Maija Vance has fought back from horrific injury to walk again, but that's not enough for the determined jockey, who has set herself a truly daunting challenge, as Tom Rowland and Peter Tiffany report.
Walking to the top of Mount Maunganui/Mauao will be the pinnacle of what has been a long road to recovery for Cambridge jockey Maija Vance, who was told she may never walk again after a horrific horse race accident in September 2018.
She set out to prove that hard work and determination can overcome the greatest of odds.
Next month she aims to walk independently up the Mount (Mauao) in a fundraiser to give back for all the help she has had in her battle to recover.
After her ride Zedsational failed to clear the penultimate jump in a Rotorua hurdles, Vance hit the ground head and neck first, leaving her spine to take the impact of the fall, before being crushed as the horse fell on her.
Doctors warned that walking again would be difficult and perhaps impossible.
Fortunately for Vance her spinal cord injury was incomplete, meaning that after undergoing a four-hour operation, her chances of walking again grew slightly.
Vance said the first weeks of being in hospital were torture.
"I had drains in both lungs, the nurses had to turn me every two hours and the drains would dig into my chest."
She spent three months at the Ōtara Spinal Unit in Auckland with two or three sessions a day of spinal therapy and exercise.
She had two steel rods and 14 screws in her injured spine which has left her with a scar like a zipper down her back.
Battling through the pain, Vance set her goals on being able to walk again without any support.
"My goal was to walk and the rods and screws were not designed for movement and I had them taken out."
"I started off being able to stand up if I had leg braces and someone was supporting me. I could kind of walk, getting one foot in front of the other, from then it was a matter of aiming for tiny improvements."
"For a few weeks in hospital I would lay there and try to move my toe and nothing would happen, the day my toe actually flickered when I told it to was the best day ever, but then a month later I was able to move my whole foot and that was an even better day.
"I was just incredibly happy with every improvement," Vance said.
While learning to walk again and still using a wheelchair, Vance started riding her own horse again, returning to the saddle after leaving hospital and she still aims to return to racing.
Vance's walk to the top of Mount Maunganui on March 22 is aimed at raising $5000 for The CatWalk Spinal Cord Research Trust.
"The reason I am wanting to partner with CatWalk is because I received such incredible support from so many people throughout my whole recovery and feel so amazingly lucky to have a second chance at walking.
• Horse racing: New Zealand jockey Maija Vance might not walk again after horror fall
• Racing: Christmas wish for Cambridge jockey Maija Vance
• Racing: Auckland TBA show support for Vance
• Racing: Big victory for Maija
"I feel as though I really want to give something back and raise awareness of spinal cord injuries and the amazing research that is being funded by CatWalk towards finding a cure for SCI.
"I thought that climbing a mountain would be symbolic of my journey to be able to walk again. While I'm walking independently now on flat ground, stepping up stairs is something else, and there are 576 steps to the top of Mount Maunganui.
"Some of my friends have said they will come with me — and more walkers are welcome — but I am worried about holding them up, I've told them they may need to bring camping gear in case it takes us a couple of days."
Vance says she has no doubt about making it to the top, but jokingly said if there is a helicopter available to get her down she would gladly accept.
She has been working with Hamilton neurological physiotherapist Tracey Stirling as part of her recovery, with Stirling saying that Vance's road to recovery has been nothing short of miraculous.
"I have not met someone who is as determined as Maija has been in her recovery, she has been outstanding," Stirling said.
"Usually it is me trying to push people on to do better, but with Maija I have to sometimes hold her back from doing too much too soon she is that determined."
Vance's workouts includes skipping, dance steps, jumping, and then lifting her legs over as if climbing, using a range of gym equipment including a treadmill and a walker.
"When I first started working with Maija she could not stand on her left leg for long, not quite for one second — and that's being generous.
"Now she can do it for about eight seconds and that is huge for her when she is balancing on one leg."
"She is very driven to succeed and works really hard."
Stirling said Vance is having to re-learn the art or skill of proprioception which is the ability to sense and know where your limb or joint is in space.
"It is something most of us can do without thinking, you can walk down the street while talking with friends and walk around obstacles that appear; or, you can put your hand out of sight behind your back and still know if a finger is curled in or straight."
She has no doubts Vance will reach the top of Mount Maunganui.
"We are practising a specific movement pattern and then put it back into the activity that uses it, it improves walking and will help towards the goal of walking up Mount Maunganui."
Vance has learned the pattern for running on a treadmill again, with Stirling saying learning the correct pattern starts with cognitive ability, then associative, which is partly thinking it and partially automatic. Then finally automatic.
"Maija is going to make it. She is the most determined person I have ever met."
Step up for a cure
Maija Vance's Step up for a Cure walk is taking place on March 22 at Mount Maunganui. Maija and her supporters will walk the 576 steps up the mountain with the hope of raising $5000 for the Catwalk Trust for spinal cord injury research.
Vance chose the Catwalk trust due to the support she received from them throughout her recovery and wants to give something back to them, and others, who may suffer from similar injuries.
Vance is looking for more sponsors and donations that can be made to her Everydayhero page, click here.