ sport and it’s a great way to stay active and see them enjoying it. There’s a lot more to coaching that just telling them how to play sport and that’s the bit I really enjoy.”
Those medals Michelle oversaw came when Josef and Loui were both coming through the water polo ranks.
Josef played both the 2011 and 2012 tournaments, picking up silver and making the tournament team in the latter year, while Loui won bronze in 2013 and was the tournament MVP as his team finally broke through for gold in 2014.
Both boys have kept going with the sport. Kevin and Michelle have just returned from Hungary, where they watched Josef represent the national under-18 side at the Youth Worlds while taking leave from his scholarship at Sydney University.
Loui, meanwhile, is in the national training squad and was the tournament MVP recently when Tauranga won the under-16 Pan-Pacific title for the first time.
“For our kids, AIMS was that first taste of real competition and it’s become a bit of a benchmark,” Kevin says.
“Isaac’s really keen to get in and do what his brothers have done and it’s become quite an aspirational tournament in the New Zealand calendar, which is pretty cool.”
This year will be an especially poignant one for the extended Schuler clan, which includes cousin Matt playing basketball for Waihi College.
The family patriarch and Isaac’s grandfather Herb died last month. He was in his late 80s and had been a passionate, enthusiastic and proud supporter of all his kids and grandkids.
Herb watched his fair share of AIMS tournaments and Kevin is especially grateful his dad could be so involved with the careers of all his grandchildren.
“The beauty of AIMS is that it’s such a great age, when parents and kids are still really involved in sport together,” he says.
“There’s heaps of parental help and grandparents can come and support, so there’s a real community atmosphere around the tournament. Sport is one part of it, but there’s so much that happens out of the pool or off the court or field that kids can learn and grow with.”