Putting Her Best Foot Forward

Words: Connor Benfield | Summer Journal 2019

When I first spoke with Rachel Māia, I’d just finished watching a documentary that captured the hours leading up to, and immediately following a voluntary below the knee amputation on her left leg. I was blown away that she had shared such an intense experience with the public, but what I discovered within the first few minutes of our phone call was that Rachel is a woman who is on a mission to use her story to remind us that we all have unlimited potential.

Rachel is a mum to three amazing kids; a passionate advocate for the mental well-being of young Kiwis; and the 4th ranked lower limb amputee paraclimber in the world. When she was 16, Rachel had a seemingly innocuous, controlled fall while she was indoor bouldering at a high school competition in Christchurch. Her team had nailed the qualifying rounds that day, and were favourites to win the competition. During a cool-down climb, Rachel reached a problem she couldn’t crack, so she told her spotter that she was going to let go – a common scenario in bouldering. She dropped, her spotter supported her fall, but she landed awkwardly. One ankle shattered and dislocated, the other broke.

Rachel spent two weeks in hospital in Christchurch, then months in casts and wheelchairs, on crutches and hobbling – still confident that she’d recover and be back to climbing and living a typical, 16 year old Kiwi girl’s life.

“I remember my first day back at school after the accident. I was mostly in a wheelchair up until that point, but I didn’t want to be the kid at school in a chair so I decided I’d crutch my way around with both feet in casts. Mum wanted to drop me off at school, but I wasn’t having that. I crutched 6 blocks to the bus stop. When the bus pulled up, I let the throng of schoolkids board ahead of me, and then crutched my way up the stairs to discover there were no seats left. I stood on two busted ankles for the whole trip – determined to get to school, and get back into my normal life.”

Throughout the year that followed, Rachel felt on the outer. The simplest things became hard work as a result of her limited mobility.

“People like to put labels on things. That was definitely a period of my life where I believed the labels – cripple, invalid. Mates would ask me to come to the beach or to go on a hike and I’d always respond with, ‘I can’t’. When you’re always telling people you can’t do something, eventually you really start to believe it.”

Rachel spent the next decade dealing with chronic pain. A few experimental surgeries failed, and her self-belief deteriorated.

“I was in constant pain, so I hardly slept. I was exhausted all the time. It was about 6 years ago when my youngest son, who would’ve been four or five at the time said to me, ‘mum, you don’t really like food, do you? You just drink coffee and eat pills.’ That shook me. I saw myself through my children’s eyes for the first time. I wanted them to think of their mum as the fighter she was at 16, but instead they saw me cutting myself off from new experiences, making our world smaller and smaller.”

It was that hard truth that motivated Rachel to get back to climbing. Rather than wait for the pain to ease, it was time to rebuild the life that she wanted for her and her kids.

“Climbing is the best pain relief I’ve ever had. The adrenaline eases the physical pain for an hour or two after climbing, which is great. But on those days when I’m not climbing, just the thought that I can do it – that I am capable – gives me so much happiness. My mind is stronger, so any physical pain I face is much easier to deal with.”

In 2018, Rachel travelled to Austria to compete in the World Para Climbing Championships. She took a gondola up a mountain with some other athletes not far from the competition site, and then walked for about 15 minutes to get above the treeline. Rachel struggled up the short track, holding onto an amputee climber for support. The irony was not lost on her.

“The decision to amputate was gradual. I used to make really dark jokes to my friends about chopping my leg off, and I think in a way I was priming myself for that reality. It was my ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ youngest who delivered another hard hitting, life altering question – after Austria, I told my kids about this person with a prosthetic leg who had helped me up the hill, and my youngest turned to me – ‘why don’t you just take that leg off and get one that actually works? Then you can stop saying no when we ask you to play’. I made an appointment to see a surgeon within months.”

“I’m really happy that I made the decision to amputate my leg. I still have brutal days where things get dark, but I’m learning what works for me and how to ride that out. I have good people in my life that remind me it’s OK not to be OK for a little while. And each time, I get more confident in knowing that I’m able to pull myself up.”

“I really recognize 16 year old Rachel within myself these days. It’s so nice to see that little fireball who wants to try everything return. I don’t care if I fail. I’m not only about success or big wins in the traditional sense. It’s all about showing up for myself and putting my best foot forward…” 

Follow Rachel’s journey on Instagram @rachelmaianz