The lone woman in the Wheel Blacks, Maia Marshall-Amai has returned to the court after major amputation surgery to play at the wheelchair rugby world champs – determined to reach her ultimate goal of the Paris Paralympics.
After spending six months in Auckland Hospital, after the amputation of half of her pelvis and one leg, Maia Marshall-Amai was asked by hospital staff what was the first thing she wanted to do when she finally returned home.
She replied with one word: Train.
“They’re like ‘What? You’re crazy! Of all the things you could do when you get out, you want to go and train?’” Marshall-Amai recalls. “And I said: ‘Yep that’s what I want to do’. I wanted to play again.”
For years, Marshall-Amai was revered as the world’s best female player in wheelchair rugby. She was the lone woman in the New Zealand team, the Wheel Blacks, and regarded globally as a trailblazer for women in the sport.
But she stopped playing altogether back in 2019; the decision forced by a deterioration of her health, even though she was on the cusp of achieving her dream – to play at a Paralympic Games.
A severe infection in her pelvis then led to a hemipelvectomy – complex surgery to remove half of her pelvis and all of her right leg. She’d spend a challenging six months in hospital, getting to know everyone well, “from the nurses and orderlies to the cleaners and cooks”.
Marshall-Amai is no stranger to long stints in hospital. She was just 18 months old when a car fire left her with serious burns across most of her body. From then on, there were complications – a spinal infection left her paralysed and she also lost her left leg.
When she was discharged from her latest stay early last year, she had one goal – to get back into the Wheel Blacks, hopefully in time to play at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in August.
“I was trying to be well enough to go to the Paralympics, but that wasn’t happening,” Marshall-Amai, 35, says.
Instead, she watched every match of those Games on TV at her home in east Auckland. “It was hard to watch when I was thinking, ‘Man, that was supposed to be me – I should be there’. I had all sorts of emotions going on watching them,” she says.
So Marshall-Amai switched her focus, to make a return to the Wheel Blacks for the wheelchair rugby world championships in Denmark next month. A goal she’s proudly achieved, through hard work – to regain strength and balance with the major changes to her body – pain and determination.
The 2024 Paralympics in Paris are next on her list. “The Paralympic Games have always been my goal; they’re the pinnacle,” she says.
Her Wheel Blacks team-mates are thrilled, on a number of counts, to have her back. “Maia is incredibly resilient,” says the team’s co-coach Rob Hewitt. “The Wheel Blacks squad gets a huge lift knowing that she’s healthy and back in the team ready to mix it with the best teams in the world.
“Maia has a reputation as one of the premier players in New Zealand and can go toe-to-toe with anyone on her day. Having Maia back gives the Wheel Blacks a huge boost and some real X-factor heading into the world championships.”
Marshall-Amai admits it’s been difficult getting used to her “new body”.
“Having only half a pelvis and one hip, it’s hard trying to balance and do all the things that were usually quite easy for me,” she says.
“I’m probably lighter doing pull-ups now – that’s the only advantage I have.”
She’s been training every day, sometimes twice a day, to reclaim her fitness and strength. “But it’s been all good, I love all the training,” she says. “I missed it so much when I was in hospital for so long.”
Marshall-Amai is in her own words “a very shy person” and has a small circle of close friends and family who’ve helped her get back to this point. There’s also been her neurological physio, Harriet Otley, at Rope Neuro Rehabilitation, and her crossfit coaches, Michael Hynard (Marshall-Amai knows him as ‘Hashtag’) and Jodie Loveday, from Functional Adaptative Movement. She’s grateful to them all.
But when she went to her first Wheel Blacks training camp back in April, Marshall-Amai was a little anxious.
“It was a bit scary because it had been a long time, and I wanted to be amazing straight away,” she says. “It was tough, but it was good to be back with the boys. I missed them all.”
It didn’t take her long to return to the skills that made her one of the best in the world. At the national championships last month, Marshall-Amai was named best 2.5 (her impairment classification) at the tournament and won the New Zealand title with the Auckland Rhinos.
She hopes her classification will be lowered at the world tournament, after a functional skills test in front of classifiers. She already gives the Wheel Blacks a half-point advantage as a female player.
(The four players on court can’t exceed a total of eight points; for each female player on court, a team is allowed an extra 0.5 points over that total).
Marshall-Amai is “stoked” to be back with most of her old Wheel Blacks team-mates, returning to Denmark where she played in her first world championships back in 2014.
“It was pretty hard, I was pretty fresh then,” she remembers. This tournament, played in the city of Vejle, will be her third worlds.
Throughout her international career, Marshall-Amai was the only woman in the New Zealand team; a fact that remains the same. But she’s expecting to come up against more female opponents in the international sides the Wheel Blacks meet when the tournament starts on October 10.
“Since I’ve been missing from the game, there are a lot more females playing now. Not heaps, but more than when I was last playing,” she says.
She hopes to return to Paris next March to take part in the Women’s Cup, a conference exclusively for female wheelchair rugby players. She first went in 2017, training and competing alongside other women players. It will of course depend on whether she can find the funding to go.
But that’s one thing that has changed since Marshall-Amai last played. Her trip to the world championships is covered by New Zealand Wheelchair Rugby (which self-funds all aspects of the sport). “It’s the first time I’ve been away with a New Zealand team and I haven’t had to pay a cent,” she says.
She’s had to get a new $15,000 rugby chair – agile but robust enough to take the impacts, in the sport once known as murderball.
“I’m lucky this will only be the third chair in my career,” Marshall-Amai says. “For the first two, I did give-a-little and fundraised, but this one was covered by ACC because of my new injury.”
Finally, the ball is bouncing in her favour.
She’s desperate to compete internationally again: “It’s been so long… I’ve played against all the boys a lot. You get a bit bored of it. It’s at another level when you’re playing other countries.”
The Wheel Blacks, eighth at the Paralympics in 2021, last won a world championship medal – silver – in 2006. They were 11th in 2018.
Success in Denmark, Marshall-Amai says, would be “beating the teams we should beat” and on a more personal level “playing the best that I can, and making sure I do what I need to do to help out the team.”
She will have one eye on another rugby world championship half a world away. Marshall-Amai is a proud ambassador for the women’s Rugby World Cup being played in New Zealand at the same time (she should be home in time to watch the final at Eden Park on November 12).
In spite of her shyness, Marshall-Amai has appeared in a promo video of a powerful spoken word poem and in magazines endorsing the tournament.
“They’re not my usual things I like to do; I’m a bit out of my comfort zone,” she says. “But anything to promote women’s rugby – I’m all about that.”