/**span.highlight**/Athletes succeeding on a shoestring/*/*

Champion rock climber Rachel Māia juggles single parenting three children, household finances and training on a budget. She’s also recovering from the amputation of her leg.

Rachel Māia's left leg was amputated at Bowen Hospital in Wellington in early 2019.

Rachel Māia's left leg was amputated at Bowen Hospital in Wellington in early 2019.

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Rachel Māia is tired of strangers asking how she lost her leg.

“I could be asked ‘what happened to your leg?’ 15 times a day… three times at the gym by complete strangers, four times at the supermarket by complete strangers, and six times online on social media by complete strangers.

“I don't want to live every day in the past. I don't want to spend that much of my life talking about something that was a bit traumatic and has been really painful and really tough. I want to keep looking ahead. 

“It’s curiosity. That's the only reason, they are really asking. They are not taking the time to get to know me as a person and I'm a lot more than just an extra prosthetic leg.”

She most certainly is. Māia is a single mother of three children, New Zealand’s first international paraclimber, world-class athlete, sportswear ambassador, and motivational speaker.

Māia, 37,  juggles a gruelling training regime with intense pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, and the day-to-day challenges of caring for a teenager with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism.

All of this makes her something of a superhero. And she does it on a shoe-string budget.

Māia, her daughter Charlotte and Ryder.

Māia, her daughter Charlotte and Ryder.

“Yeah, it’s a bit crazy. I get asked often where the drive comes from. And it comes from so many different places it can be hard to articulate.

“But certainly, one of them is that I want to walk away at the end of this career and know that I left my best out there. 

“I'd love for my best to be a gold medal on a world championship podium. That is the dream and the significance would be, we haven't had a paraclimber achieve podium on the global scene yet. 

“To bring that first medal home for New Zealand in a sport that is still growing and developing in our country, there's just something about making history that makes me feel pretty alive.  And I'd love to do that.”

 Māia climbs without her left leg, often taking all of her weight on her arms and fingers. Occasionally, she uses a prosthetic specially-designed for rock climbing by Evolv Sports.

She ascends on a ‘top rope’ while tracking a route set on walls up to 15 metres high.

It requires skill, strength and endurance as she works her way up an overhanging face.

I don't walk into a climbing gym and feel like I'm the disabled one. I feel like I’m arriving as a climber, just the same as every other climber.

Rachel Māia

“I love the problem-solving. It’s between me and the wall, I can turn up and the whole day has been crazy and maybe emotionally, mentally everything feels like it's a bit of a mess in life but when I arrive at the wall, there's me, there's the problem.

“I feel free to explore different ways of moving, that's easier when you've got a rope.

“Walking across the ground, around the house is really hard for me, but when I'm tied in with a rope, I feel free and I feel strong and I don't feel held back as much as I do with really simple everyday tasks. 

“So that's another reason to kind of keep running back to it… and obviously I might have a little bit of a taste for adrenaline.”

 Māia has lived with unimaginable pain since the age of 16 when a climbing accident shattered her left ankle.

She fits training around the school run and her children’s afternoon sports.

She fits training around the school run and her children’s afternoon sports.

Multiple operations followed, over two decades, including experimental surgery which put her foot in a traction frame to stretch the ankle joint, so cartilage could regrow. 

It worked - she was able to weight-bear on a crutch.  And as she recovered, Māia learned Climbing NZ was going to include paraclimbing in their national championships for the first time: after 18 years it motivated her back to the wall.

She won bronze and the following year took fourth place at the World Paraclimbing Championships in Austria, making her New Zealand’s first international paraclimber.

But the procedure wasn’t a permanent solution. And in late 2018, Māia made the radical decision to have her leg amputated. 

“To be fair, I feel like I've gained one,” she says. “The leg’s actually sitting in my wardrobe cremated in a tub. There's some fun stories around it.”

Within a couple of weeks, she was back in the gym, training for the Nationals. Five months later she travelled to France for the World Championships, finishing fourth.

“The fear of falling and getting hurt generally is just louder than all the pain that I still have… in a way it acts as pain relief.

“I'm training to drown out that nerve pain.”

Training involves frequent sessions with coach Eddie Tofa at the well-equipped Kaierau Rugby Club. She boxes and then completes a gruelling work-out focusing on weights, strength and balance.

Māia also trains at a local rugby club.

Māia also trains at a local rugby club.

Māia approached Tofa, who runs a boxing club, when she could no longer afford gym membership fees.

