At 16 years old and as a self-professed “high school awkward,” Rachel fell in love with the freedom climbing afforded. In 2000, less than a year after she took up the sport, she attended her first competition with her high-school team.
After a day of competing, and for that matter winning, Rachel cooled down on a few easier problems. On her last boulder of the day, she paused mid-climb. The irony was that she chose to let go. She thought, If I climb higher, I will fall because I’m tired, so I better let go now before I get too high.
“Are you ready?” she called down to her spotter.
“Yes, I’m ready,” he said.
And then she let go. Although the gym was wall-to-wall padded, her ankles found the one weak spot, patched with duct tape. Her spotter took some of the weight of her fall, but one ankle was broken and the other shattered.
Twenty-one years later, Rachel Māia is the mother of three, has undergone 10 ankle surgeries, the most recent an amputation, and is stronger than ever.
What was it like after the accident?
I was in and out of surgeries. An adult told me when I was 16 years old, “If you were a horse I’d shoot you myself.” I was at such a vulnerable age. Stuff like that is why I didn’t climb after my accident for 18 years. I just gave up. I’m not a big inspirational story where I dug my toes in and fought back. I conceded really quickly.
Did you have an outlet after the accident?
Not really. I was in a negative space and didn’t have the courage to walk away from it. Fourteen years later, I underwent an experimental surgery that involved 12 rods through the leg, and me having to slowly stretch my ankle apart. Meanwhile, I was managing my three kids and trying to do everything on crutches with all this metal hanging out of my leg. My youngest was still in preschool, and so I’d take him in, and all his friends would be talking to their mums and saying “Look, look, that lady’s a transformer!” And I’d be like “Hell yes I am.”
But I was still in that really negative space, and I just ended up with a really “I can’t” attitude, which I really sank into. I think you start wearing what other people have said about you, like your favorite outfit, without really thinking about it. You just get up in the morning and put that label on and go about your day feeling like you can’t. And it is very subconscious. I don’t think I was aware that I was doing that.
After the accident, it took you 18 years to return to climbing. What made you decide to go back?
After the experimental surgery in late 2013, I spent nearly two years fighting through recovery and learning to walk short distances. My progress was almost immediately lost due to the deteriorating joint. Three years on from the failed surgery, I was still in a significant amount of pain, and my son made a comment. He said, “Mum, you don’t really like food, do you? You just eat pills and drink coffee.”
And it was such a punch to the stomach because I could see what my kids saw. And for me, that was the turning point where I sort of looked in the mirror and thought, Ughh, I’ve got such a shit attitude.
So by 2017, I had given up on waiting for the joint to improve. I wanted to do more, so I went back to climbing in an attempt to claim some life back. I didn’t know if I could do it. There weren’t any adaptive climbers around me—I had never met an adaptive climber in my life—and I didn’t have any climbing partners. I didn’t even have a climbing wall in my city. I had to drive two hours to find a wall. So I just turned up to the wall popping along with my crutches, and I came up to these people and asked, “Will you belay me?” They looked me up and down and said, “Yep.” They didn’t bat an eye. So they kind of became my climbing whānau, which is family.
There wasn’t an instance of, Yeah, I’ve got this. It was just a slow sheddin of an old attitude, and every day trying to pick up a new attitude of, Well, whether I can or can’t, I’m more scared of not trying than I am of failing, so let’s just see how far I can take it.
Do you have a significant other to help with the kids?
I’m a single mum. I would rather be a single mum than teach my kids that love is something it’s not. So we are a close wee team of four. My boys [Quillan, 10, and Max, 13], help out with their sister with a maturity beyond their age. Charlotte  is our magical one. Doctors call her “autistic,” but we see her through her super powers and uniqueness, and she teaches us to see the world through different colors. Our family chooses our own labels, and the word ‘disability’ isn’t really one that we use.
What made you decide to amputate?
I dealt with the possibility with really dark humor for a while. I would make heaps of really bad in-your-face, “I’m going to hack my leg off” jokes. Which were always really confrontational for other people, but it was my way of desensitizing to the idea.
