As New Zealand’s top artistic gymnast, Maia Fishwick, heads back to the US to join her college team, the Aggies, she tells Suzanne McFadden her rise has been an against-the-odds story.

Maia Fishwick was told she was too old to be a good gymnast. She was seven.

This was a kid who obviously had a natural talent for acrobatics. A kid who cartwheeled across the netball court and did aquatic backflips during swimming lessons. “I was always being told off, and had to sit out of the pool,” she remembers.

But like so many Kiwi kids, Fishwick was happiest trying her hand at a lot of sports. So when, at the encouragement of an aunt, she gave the fun YMCA gymnastics a go at six, then tried to move into the competitive side of the sport, she was considered a late starter. 

“I was told I was too old, because I didn’t start when I was two. I wasn’t as strong or flexible as some of the other kids,” she says. 

But other coaches saw her ability and urged her to carry on. Still, she found it difficult. She cried when she tried to do the splits, and she was left out of the “good people group”.

There were times when she hated it: “I just wanted to quit. But my mum convinced to me to keep going.”

Sage advice. At 18, Fishwick is New Zealand’s No.1 artistic gymnast, about to return to the United States for her sophomore year at Utah State University, competing for their highly regarded gymnastics team, the Aggies.

She’s also making a bid to compete in a black leotard at next year’s delayed Tokyo Olympics.

“Now I love it,” says Fishwick, who can’t imagine doing anything but gymnastics. “Those four weeks doing nothing in lockdown was the worst time of my life.”

Maia Fishwick competing on bars in her freshman year for the Utah State Aggies. Photo: supplied

Fishwick left Logan, Utah, back in March, as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold in the US. Arriving back in Auckland at 6am on the first day of Level 4 lockdown, she drove herself home from the airport, and spent the next two weeks holed up in her bedroom, with her parents keeping her fed and watered.

They made her a gym downstairs, with a bar and weights; she ran around the neighbouring Ellerslie Racecourse every day with her dog. “And I had a trampoline, to try to keep my air awareness,” she says. “It was really hard though.”

When gymnasiums opened again, Fishwick went back to her old club, Tri Star, and trained with new purpose.

“I had never had that long off gym in my life – three months,” she says. “If you take one week off, it takes double the amount of time to get back to where you were. And there was no way I was going to be doing that for six months.

“So I decided I was going to work so hard to be back to exactly where I was in two months. In my head I knew I could do the skills but my body wasn’t ready. I had to get used to standing on the beam and being on the bars again. My skills are really nice now.”

Fishwick is itching to get on a plane in a fortnight and return to her new gym family at Utah State. She will be tested for Covid-19 when she arrives back on campus. The semester begins in August, but her gymnastic squad are now heading back into training.

She’s surprised how much she’s missed the college environment, after initially being unsure she wanted to go.

A couple of years ago her coach at Tri Star, Jacey Humpherys, asked if she wanted to chase a college scholarship. Fishwick, who graduated from St Cuthbert’s College in 2018, wasn’t keen.

“I was lost in school. And I didn’t want to go to university,” she admits.  

Then she talked it over with Courtney McGregor, New Zealand’s female gymnast at the 2016 Olympics who was in her fourth year at college in Idaho with the Boise State Broncos.

“I asked her ‘Do you think it’s worth it?’ And she was like: ‘Yes. Go. It’s amazing, you’ll never regret it’. It was a free education, an opportunity of a lifetime,” Fishwick says. “But she also warned me that college life isn’t for everyone.”

Courtney McGregor and Maia Fishwick at last year’s world artistic championships in Germany. Photo: Gymnastics NZ.

Fishwick almost dismissed the idea after a false start – getting nowhere through a company that connects Kiwi students with US colleges. She decided to take a gap year and focus on training towards the 2020 Olympics instead.