“She gave me a ring and I didn’t know at the time she [was] a one-leg lady. She came to my ladies class, and I realised that she was limping in. There was no leg, no prosthetic leg.

“I thought: ‘whoah. What am I gonna do with you?’ This is a fitness class, [I’m] not a physiotherapist.

“I said: ‘I'm gonna treat you the same as all the other ladies in here.’  She was quite happy with that. She’s one tough cookie. That’s what I know. She’s very determined, very focused on what she wants to do.”

Each session leaves Māia drained. “I need to elevate the leg and get the swelling down, so I can still wear a prosthetic. 

“So, for every training session that I do, there's at least half an hour lying on my back on the floor with my legs sticking up on the couch.”

To climb, Māia must make a three-hour round trip to the Vertigo Adventure Centre in Ohakune, which allows her to use their indoor wall free of charge.

“We don't have a climbing wall in Whanganui. I'm probably doing that [drive] maybe once or twice a week at the moment, and to be honest, that’s not enough wall time. It's really hard trying to create a training programme for a sport that I don't have access to in my town.”

Each trip costs her about $40 in fuel.

Sometimes, I worry that if my car dies, my climbing career is finished.

Rachel Māia

She must also fit these sessions around the school run and her children’s  afternoon sports.

“Obviously, there’s three kids to get to three different schools first, and then train and then drive home and pick all the kids up by 3pm. Then we're straight into all the after-school mayhem.”

An after-school snack with Charlotte and Quillan.

An after-school snack with Charlotte and Quillan.

Quillan is her youngest, aged 9, and Max, 12, is athletic, with lots of training sessions.

Charlotte is 14. “I like to call her super-powered. Doctors have a few labels for that like autism, intellectual disability, ADHD, but I like to stick with magical.

She has taught our family to see the world through colours I reckon most parents don't even know exist.

Rachel Māia

Ryder, a three-year-old service dog, arrived in their lives to help Charlotte earlier this year.

The intense training required for assistance animals meant Ryder cost around $20,000 and Māia  then had to find a further $15,000.

“It terrifies me because I don't have that.

“But I can see the life that he could give my daughter. If she could have some little things like the independence to walk to a bus and take it into town as an adult, then long term, this is something you cannot put a value on. 

“And if it came to it, and I had to choose competing or Ryder, I'd pick Ryder because I think that he's gonna give her that freedom.”

Sadly, the pair weren’t the perfect match and Ryder was returned to Assistance Dogs NZ. The family are on the waiting list for another dog.

One relief will be a climbing wall Māia is building in her garage. Local businesses helped raise around $5000 for the equipment and she paid around $1000 in labour costs.

“It will give me more training time on the wall, more strength and conditioning,” she says.

“It still doesn’t have soft landing pads so I’m unable to use it to its full capacity which is so frustrating but I haven’t got any funds left for this.”

Māia built her own climbing wall.

Māia built her own climbing wall.

She relies on Give-a-Little fundraising campaigns and social media to help pay for travel and other costs of competing.

Once the children are in bed, she must put in the hours to raise her social media presence, updating her profiles.

“Everything that I do either comes out of my household budget or has been gifted… I'm incredibly blessed to have a really beautiful social media community around me and honestly, I wouldn't be the athlete that I am, if not for the kindness of complete strangers.

“I've been really supported by others who have said: Can I help you with a fundraiser, run a little gala for you? Can I do a competition on my social media page with my product? Those sorts of things have been huge blessings.

“Community organisations and Whanganui supporters have been really helpful as well. Little bits at a time.

“At the same time, I feel quite bummed that I'm always asking for money… It's tough because I don't feel like I want to always be leaning on an Instagram following to be an athlete.

It can affect your desire to keep pushing for the goal because you feel like you've exhausted all the kindness in the world.

Rachel Māia

Climbing will make its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, but is not yet an Olympic sport for para athletes. 

That means she doesn’t qualify for financial support from Paralympics New Zealand. 

“I'm too old for a Halberg Scholarship and I'm not famous enough for a big brand to want to throw money at me.

“So it's just a scramble for every single competition, even the New Zealand ones. You're just hustling all the time.”

The Vertigo Adventure Centre in Ohakune allows her to use their indoor wall free of charge.

The Vertigo Adventure Centre in Ohakune allows her to use their indoor wall free of charge.

Before Covid, this year’s competition calendar included the US Nationals in March and World Cups in Austria and France.

Māia’s goal was a podium finish on a World Championship stage next year. But her funds wouldn’t have stretched to all three competitions. “I can't fundraise that much.

