In a milestone year, Paralympic sit ski hopeful Bailley Unahi has successfully debuted on offshore slopes and is joining a global run to raise funds for spinal research, Merryn Anderson writes.
Racing in a wheelchair around Auckland’s waterfront at midnight is a long way from speeding down the mountains in Cardrona.
But on Sunday evening, Bailley Unahi will be one of hundreds of thousands of racers globally taking part in the Wings for Life World Run, to raise money for spinal cord research.
It’s a cause close to Unahi’s heart – she was injured in 2016, when a balcony collapsed on her at a Six60 gig in Dunedin.
She was 19 at the time, and has been in a wheelchair for the last seven years. It hasn’t slowed her down – taking up sit skiing and working as an occupational therapist in Otago.
The Wings for Life World Run is a global event, where racers all start at the same time, and run – in whatever capacity that looks like for them – until the chase car catches them.
Unahi, who will be racing in her wheelchair, became involved for the first time last year, alongside 161,892 participants across the world.
“I thought it was awesome raising awareness for people with spinal cord injuries, where the money not only goes towards cures, but everything in general; for enhancing people’s lives who live with spinal cord injuries,” she says.
“And having an event that’s global, I’ve got friends from all over the world now, who can all participate and support.”
The Auckland event is a loop around Westhaven Marina, a fully accessible track.
“It highlights the fact that even though we can’t technically run, we can still be a part of that kind of exercise or event,” Unahi says. “No matter what your ability is, you can still make it work.
“Just because you use a wheelchair doesn’t mean you can’t run as such. Yeah, it looks a little bit different but we can still participate and be involved. I think it’s an important message.”
Unahi will run alongside her friends in Auckland, with friends and family overseas all participating at the same time.
The Auckland event starts at 11pm, with the virtual catcher cars starting 30 minutes later. Once the car catches a participant, they stop racing.
“I just want more people to come along who actually have spinal cord injuries or different abilities because it’s all accessible,” Unahi says.
One hundred percent of entry fees and donations go directly towards spinal cord research, with the 10 years of events raising over €38 million total (NZ$67 million).
Unahi grew up in the small town of Winton, and despite being less than two hours drive from Queenstown, never ventured up into the mountains.
“It was obviously quite an expensive sport, and my family weren’t really into that kind of thing,” she explains.
Unahi played a variety of sports as a kid – netball, rugby, touch, basketball and swimming – and it wasn’t until her injury she got into sit skiing, through ParaFed Otago.
“They had a couple of weekends organised where they travelled over from Dunedin to Wanaka and organised everything from accommodation to transport for lessons,” Unahi recalls.
“I thought why not sign up and give it a go and then I just got hooked. The rest is history really.”
A difficult sport to master, Unahi saw glimpses of other sit skiers on the mountain being independent, and was inspired.
From being able to drive a car with hand controls, to building up her body strength to get on the chair lifts and on her sit ski, Unahi has found total independence on the mountain and now has her eyes set on the 2026 Winter Paralympic Games in Italy.
For someone who grew up playing all sorts of team sports, adapting to an individual discipline is a big change for Unahi.
“On the day when you’re actually competing, it’s all down to you which is a new feeling. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet,” she says.
“I obviously love a team environment and it’s a team environment in a different way.
“I’ve still got the team behind me, like the coaches, your teammates and everyone involved with Snow Sports.”
Snow Sports NZ have been “incredibly supportive” of Unahi, especially when she competed overseas for the first time this season.
She made the podium a few times – finishing third in the super-G in Colorado in January, and another two thirds in the slalom in Utah in February, before heading home in early April.
“This was my first season properly being overseas, being in that environment, training and competing against Paralympic level athletes, so it was good to benchmark myself,” Unahi says.
“It also shows I’ve got a long way to go to get to that next level. But I’m on track, especially with all the support from Snow Sports.”
Unahi competes in technical races like the slalom and giant slalom, and has been recently getting into the speed of the super-G – her favourite event at the moment.
“It’s a bit more challenging to train, because you need to have a whole run, top to bottom closed off just for safety. Obviously you’re going quite fast and you need to utilise the whole run when doing that kind of training,” Unahi explains.
Unahi’s commitment to her Paralympic goal is obvious – she took extended leave from her full-time occupational therapy job without pay to train in Canada over the New Zealand summer.
Training ramped up when Unahi was overseas, having more time to spend on the mountain.
“We were training Monday to Friday every day on the hills and then three times in the gym a week so it was pretty full-on,” she says.
When she’s back home, she balances her work at Habit Health with training – three to four times a week in the mountains when conditions suit, with an extra two to three gym sessions on top of that.
But she’ll still make time to travel to Auckland this week, as one of three Kiwi ambassadors for the Wings for Life World Run, alongside Brad Smeele and Gareth Lynch.
Smeele was a professional wakeboarder before an accident on the water resulted in a broken neck and left him a quadriplegic. He now shares his story through social media and has written a book about his experience.
A dive into a swimming pool resulted in Lynch’s spinal cord injury. He plays wheelchair rugby for the Wheel Blacks, and is also looking to qualify for the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
*For more information about the Wings for Life World Run, or to sign up, click here