For Maia Marshall-Amai, the brutality of wheelchair rugby is not a deterrent, but a motivator.
The only woman in the Wheel Blacks national team, the 31-year-old loves the physical side of the game. She’s not scared to get knocked around on the court, and she’s not afraid to knock anyone around who gets in the way of her scoring a point for her team.
“The boys don’t take it easy on me, and I don’t take it easy on them,” Marshall-Amai says. “They are a good bunch of clowns who all have my back, but they’ve never treated me differently or gone easy on me just because I’m a girl.”
After six years representing her country, she has her sights set on a new goal – to play at the Paralympic Games next year.
And the qualifying journey to get to Tokyo 2020 begins this week, against the world No.1 ranked side, the Australian Steelers.
Marshall-Amai was only 18 months old when she received severe burns across most of her body in a car fire. The severity of her injuries caused numerous complications for her later in life, including having one of her legs amputated, and developing a spinal infection which left her paralysed.
The scars from her trauma make it hard for her to feel comfortable around other people; she doesn’t like to draw attention to herself and describes herself as a “very shy person”.
She turned to sport as a way to try and grow her confidence.
Before finding wheelchair rugby, she was a member of the national wheelchair basketball team. It was during a wheelchair basketball exhibition game that she was first spotted by members of the New Zealand Wheel Blacks and invited along to try the sport.
At first, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go along, and it was her caregiver Letitia Butler – “who’s now my best friend and like a sister” – who pushed her to attend her first training session.
“If it weren’t for her pushing me to go and taking me to my first wheelchair rugby training, camp and tournaments, I wouldn’t have gone. And I would have missed out on finding my passion for the sport,” Marshall-Amai says.
After her first training, Marshall-Amai was instantly hooked. She started training five to seven times a week, doing a combination of team rugby training, CrossFit and 10km pushes in her wheelchair to keep fit and hold her own in a team full of men.
When asked if it’s ever been hard being the only female on the team, Marshall-Amai replies that she’s always been a tomboy: “I’ve always been just one of the boys”.
She thinks it would be great, though, to see “a few more girls” getting into her sport. She says there are maybe four other women that compete at a regional level, but she is still the only female on the national team.
Playing wheelchair rugby doesn’t come cheap. Her rugby chair alone is worth about $13,000. And she has gone through two rugby chairs since she started playing. Money for her wheelchairs was raised through online fundraising pages and with the help of generous businesses, family and friends.
She first made the Wheel Blacks team in November 2013, selected to compete at the Asia-Oceania championship in South Africa, where the Wheel Blacks finished third.
Since her debut, Marshall-Amai has been a regular on the Wheel Blacks roster. In 2016, the team narrowly missed out on selection to compete at the Paralympic Games in Rio. So this time she’s determined to make sure the Wheel Blacks get their chance to compete in Tokyo.
In 2017, Marshall-Amai was invited to a conference in Paris exclusively for female wheelchair rugby players. Called the Women’s Cup, it was a unique opportunity for her to meet, train with and compete alongside other female players from around the world.
“It was a big confidence boost for me; I enjoyed meeting the other girls, sharing our experiences and getting to play with them,” she says. “Sometimes it was hard dealing with language barriers, but it forced me to work on my communication.”
Marshall-Amai would love to see women’s wheelchair rugby teams competing at the Paralympics one day but, for now, she’s happy keeping her male teammates in check while they prepare for a big year.
The Wheel Blacks have three main tournaments this year that could help them qualify for the Tokyo Paralympics if they perform well. The first is the Ken Sowden Cup – contested by New Zealand and Australia – in Melbourne this week.
Then there’s the Asia-Oceania zone tournament in Korea in September, and the World Wheelchair Rugby Challenge, which takes place in the Paralympics host city the following month.
Marshall-Amai is confident the Wheel Blacks can qualify.
“Going to a Paralympic Games has always been a goal of mine since I started playing rugby,” she says. “I’ve heard all about it from athletes that have been before, and it sounds amazing. I want to make sure I get the opportunity to experience it for myself – even if it’s just one time.”