"It's like rock climbing. You're reaching the holds one at a time. You don't have to worry about the top, just the next hold."

I catch up with Whanganui paraclimber Rachel Māia at her home, three weeks to the day since she had a below the knee amputation of her left leg, and she's already working her way up the holds towards her goals.

Māia has had the full use of only one leg after shattering an ankle in a climbing accident as a teenager which led to degenerative and post-traumatic arthritis. After nearly two decades out of the sport, she started climbing again and finished fourth in the world in her paraclimbing division at the IFSC championships in Austria in September 2018.

That accomplishment was accompanied by a realisation that an amputation, which she had made "really dark humoured jokes about" for a couple of years, was to something she wanted to seriously consider.


"It became obvious in a bigger place that I had lost a lot of mobility. I've been very sheltered in Whanganui where I can park in a mobility park then get back in the car and go down the road to another mobility park.

"In Austria I was in a wheelchair and needed a lot of assistance. It showed how far my climbing can take me but I felt very held back. I realised how beautiful the world is and how much there is to see and how much I want to see it."

Māia had to weigh up whether she wanted to have an amputation or spend another 20 years trying to save her foot with ongoing surgery.

"It was a big decision.

"This isn't a sudden traumatic experience, it's something I've thought through and planned. I have the most beautiful adaptive family all over the world. Many of them have been through this. I got lots of information and advice from them.

"I have chosen a really positive mindset. I've dealt with severe chronic pain and still managed to create a life for myself. The coping strategies I've been using for years still apply.

"When I came back from Austria six months ago, I started putting plans in place - preparing for pain management, my community and where support is coming from."

There was a big process to go through after Māia decided she wanted the amputation.


"The low risk option was facing years of ongoing surgery, a lesser degree of daily pain, and then maybe lose it in 20 years anyway. The high risk option was to amputate and risk an ongoing phantom pain syndrome with the possibility that I may not be able to wear a prosthetic and risk never walking again.

"I had to meet with a surgical panel of 20 doctors in Wellington. It was really intimidating. I had to present why I was choosing option 2. I had to really advocate for myself why I wanted to take the high risk option.

"I'm thankful my sport probably contributed to them saying yes. I've been pushing myself physically, mentally and emotionally despite the challenges on a day-to-day level."

Rachel Māia (@rachelmaianz) on the climbing wall the night before her amputation. Photo / @thecultureofgrace
Rachel Māia (@rachelmaianz) on the climbing wall the night before her amputation. Photo / @thecultureofgrace

Māia's three children, and being able to engage more in activities with them, played a big part in her decision.

"I'm doing it for them, not just for me," she said.

"They'd come and say 'mum, can you jump on the tramp, can you go for a bike ride with me'."

A heart-wrenching moment came when one of Māia's sons asked her if she could get rid of "that leg" and get one of the legs that work "so you don't say no to me when I ask you to play".

Her 13-year-old daughter has superpowers (autism) and Māia has been preparing her for a couple of years for the possibility of an amputation. That meant her two sons were also prepared as part of that process and were excited about it.

"I have tried to be realistic about it with them.

"The day before I went to Wellington for the surgery we wrote some wishes together. They were our goals. It's not just me that has to survive it but it's all of us.

"My 11-year-old son's wish was he wants to bike the Old Coach Road with me and have mum come on his Year 8 camp and do the Tongariro Crossing.

"I encouraged him to do a smaller wish as well that we can do sooner so that we're still ticking off goals. He refined it to making cookie dough together, not bake the cookies and sit down and eat all the cookie dough.

"At the two-week [post-amputation] mark, we made a meal of burritos. We had a goal of making a meal together. Small wins will be the way our family will get through it."

A group of parents at one of the kid's schools have set up The A Team and created a Facebook group to support Māia.

"Whanganui is such a beautiful place to live. I have the most amazing people in my life.

"Asking for help is really hard. I've always struggled with that, I like my independence, but I'm surrounded by people who make it easy.

"Honest Kitchen, a little cafe in Ridgway St, blessed me with a voucher today and I just cried and cried and cried when that arrived. Because when you feel wrapped up by your community, it makes really traumatic experiences less isolating. It was a business reaching out and being supportive. I felt really blessed by that.

"Little things and little acts of kindness make this more manageable. It makes it an experience that in 20 years' time I'm going to have things I can look back and smile about. Those magical community and whanau moments."

Rachel Māia (top) in action at the 2018 IFSC world championships in Austria where she finished fourth in her division. Photo / Sytse van Slooten
Rachel Māia (top) in action at the 2018 IFSC world championships in Austria where she finished fourth in her division. Photo / Sytse van Slooten

Nineteen days post-surgery and Māia was back at the gym for the first time.

"My goal for the first session was just to show up. I set really small targets so I one hundred per cent knew I was going to achieve them.

"With health or fitness goals, or if you're a busy mum, it's easy to think 'I don't have the energy or time' so we don't try or we try and fail so we don't go back to it.

"Knowing I had such a big six months ahead of me, I knew I had to tick off my first goal and feel like a winner. I won, I did it and next time I will make my goal a little bit bigger. Little by little I will get to the world championships in five months."

Yep, you read that right. Māia has qualified for the world championships and she's going. That's after she's competed at the New Zealand national championships on May 18.

There is a world cup event in France in June before the world championships in Hachioji City, Japan, on August 10-17. France may not be achievable, based on funding, "but I haven't written them off".

"It's like rock climbing. You're reaching the holds one at a time. You don't have to worry about the top, just the next hold.

"Climbing New Zealand has been really supportive. It's one big family and they're excited about paraclimbing having the potential to bring home a medal. New Zealand has yet to have its first podium moment - for able or disabled rock climbers.

"I was the first New Zealand climber to reach a world championship finals. Full respect to the able bodied climbers - paraclimbing is completely different. But it would be really exciting to see a New Zealand medal and I would love to be the person to bring home that first one for our country."

Māia doesn't know whether she will climb with a prosthetic at the nationals but, if she does, it will be an ordinary prosthetic, not the special climbing one that is being made in Hamilton by a prosthetist with a background in sport biomechanics.

"We're both really excited about it. This is a novel prosthetic prescription and both the prosthetist and I will be learning as we go.

"My mindset needs to be a growth mindset, pushing the boundaries of what I can do. Being part of the climbing family really gives you the motivation to go all the way. Even though it's an individual sport, we're a team all the way.

"All adaptive sports are groups that help people with disabilities find themselves again. They find a place for us in a world we are struggling to connect with on a physical level. The value we get out of our craft is hard to put into words.

"Often our sport has helped us accept, love ourselves as we are. It was climbing that helped me accept myself, become me again.

"France, Japan - they are ambitious goals. The first hold I'm reaching for is to show up. If you get there, with the right mentality anything is possible."

You can follow Rachel Māia's journey on Instagram: @rachelmaianz