Many athletes know the pain of having to come back from an injury, but Rachel Māia has beaten a much bigger setback. Abby Wilson and Dewi Preece followed her remarkable journey to the Paraclimbing World Championships this month in France.
Hands dusted with chalk, Rachel Māia surveys the wall looming in front on her. Visually tracing the path, she is about to ascend, her hands motioning the course she’s about to take. Every foothold, every decision, every movement is carefully and deliberately chosen and executed.
While others around her tackle the obstacles of the wall with the odd smile, laugh, or shriek thrown in, Rachel is all business. With pure grit and determination written all over her face she climbs, falls, and climbs again. She’s an athlete thriving in her domain.
“I often go to bed and don’t sleep. I’m lying in bed mapping out climbs or focusing on a move that I know is hard and just doing it over and over in my head.”
Re-learning to climb has been a part of the 36-year-old from Whanganui’s preparation for the Paraclimbing World Championships in France. Learning how to navigate the wall’s hand and foot holds with only one leg for balance. Learning how to climb again with two legs after being fitted with a prosthesis.
Watching Rachel scale the wall in front of her with determination and strength, it's hard to believe it’s been just five months since she underwent major surgery which removed her lower left leg.
“The hope is that I’ll be pain free and a lot more mobile,” she says.
It was after coming fourth at the Paraclimbing World Championships in 2018 that Rachel made the life-changing decision to have a below-knee amputation.
It was a decision she’d considered before, but it was only after getting back onto the climbing wall she convinced herself to go through with it.
“Climbing gave me the opportunity to respect who I am, and love who I am, with a disability. So that moving forward I could respect who I am, and love whatever I get out of this, whatever outcome I end up with. I need to be able to be happy with that because you can’t undo it.
“It’s not like a haircut where you wake up and say, ‘Crap that’s a bit short - oh well, it’ll grow back’.”
As a teenager, Rachel fell while rock climbing, shattering an ankle while breaking the other leaving her with limited mobility in her left leg.
“You can’t at 16 grasp what being on crutches, or being in a wheelchair, or not being able to walk, or how that affects raising children and being a mum and trying to have a life.”
With a damaged ankle and degenerative damage in the bone, for the next two decades Rachel would suffer with chronic pain and often needed crutches to walk.
“The original fall left me in a wheelchair and then for about the first 15 years mobility came and went.
“I had surgeries to fix it when it went, but I did have long stints where I could walk unaided.
“It did eventually leave me unable to walk unaided for the last five years.”
The fall took Rachel away from climbing for 18 years. But she made a triumphant return in 2018, going from rookie to New Zealand representative in less than a year, becoming the first Kiwi to compete at the Paraclimbing World Championships in Austria. Her rise up the ranks after such a long absence from the sport was nothing sort of incredible.
“I didn’t think I’d be that good at it. I did it for me and not anybody else. It was my way of trying to re-engage with something that I loved.”
Following the World Championships last year she underwent the surgery which promised to end decades of debilitating pain and give her back her life.
Climbing is a big part of Rachel’s life, but wasn’t the most important reason to undergo the surgery. As a mother of three, she says her children always come first.
Waves lap over two feet on a beach. The feet of Rachel on her last trip to the beach before her operation.
It's early 2019 and she lies on a hospital bed with her left leg wrapped in a white bandage playing a video of her feet soaking in the sea.
“When I’m feeling pain in a foot that’s not actually there, I’ve processed that by zoning into this little video of my feet in the ocean and then closing my eyes and listening to the sound and imagining the tactile experience,” she explains.
It’s been an emotional and difficult journey to this point for Rachel from competing against the world’s best para-climbers the year before to a hospital bed in Wellington.
Despite the pain, just three days after surgery she remarkably had competition on her mind.
“I’m not crazy I’m just ambitious.
“My balance is going to be off, my strength is going to be down, but my head is going to be in the right place. One hundred per cent intend to get to the New Zealand Nationals.”
Twelve weeks post-surgery, Rachel has chalked up and is once again surveying the wall she’s about to mount.
“It’s been tough out there, my body is definitely struggling and I’m well aware of lots of areas to work out, but it’s kind of amped me up.”
She wasn’t sure she’d make this year’s climbing nationals in May, but she’s glad to be harnessed back up.
“I think it’s such a positive thing to be back around the climbing family. When I think about why I climb it’s always the people.”
Rachel was unable to climb much in the build up to the national championships having been out of hospital for only three months.
As if she didn’t have enough challenges to overcome, she ripped the nail off her only big toe just minutes before her qualifying climb.
“I said to somebody, please could you go and find my coach, I might need some tape.”
The final didn’t go as well as she would have liked but this event was just the first step on her way to the World Championships in France.
“Definitely my performance was not where I want it to be and I’m a lot harder on myself than I need to be, so I’ve got to keep my head in a really positive mindset and focus on all the things that I got out of this, building towards the competition in France.”
Rachel clings to the wall and begins to scale it once again.
As she comes off it for a break and takes off her prosthetic leg, she’s reminded that the 12 months between the two competitions have been life changing. Rachel hasn’t lost her love for competitive rock climbing.
“Anybody can win this. Whether you use a leg, whether you don’t use a leg – the game is how you adjust to your disability.
“That’s where your head has to be at.”
And with that, the para-climber is back up with a fresh dusting on her hands and another steely look over the wall ahead of her.
With her new prosthesis, Rachel has found a new freedom.
“Even little things like: I did the dishes and it was just so easy and I was so excited strutting around my kitchen going, ‘you guys don’t know how bad ass I am right now. I just did my dishes all by myself’.”
After spending a year climbing with one leg, she’s now relearning to do it with two.
“When I put the prosthesis on I really have to look at where I’m placing that foot and there’s a super try-hard face going on.”
Rewiring her brain takes time and it quickly became obvious there wasn’t enough time to get up to speed on two legs for this year’s World Championships but working to get there was an important part of her journey.
“From a sport’s psychology perspective, it was so valuable to have it and to have put it on and to have realised climbing with two legs is really difficult and I climb better with one.”
This year Rachel competed in the amputee category against some climbers who are using a prosthesis. She finished in fourth place, matching her 2018 result.
It’s only motivated her to keep pushing.
“I am coming away with some big goals and things to work on before my next international competition. That podium is coming.”
From injury to surgery, Rachel hasn’t let anything deter her focus from achieving her goal to be the best in her sport.
“The world will give you negativity, they will say negative things, but you get to choose who you are.
"That can be ‘empowered’ and ‘capable’ and ‘willing to give it a try’. It doesn’t have to be labels like ‘you can’t’ or ‘crippled’ or ‘invalid’ or ‘this isn’t possible’.
"Anything’s possible. Adapt, defy, learn by failing, learn by trying.”