Whanganui para climber Rachel Māia talks to Zaryd Wilson about her two-decade mission back to the climbing wall.

There's an obvious comparison between Rachel Māia's chosen sport and how she's come back from a life changing injury as a teenager.

It's been a big year for Māia, who almost two decades since shattering her ankle as a teenager, is the first para climber to represent New Zealand.

She's off to the world championships in September and has also been nominated for the Spirit of Attitude and the Emerging Athlete award in the Attitude Awards for people living with disabilities.


This story starts at James Hargest College in Invercargill where Māia took up climbing as an alternative sport option.

She was 16.

"It was cool," she says, before pausing.

"Cool is such a dumb word, it doesn't even start to explain it.

"You have a whole crowd of people at the bottom who 100 per cent believe you can get that next move even if you're at the top packing yourself having a little panic attack.

"It's an individual sport but everyone's there as your team and they have your back for your personal goals. They see you suffer and they see you strive so when you stick a move they celebrate that with you."

Māia was a tree climber as a kid.

"My parents said once that if they were wondering where I'd gotten to they'd generally starting looking at eye level because I probably wasn't below that."


But oddly she was scared of heights and still is.

"Definitely not so great on the descent. I spent an entire afternoon of school lost in a tree because the lunch bell rang and I was still up there and everybody went to class. I'm still nervous to get down."

Competitive climbing came naturally and her team made it into the finals of the South Island Secondary School Championship in 1999.

It was in the practice run before the final - less than a year after she began the sport that Māia's life changed forever.

Māia performed a routine controlled drop to get off the wall.

"I decided to play it safe," she says.

But when she came down her foot landed on a piece of faulty flooring, a 1mm margin where crash pads had been duct taped back together "and I blew one foot out the side".

It was a freak accident.

"I remember lying there and the ambulance took 45 minutes to come and the hospital was just across the road. I was still thinking I'll be competing tomorrow."

It would be more like 19 years.

"The ankle was shattered and dislocated and the ambulance driver was painstakingly untying my shoe laces and I could hear my ankle rattling around and crunching," Māia says.

"I was screaming and listening to my own foot rattling around and begging them to stop."

Reconstruction surgery followed which involved grafting a bit of hip bone into her ankle but it soon became obvious her foot would be "permanently stuffed".

"When you're 16 you don't process the significance of what that means," she says.

"You don't have a concept of being an adult and being responsible for kids and a mortgage and life – and how do you manage that with a disability?"

Basically, Māia has degenerative and post-traumatic arthritis.

Over the next decade or so Māia's ankle shed cartilage as the joint space got narrower while bone density deteriorated and grew sharp pieces.

"My local surgeon in Whanganui said, 'You've got a 90-year-old's ankle inside your foot.' By the time I got to the major surgery five years ago I had no joint space and no cartilage."

She was only the fifth person in New Zealand to receive the experimental surgery.

It put her foot into a traction frame to stretch the ankle joint space back apart so the cartilage could regrow.

It worked ... kind of.

She can now partially weight-bear with a walking crutch but her foot will degrade again.

"I'd call it a win because it's given me five years of limping around. It's delayed something more permanent like a fusion or an amputation and they're really the only other two options."

Or she hopes technology catches up but she tries not to think about it.

"I mean, I joke with my friends about an amputation all the time," she says.

"But I really have put myself into the mentality of 'this is how it is' and I want to be good at enjoying life as it is with whatever abilities I have now.

"I think it's a complex subject - how you resign yourself to something and make peace with it but at the same time consider other options and at the same time hope for new options."

The mental side of her injury is something she's only recently started working on and it was going to a pain psychologist that helped her get back into climbing.

"I was okay but I needed to learn how to manage pain in a more holistic way.

"For lots of different reasons I didn't understand that when you bring your life back into balance and you make really healthy choices in your life - pain is more manageable.

"I tended to think pain was separate from everything else that was going on but it's absolutely not.

"When you have things that are stressful physically, mentally or emotionally then the way you receive pain messages and the way you process pain – that's all heightened as well."

Climbing worked.

"It gives you a bit of adrenaline which is short-term distraction and pain relief, and then overall when you're doing stuff you love you just cope with anything better."

And that ability to cope is something she has been able to teach her three children – aged 12, 10, 7 - the eldest living with autism and an intellectual disability.

"Disability, like, it's not really a word for our family, we just get on with how we are," Māia says.

"And my children are amazing and so resilient and accepting of all of us at whatever ability or state we are in."

Māia and her daughter need to set achievable goals to manage their disabilities and that's rubbed off on her boys.

"I love that about our family. I love that it's not easy. I love that some of the stuff we do we have to fight for and I love that they're putting that into practice in their own life – and they're kids."

It makes it tough that there's no climbing wall in Whanganui. She trains at Vertigo in Ohakune which sponsors her to climb for free.

Three days a weeks she takes three kids to three different schools by 8.30am, drives to Ohakune, trains, hops back in the car eating a protein bar on the way home and gets to Whanganui just in time to pick the kids up.

"So if someone wants to sponsor me a petrol station that would be great."

New Zealand didn't offer competition for para climbers a year ago.

"We're a minority group within a minority sport and that can make it challenging just to get the same opportunities," Māia says.

Para sport is important because "it redefines what you think about what you can and can't do".

"It helps people believe in themselves and gives them the confidence to try stuff they wouldn't have tried before," she says.

"Once you've got yourself to the top of a wall lots of other doorways in life open up because you might look at employment or relationships or other hobbies – you look at everything that life offers and suddenly you're looking at it through different eyes going 'well, actually, maybe I could take one step towards that'."

Māia tries not to be defined by disability but it's also unavoidable.

When she was nominated for the Attitude Awards; "I kind of just laughed and I realised I don't see my myself as disabled. I definitely did before I started climbing but now I just see myself as a climber.

"Maybe you just get to a point where you're okay with being you. You affiliate with it but it doesn't define you.

"You focus on the fact that you are a mum or a sister or a friend. But at the same time, you can appreciate that having that disability means I can compete against similar people."

And Māia is now taking what she's learned from dealing with her injury and raising a family and putting it into public speaking.

"I think youth need to hear that it is okay to be in a rough space," she says.

"What young people today are not quite grasping – which is not helping our mental health statistics – is that it's normal to be in a rough place.

"But you get out of that by finding something that excites you and makes you feel good, and then being really resilient in your pursuit of doing that.

"And that's why climbing is great. I do still have moments when that accident comes back to me on the wall and I panic, but I've learned to listen to the more positive sounds in my life."

Māia says she's never been angry at what happened but; "I have been disappointed in myself for some of the attitudes that it's easy to pick up from other people and carry.

"I wonder what I could've done if I'd tried sooner, but I wasn't in that place and I don't think there's any benefit or energy to wasting emotions wishing that you had been something more sooner.

"We all have to give ourselves grace. We are who we are in each moment. I think I'm definitely a more resilient person than I would have been, you have to be."