There were two turning points for me. One was [one year later] after competing [as an adaptive athlete but not an amputee] in the 2018 Paraclimbing World Championships. I was with a group of U.S. adaptive athletes, and we had gone up a gondola. It was supposed to be a short walk to the top of the mountain, but I couldn’t do it. I was wearing an iWalk for support but it wasn’t enough. There was just this moment when Colin Torpey, who’s a lower-leg amputee, was helping me up and I was leaning very heavily on him. It struck me that I had two legs and I was leaning on someone that had one. It just seemed ridiculous, to be honest. I was so much less afraid of amputation once I could see how much other people were doing on their prosthetics and once I was around that community a little more.
The second turning point was when Quillan, my logical little boy, said, “Mum, why can’t you take that leg off and get one of those real ones that actually work?” Then he added, “And then you could stop saying no to me when I ask you to play.” My heart just broke, it was a punch to the stomach, and I sat there feeling winded. I thought about how much my disability was affecting my kids. They were begging for these activities and these memories together … but we just didn’t stand a chance. We didn’t have any hope that that would happen or that we could even work towards it.
With an amputation there were risks. Worst-case scenario was I’d never get up on a prosthetic or I’d have horrible phantom pain for the rest of my life. But there was hope that I would be more active and that I could have goals with my kids. I just got to the point where I couldn’t live with myself without trying.
And also I was calculating in my head the World Championships and how often they came, and I thought, well, I’d better do it soon so I have time to train [laughing].
How did you feel when the nurse told you you didn’t have a foot anymore?
Well … off my face on drugs. I woke up and had this really irritating feeling of my jandal (flip-flop) still being on my foot. So I was yelling out, quite obnoxiously, “Excuse me, can somebody please take the jandal off my foot, it’s really annoying.” And the nurse came over and she was like, “Honey, you don’t have a jandal, and you also don’t have a foot anymore.”
I was just psyched. I was so excited. All the way back to the ward I was yelling out to random strangers in the hallway, “Look! They’ve cut my leg off! It’s gone! I’ve done it! They’ve cut it!” And I was just so excited and proud of myself that I’d gone through with it. I just felt like I was on the edge of this whole new adventure with so many new possibilities that hadn’t even been on my radar a year ago. I had my little grip-strengthening devices with me in the hospital because I had New Zealand Nationals 11 and a half weeks after the amputation, and the Briançon World Championships were five months away. So I was training in the hospital and trying to plan what would come next.
What goals did you and your kids set post-amputation?
We had this jar, and we put all these wishes and goals in it the day before surgery. Some of them were a bit extraordinary. Max, my 12-year-old, was like, “We’re going to do a triathlon together, and we’re going to hike the Tongariro Crossing,” which is a not completely dead volcano in the middle of New Zealand. But then there were these really fun little goals as well. I was very clear with them, telling them, “You guys need to pick some small goals so that we can feel like we’re ticking things off soon. We need to be able to tick things off quickly so that we can see we’re moving, because this is going to be tough, and it’s going to be brutal, and we’re all going to cry, and we’re probably going to yell at each other. We need to have a win early on.” So we had these little goals.
One of them my son Quillan had written down. He wanted to hold my hand and walk on the beach. He didn’t have any memories of us doing that because I had always had crutches. So five and a half months after my surgery it was his birthday and he said to me, “Mum, when I go to Dad’s house, he will get me toys for my birthday. I don’t want you to buy me toys. All I want from you for my birthday is to walk on the beach and hold your hand.”
And so we drove up to a beach, and there was this massive thunderstorm. The whole car was rocking back and forth, and outside it was pouring. We were sitting in the car and going, “Should we just do it anyway, should we do it?” And then Quillan was like, “Yeah, we should do it.” So we waited for this tiny break in the weather, and we jumped out and the wind was literally knocking me over. He was holding my hand, and he said, “Come on, Mum! You can do it, you can do it!” We walked 100 meters up the beach, my face wet with rain and tears.
We finished every single day by asking each other what our favorite part of the day was. And at the end of that day Quillan just looked at me and said, “You know what my favorite part of the day was, Mum, that was the best birthday ever!” It was a little win, just 100 meters on the beach, but it meant so much to both of us.