“I need that experience to be able to get there. I've got the grit, the determination and the drive, but I don't have a million dollars and a fast car.”

Unpredictable nerve pain and disrupted sleep means Māia is presently unable to work and is receiving income support. 

“I have to rest a lot on and off through the day… I don’t sleep at night and my concentration is affected through the day.  I carry a notebook around to help with memory.”

She also has to make frequent trips to Hamilton’s Limb Centre. The pain is expected to settle over the next year. And Māia is trying to generate some extra income through public speaking events.

She is an ambassador for outdoor clothing brand Macpac, which provides equipment but it is not a paid partnership. Last year she won one of their Fund for Good grants.

Climbing New Zealand is the national sporting organisation, with around 500 members, and 150 competing at national level. It’s a registered charity, run entirely by volunteers.

David Sanders, its president, said: “We are not at the stage yet, in the development of the sport in New Zealand, of being able to provide financial support for any of our athletes, including para. 

“As the sport grows and we attract more participants, as expected with Olympic exposure, we anticipate a parallel rise in interest from financial partners and sponsors.”

The organisation is in the early stages of an investment relationship with Sport NZ but does not receive set annual funding from the Government.

Every two years, Paralympics New Zealand leads teams to the Games. It also runs high performance training programmes for para swimming, para cycling and shooting para, for which the charity receives High Performance Sport NZ investment. They received $1.85m in 2019 for the three targeted sports, plus $500,000 in Government funding for the Tokyo campaign.

“With the other Paralympic sports that are targeting Paralympic Games, the responsibility is currently sitting within their own national sports organisations,” chief executive Fiona Allan said.

“With para climbing not currently being on the Paralympic programme, it doesn’t fall under the current investment model towards supporting athletes on the pathway to the Paralympic Games.”

Allan encourages athletes to explore other options, such as grants through community organisations and gaming trusts to cover travel costs.

“There is an opportunity, I believe, for an athlete to look at opportunities to increase their profile, whether it's website presence [or] through the media. 

“With that, there's an opportunity of increasing their commercial activity value for a potential partner through increased viewership of them as an individual.

“For the likes of Rachel, and a lot of our para athletes, they are inspirational role models. Often they are training, they've got families, and it’s very difficult, juggling competition, life and wellbeing.”

Tofa would rather Māia wasn’t distracted from her training and recovery.

Raising a young family, [trying to] find the money and raise the money, for her to struggle to do that and to train, that’s very tough. There should be help there somewhere. There should be a fund… for it.

Rachel Māia

“If you want to make the top of the world you've got to be training hard… if she's on top of the world, New Zealand's on top of the world.

"Every week I'm working at my limit," she says of her training regime.

"Every week I'm working at my limit," she says of her training regime.

“If she’s winning, we're winning, and that's how everybody should look at it and help them out.

“But … she's determined to do it. If no one's gonna help, she's gonna do it all herself… if she puts her mind to it she can do whatever she wants to do. She can make it to the top of the world. We should be proud of what she's doing.”

Māia must balance her training with physical recovery, pain management and taking care of her mental health. She often struggles with insomnia.

“I have PTSD and I find my climbing helps manage that. It's not a label that I feel like I need to talk about that often. But that just sits there. 

“I find the climbing very meditative, it blacks out a lot of the other stresses in life and lots of other triggers. My sport is my way of pushing through that.”

Para climbing is not yet on the Paralympic programme

Para climbing is not yet on the Paralympic programme

She has learned to allow herself to rest. And she is loath to be portrayed as an indefatigable champion.

It used to really frustrate me and I felt like my body had let me down, and that my mental health let me down.

Rachel Māia

“Now I’ve flipped it around. I bet you there's lots of mums that wish they could binge on Netflix for an entire day. And there's lots of other productive things you can do while you're sitting. 

“But yes, my body needs a lot more rest than I ever anticipated.”

Māia says achieving that balance is something every athlete must strive for. 

“The hardest part is working out the balance between working at your limit and working over your limit.

“But when I add in three children… and then when you add on top of that the financial pressure, it can really affect not just your training, but your performance and your self belief that you're ever going to get to your goal. 

“And that can shake you a little bit. 

“So every week I'm working at my limit and sometimes probably a little bit over it. 

“That's quite a juggle but I wouldn't be satisfied if I didn't... I don't want to walk away from it and think I could have done more, what if?”

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Words: Andrea Vance

Visuals: Iain McGregor

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editor: Ed Scragg