“Then [last October] I got a message out of nowhere saying: ‘Hi, I’m Amy Smith, the coach of Utah State. Are you interested in collegiate gymnastics? We really want to get you over here’,” Fishwick recalls. “They offered to fly me over the next week, but I was going to the world championships in Stuttgart that same week.”

So Fishwick and her mum, Ngaire, stopped off in the US on their way back from Germany.

“First, we looked at a college in New York that was also offering me a full scholarship, but I didn’t like it. I thought if the other one was going to be like this, then I don’t think I want to do it,” Fishwick says.

“So I was open-minded when I went to Utah. They gave me a tour around the campus – and it was so beautiful. There’s a back-drop of mountains, it’s so pretty. The gym was great, all the girls were so friendly. And I pretty much fell in love with it there and then.” 

She started in December last year and continued to love college life, even though it was markedly different from the life she knew.

“It’s crazy how different it was. My first day we had to train, then do weights – it was six hours of training in one day. So full-on,” she says.

“I was in pain a lot of the time. It was snowing and negative 10 degrees every single day. But all the girls were really encouraging, and the coaches offered to build me up to it.

“You say ‘My body is aching’, and they have people who pretty much fix it . I’d cut my leg quite badly when I fell in a hole back in New Zealand – it should have had stitches, and it got very infected – but they did everything to fix it in two weeks.”

Fishwick thrived in a record-breaking season for the Aggies. In her first competition in the Mountain Rim Gymnastics Conference, she scored 9.875 on bars – her favourite apparatus. “After that, I kind of freaked out a little bit,” she laughs.

“But we broke quite a few school records. We had two more competitions to go, and we would have made it into the top 20 colleges, if it wasn’t for Covid.

“Next year is going to be our year.”

She would have been competing against McGregor, but the Boise team captain suffered a season-ending Achilles rupture on the opening weekend. Although she was offered a redshirt season (an extra year at college after missing a competitive season), McGregor decided to retire from gymnastics and return home to Christchurch to study medicine next year.

McGregor has always provided both an inspiration and a yardstick for Fishwick. Maia remembers as a 12-year-old sitting upstairs in the Counties Manukau Gym club watching McGregor and other top New Zealand gymnasts trialing for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

“I was like ‘Wow, she just did a double back flip. What the heck? I want to do one of those’,” Fishwick says.

“And now I’m at her level. When I got a higher score than her at last year’s world champs, I thought it was crazy.”

Fishwick finished the individual all-round competition in 100th place on 47.865 points; McGregor was 102nd with 47.799. American superstar Simone Biles won her fifth world title with 58.999.

But Fishwick made online headlines with her floor routine, set to American teenager Billie Eilish’s song ‘Bury a Friend’. “It’s not every day that you come across a routine from an elite gymnast featuring music you’ve sung in the shower,” global women’s media website Popsugar wrote.  (Watch her routine below).

“Oh yeah, I love Billie Eilish,” Fishwick says. “I remember listening to the music and thinking it had such a cool beat.”

Amanda Johanson, a former US World Cup ski jumper and gymnastics coach and now based in Christchurch, choreographed the attention-grabbing routine.  

“I don’t always enjoy choosing the music,” Fishwich admits. “I’d rather someone else chose it for me, someone who knows me well.”

Although this year’s international gymnastics calendar has been flipped on its head – events cancelled or postponed, like the Pacific Rim championships, an Olympic qualifier to have been held in Tauranga in April – it hasn’t dimmed Fishwick’s desire to get to Tokyo.  

She’s planning to go to qualifying events when they are rescheduled over the next 12 months.

“My main goal was always to go to a Commonwealth Games. But the Olympics were always like the dream,” she says. “When people started saying I could go to the Olympics, I was like ‘Huh, me? Really?’” 

And her dream with the Aggies? To score a perfect 10 on the uneven bars. Or the beam, she says. In fact, any of the apparatus would be fine, she laughs. 

That would put those who doubted the abilities of a cartwheeling seven-year-old in their place. Although she’s already proved them wrong.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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