Over 10,000 rangatahi across Aotearoa have been able to play sport because of one young woman. And Maia Mariner is about to inspire thousands more at the world’s largest women in sport conference next month. 

As a young indigenous woman, Maia Mariner is used to being underestimated. 

But next month, she’ll be centrestage, celebrated as the youngest speaker in the history of the world’s largest conference for women in sport.

At just 17 years old, Mariner will share her story at the IWG World Conference on Women and Sport in Auckland, about creating Lazy Sneakers – the non-profit organisation she founded when she was just 12. The Wellingtonian changemaker has now provided over 10,000 sneakers to rangatahi – for free – so they’re able to participate in sport. 

“I’m really excited and humbled as well. It’s a really cool opportunity,” the Year 13 Queen Margaret College student says. 

A well-spoken, friendly young woman, Mariner expects she will still get nervous speaking in front of thousands of people at the conference; for the first time, the four-day event will have a hybrid audience – the goal is to have 1200 people in person and 500 online. 

“I’ve done public speaking before but I’m still a very nervous person, so I feel like it might be a bit of a mission to hype myself up to get on stage,” Mariner says. 

But she won’t feel alone. Another emerging young leader, Arizona Leger – director on the Counties Manukau Rugby Union, now working on the Rugby World Cup 2021 – will also be speaking on day four of the conference (November 17).

Maia Mariner with just a fraction of sneakers donated to Lazy Sneakers to be sorted and distributed to her community. Photo: supplied

Rachel Froggatt, the IWG NZ general secretary, says the voices and ideas of a new generation “hungry for change” must be heard. “Maia and Arizona’s inclusion in the conference is about paving the way and providing a platform for the next generation of leaders and champions of the movement,” she says. 

In the past, Mariner has caught people judging her because of her age, but she doesn’t let that stop her pursuing her goals, running the sneaker bank project for almost five years now. 

“I’ve definitely been talked down to at big events and had a lot of condescending tones coming my way,” she says. 

Mariner is of Māori (Ngai Tai) and Samoan descent, and can often find herself being the only person who looks like her in a room – which is something she plans to share at the IWG Conference. 

“I’ll probably talk about my experience as an indigenous young girl, and a woman in sports, and in spaces that aren’t made for me necessarily, and how to overcome that,” she explains. 

“And how I’ve managed to challenge a lot of the stereotypes or the hardships of being less-celebrated and less-welcomed in spaces.” 

Maia Mariner was at basketball training when she first realised some kids didn’t have shoes. Photo: Qiane Matata-Sipu.

Mariner played basketball, netball and volleyball growing up, and made basketball rep teams for Wellington and the New Zealand U14 team in 2018. She’s taking a pause from team sport this year but still keeps active at CrossFit. 

Team sport has allowed Mariner to find community, and keep physically and mentally healthy – something she hopes to pass on to as many young people as possible through Lazy Sneakers. 

“In my experience, sport has always helped me to feel healthy, happier and much more fit,” she explains. 

“Sport is important to me because I know it helps with my wellbeing. It’s important for young kids to get involved to feed their souls and help nurture their wellbeing, because you’re able to socialise through sport; you’re able to stay fit. I think if you find the right sport, that’s you for life.” 

Mariner started up Lazy Sneakers early in 2018, after seeing kids at basketball training who couldn’t participate because they didn’t have the right footwear. Now she’s set up collection points around the country for people to donate their unwanted (lazy) sneakers, and they can go to another home.  

From a young age, Mariner was taught to give back to her community, inspired by her role models, her grandmothers. 

“My Nana Ma on my mum’s side and my Nana Sa on my dad’s side – we call them Nana Ma and Nana Sa because one’s Māori and one’s Samoan,” Mariner laughs. 

“They’re amazing women, they’ve always looked out for their community before themselves which has been really selfless. I think you have to have a really big heart to do all the work they do, I definitely look up to them.” 

Her family are part of her support team, who’ve helped her balance running Lazy Sneakers with school. 

“I feel like I’ve got a million times busier than I was the year before, or the year before that,” Mariner says, managing to fit in a chat on her lunch break at school. 

“It’s hard but I feel confident in what we’ve done this year just because I’ve had a strong support team. I’ve managed to build one over the years with my mum, my dad and my friends. It’s really busy but I feel like it’s been worth all the mahi.” 

Lazy Sneakers are grateful for any donations, but brand new sneakers from Puma are a special treat. 

Mariner isn’t too sure what the future holds for her – off to the University of Auckland next year to study law and film, away from Lazy Sneakers’ home base.

But with a new partnership with Puma, who supply brand new shoes to hand out, Mariner will continue to give back to her community. 

“We get a lot of feedback from parents and coaches, passing on the thanks and the gratitude, which is really cool,” she says. 

“We love hearing how a pair of shoes can bring so much joy to a child. Something as simple as shoes, which are an essential but one not a lot of people have access to.” 

The IWG World Conference, starting on November 14 and running over four days, has a strong bent towards encouraging future female leaders. Twenty young leaders from the Whanake o te Kōpara programme, run by Women in Sport Aotearoa (WISPA) to develop and nurture young wāhine involved in sport, will attend the conference. And WISPA has provided 50 scholarships for indigenous women and girls to take part – the youngest recipients are just 16 years old. 

*Check out www.lazysneakers.co.nz to find a collection point.

Merryn Anderson is a sports writer for LockerRoom. She has a Bachelor in Communications from the University of Waikato.

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