Following your 18-year hiatus, how important was climbing in your recovery?
Climbing became such a positive sound in my life. When you’re climbing, everybody is at the bottom saying, “You’ve got this, you can do this.” I’ve never really had that so loudly before, and it’s just such an obvious positive sound. And so I just kept running back to it and running back to it. I came off all my pain medication, which for the record I wouldn’t recommend you do overnight, because I went into withdrawal. I came off my pain relief and my world started getting bigger again instead of smaller, and I started being less afraid of connecting with people.
So, for me, that’s why climbing has always been about the people. Because when there’s a positive sound in your life from the people that you’re choosing to put yourself around, it gives you something to step into so that you can step out of the negativity. I do think that you need something to run to rather than just walking away from shit.
How often were you climbing When you initially returned to the sport?
Once a week. Then, in August 2017, New Zealand announced that they were having their first adaptive competition, so I thought maybe I could work towards it. I started making the two-hour drive to find a wall three times a week while the kids were at school. As with any competition I did afterwards, I wrote words on my mirror—“I can go to Nationals.” I was never sure if I would make it, it was always just me doing the next thing that was right for each moment and that worked towards that goal. It didn’t matter whether I did or didn’t get there, I was just going to keep stepping towards the goal.
But I was terrified of New Zealand Nationals. I was so worried I would come in last. Then the day came and it just happened. And I came in third, which was also last. I like to joke about that, like you know it doesn’t really matter, I freaking showed up. That was the first comp I did as an individual, because in high school we were judged as a team. I just got this buzz from competing and from being around the hype and the people.What did you do after New Zealand Nationals?
A week later I thought, “O.K., there’s got to be a World Championships for this, how do I get in?” As a new parasport for New Zealand, there wasn’t a lot of information. I talked online with a few people. Maureen Beck was fantastic. She’s sort of a comp mum for new adaptive climbers. We talked about USA Nationals and I worked out that you could go to USA Nationals as a tourist on holiday. You don’t need a selection from your federation to go. Nevertheless, I went back to Climbing New Zealand and asked, “Well, I can go, with or without your endorsement, but I would really like to wear the uniform and climb for New Zealand.” They were like sure, you can have the singlet, and that’ll be 80 bucks. That was the best 80 bucks I ever spent. My coach then said, “Now you have to work harder for the rest of the uniform because you’ll need to qualify for Worlds for that.” So then I went home and wrote on the mirror, “I can go to Worlds.”
Since amputation, You’ve competed without a prosthetic. Why?
I was barely walking in Briançon [2019 Worlds]. It was so soon after cutting the leg off, and I was still desensitizing my residual limb.
I’m continuing to develop my climbing prosthetic, a year on, with my prosthetist in New Zealand. I have just now received my first carbon-fiber climbing limb with the Evolv adaptive foot. It’s now a slow process of desensitization for the stump, and even more difficult … rewiring my brain to accept that I can use the left foot. It’s awkward. It’s frustrating. I still climb better with one leg than two. But there’s a whole world of climbing waiting to open up for me if I can get this limb to feel like a part of my body.
What emotions were you feeling prior to going to the 2019 World Championships in Briançon?
Briançon was a bit bittersweet. I’m so proud that I showed up and that I was able to get there. I fought so hard for that—I was back in the gym training from a wheelchair two weeks after my amputation. There was never a doubt in my mind that I was going to fight for the opportunity of Worlds. I ended up placing fourth, which I was really proud of. But our category wasn’t given a finals climb, despite having the correct number of athletes. I never got to contend in a finals for a medal. It stung to have fought so hard and then to have qualified in the top four, but then not to have had that extra climb live streamed and an opportunity to fight for the podium. But at the end of the day, we climb what’s in front of us and we make that moment count. It’s between us and the wall and how we overcome our own adaptive challenges to put our best out there.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
I’m most proud of the fact that I was able to ask for help. And to put people around me that support me to become more of myself. That’s not an easy thing to do. I’m proud that when I look in the mirror now, I see someone completely different. And I love that I get to see my kids modeling all that as well.
Feature image by Erana Pound