May 18, 2022 6 min read

Meet Rachel Maia

Kia ora,

My name is Rachel Māia and I am a New Zealand Para climber. I am also a single Mum of three. My eldest is high needs and is one of 30 in the world with a rare chromosome special edition (we say super powered!). She brings some magical colours to my world and also some extreme challenges, but she is my biggest supporter, often waking us all in the morning with the national anthem blasting and waving a New Zealand flag.

On May 18th 2022, I’ll be flying out of Auckland, leaving my children, to compete in three Para climbing World Cups, in the USA, Austria and Switzerland. It’s been quite a wild ride to get this far!  I feel hugely privileged to represent my county on the world stage. But climbing to me is so much more than a sport.

I don’t climb purely because I want to win. My love for climbing is grounded in the people I meet and in the belonging it gives me. Climbing is a place where I feel completely free to be myself. It’s a space where label’s like ‘disability’ fall away, and self-belief grows. 

I climbed for a year at the age of 16, before having an accident at my first competitive event that led to over 2 decades of chronic pain and limited mobility, and eventually an elective below the knee amputation. I would say I definitely ‘gave up’ on climbing during that time, but for so many reasons. I think in particular as wahine, we easily give up on our identity and passions outside of the roles of mother or partner. Not consciously. But we don’t fight to make time for the things that make us feel alive. Somewhere between washing nappies, sleepless nights and making bread we forget that we were a person for ourselves before we were a mother to children or someone’s ‘good wife’. This doesn’t negate the fact that motherhood still has a huge sense of purpose and joy. But we sometimes forget that the other parts of our personality that excite us, that make us feel so deeply alive, are also connected to our purpose and are needed to make us a healthy, whole person. 

Finding my way back to climbing was not a sudden switch that flicked with renewed confidence, and I didn’t instantly just decide that I had the capacity to make time for myself. I had a supportive community of friends around me who had helped me create a healthy home life for my children but we were still finding our feet and our rhythm when I went back to climbing, 18 years after my accident. When people talk about domestic violence, they often use the term ‘survivor’. I’m not sure that word is a great fit, because in a way we are always, even when abuse is past tense, still surviving. The effects linger. This was the space I was in when I went back to climbing, now as a single mother. Just, surviving still.  Finding my way. Looking for the things that made me feel like me. Trying to shake low self-worth and carve out a new beginning.

At the time I also had a difficult relationship with pain management. The chronic pain I lived in was making my world smaller and smaller. Until one day my then 5 year old son said to me “Mum you don’t like food do you, you just drink coffee and eat pills”. It was such a reality check to hear that what I was modelling to my children was not thriving or striving or creating sunshine in the storms, but merely treading water. I didn’t want that to be the example I gave them. And I didn’t want them to see that this was normal in our relationships with food.

So one day I just showed up. I drove two hours to find a climbing wall, there wasn’t one in Whanganui, and I just showed up. I hopped in on my crutches and asked the manager at the wall, “Can you point me in the direction of wāhine who would be super safe to climb with? I’m scared of heights and it’s been a while.’ He introduced me to Claire and Bronwen, both Taranaki mums. I asked them “I haven't climbed in years, could I join your group and have a go?’ They didn’t bat an eyelid at the crutches and took me in just like that. And instantly I felt like I was climbing whānau. It became such a positive sound in my life, so much so that I kept running back to it every chance I got. It was these beautiful souls that encouraged me to compete in New Zealand’s first Para Nationals in 2017. Looking back I can see my confidence in myself was still low, but they both believed in me unwaveringly. And gave me the encouragement I needed to sign up.

From there I just kept showing up for myself and for my children. Over and over again. I began to have people in my life who told me ‘you could go all the way’. And I would challenge them and say “but the odds are against me’.   

No climbing wall, no money, no time, no clear pathway to a World Championship because it had never been done by a New Zealand Athlete before. But the more others believed in me, the more I began to believe in myself. I wrote on my mirror one morning, “I can go to World’s”. And then I just started stepping towards it. I would drop my 3 children to school, drive 90 minutes to a climbing wall, train, eat a protein bar in the car on the way home, and then pick them all up and get on with after school activities. 

Fast forward past two World Championships where I placed 4th at both, a long 3 year Covid time warp, and I’m standing here on the edge of a 3 x World Cup tour across three countries pinching myself that I have made it this far. And beyond excited to see what I can do. New Zealand has never had a medal in sport climbing, able or disabled, and I want to bring that home. For myself, for my children, for my coaches and my climbing family, for the 16 year old me that sometimes didn’t think she’d make it, and for every wahine that has doubted their self-worth or their capacity to shine. It’s not just about a medal, it never has been. I do want to be the best in the world, I do want to be a history maker, but I hope that it’s so much more than that. I am here in this place because people went ahead of me in the world of adaptive sports and I have been able to see by their example that we can go so much further than our own expectations of ourselves. That there are far less limits than we think.   Heading toward these world cups and chasing down that elusive podium, I hope it becomes an opportunity  to do the same for others, especially my tamariki. I want them to know that, with the right community, you can go beyond what you can see. That no matter who you are, if you surround yourself with positive energy and people that encourage you to be yourself, anything is possible.

I am very excited to be working with Muscle Fuel as an ambassador. My now 11 year old son who once commented on how I didn’t like food, just pills and coffee, gets to see a mother these days who will look after herself. Who will rest and recover when needed. Who will respect the mahi that her body does enough to fuel up properly and give herself the right nutrition to be the best self that she can be.  

The imposter syndrome is high some days. I don’t feel like an elite athlete, I feel like a mother who loves to climb. But learning to take my nutrition seriously and love and energise my body with good kai and regular protein is helping me to see myself on that podium. It’s within reach. I’ve put it in my sights. And I’m not going to give up until I bring it home.

You can follow my journey on Instagram here: @rachelmaianz


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