Ariane Virgona talks to Maia Wilson, Silver Fern and Robinhood Stars Goal Shooter, about her experience during Covid-19, the role of women and culture in sport and the year ahead as Captain. This is part two of a two-part interview series.
It is safe to say that for everyone, 2020 was a year that provided much challenge and required immense grit. Maia talks about her training program involving shuttle runs on a flat surface in a car park to maintain her fitness.
“In the end, one of the things that I was really self-conscious about as I had a really good Nation’s Cup in 2020, over in the UK. And it was the first time that I’d had a lot of minutes for the Ferns, and I played quite well. And I had it just as, ‘Oh, I’ve had the taste. I don’t want to let it go.’ And one of the things someone said to me in the past is that it’s easy to get the black dress, it’s harder to stay in it.
It was something that has really been in the back of my head – I’ve been really reminded that I need to continue the work. One thing that I thought was I’m not going to come out of this lockdown unfit. So, my training session looked like – I was running in a car park at the back of Bruce Pullman where our Stars play. And I was just doing shuttles by myself by the rubbish bins because that was like the only smooth surface around. And just putting some music on my speaker putting a timer on and just training the house down. I remember saying to my Strength and Conditioning Coach, at the time, ‘I know I’m in a really good spot. But I need double of whatever you’re going to give everyone else as I want to make sure that I’m in a really good space.”
Maia found that community accountability was a great way to push herself and sustain motivation during this isolating period.
“I started up an Instagram page or training Instagram page where I thought- hey, I don’t care who’s going see this, but it’s going keep me accountable that I’m doing my training. So, I’m going to post up everything that I do every day. And to prove to myself a) that I can stick to it. And I can train alone, but b) also to show my management team at the Stars or other people that I’m staying motivated. And there were mornings where I woke up and I was like, I really don’t want to train. But I thought I have to because I have to post on this Instagram page. If I don’t post on this page, people are going know I’m not doing my job and I’m not training. It was a massive motivator for me.”
Exacerbated by the isolation and unpredictability of 2020, Maia saw her passion slip into an obsession with the number on the scale. Maia explains “It did get to a point where I was quite unhealthy. I had always been a big girl like I’ve talked about, and I had lost a bit of weight over a couple of years. And I was like, along with getting fit, I want to stay fit. I don’t want to put on any weight. I self-diagnosed myself with an eating disorder – I was quite sick in the fact that I would weigh myself six times a day, every day…I was happy with what I saw on the scales and it was quite sad because I’ve been in the system since I’ve been about 15. And they were always saying we want you to lose weight….and so I’ve got to the point on lockdown where I was the lightest I’ve ever been in my life. I was some 83 kgs, which was like amazing coming from 111 kg when I first saw the Silver Ferns nutritionist.”
“I remember if I put on weight, it would make me unhappy. So, my happiness was solely based on whatever the scales said. But really, at the end of the day, I realised that’s really not healthy”.
When returning to the court and coming off tired, Maia knew something was not right as she had just achieved a personal best on the Yo-Yo test at training.
“But it’s trying to find that medium of being, at the end of the day, I was way too skinny, because I’d get into a game post-Covid and I remember after the first quarter I was so tired but I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. I’ve just reached a personal best on my Yo-Yo (17). And it was because I had …. really low energy…I realised then that I needed to put weight on”.
Alongside being more vocal about her struggles, Maia realised that she needed to rewire her thoughts and perceptions after years of focusing on the scale number. Speaking openly, Maia emphasises that a positive mindset around weight-gain is an ongoing process.
“And it’s something that I’m really struggling with now but getting to the point where I’m seeing someone to help me with, it’s just a number Maia, as long as you feel really good, like your performance, you’re performing really well then that’s where we’re at”.
“And so, when you’re told for something like eight years, you have to lose weight, and then they tell you to put it back on. That’s been really hard. And I remember during that Covid, like during most of 2020, I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I was really battling and suffering inside.”
“If I got onto the scales, and I was heavy one day, I’d go and ask if anyone else was really heavy? Is it just me or is it the scales? And it could be, ‘Hey, I drink more water on the day, I need to be hydrated.’ Little things like that would really trigger me. It’s an ongoing battle.”
It is talking to her teammates and reaching out for help that helps Maia navigate this rocky terrain.
“And it’s only come probably, in the last like five or six months, that I’ve really started talk to my peers, someone like Sulu Fitzpatrick or someone that I really opened up to about because I knew we had similar experiences. And then it’s probably been within like the last two months that I’ve talked, put my hand up and said, I need help in terms of the Silver Ferns environment and the Stars saying I need to talk to someone because I was getting to the point where I’m really unhappy. And it’s all based on the scales”.
Maia really emphasises the importance of talking about body image issues publicly, with teammates and health professionals for not only cathartic solace, but to inspire the next generation.
“I know there’s some probably not as extreme as me, but I know, there’s definitely a few of us within New Zealand that have had similar-ish feelings or situations like me. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s people in the Australian leagues and the English leagues, there’ll be people throughout our sport, that feel exactly the way I feel. If I can be vocal about it, it can help someone else. And that doesn’t even have to be an athlete, it can just be a young girl. It’s part of my job to talk about my pathway, my experiences, my career so that the next generation that come and fill my spot, hopefully don’t have to deal or struggle with these things.”
Focusing on the process, Maia orientates herself towards observable action steps and shows patience and self-compassion as she takes this one week at a time.
“And so that’s where I need to get to the point where I’m just comfortable – it is just a number, I’m not there yet, like I’ve stopped weighing myself in training, because we do like a pre and post training weigh in to see how much fluid we’ve lost. So, I’ve stopped that for the last two weeks. And there will be a point where I want to get to the space where I can hop on, and I don’t care what that number says. But for me right now, that’s a trigger. So just making sure that I’ve got these strategies that I am working on, and putting them in place, and it’s not always going to be like that all the time. But being okay with it.”
Women, culture, and sport.
As well as inspiring women in the community and through voicing her experiences, Maia is enthusiastic about lifting the profile of women in sport. Maia discusses how women’s netball is unique in that it can connect with the community and engage with sponsors.
“…I feel like women have to work a lot harder to get those sponsorships or to be out and network because we are not full-time professionals, a lot of us. A lot of the times the men get a lot more exposure or sponsorship opportunities than the woman and I think something that is like a gold mine, us woman.”
Maia reflects on the robustness of the strengths of women athletes.
“…We are BOSS women…If you take some of these athletes, they’re mothers, they are athletes, some of them like are commentators, there’s so many strengths that we have as female athletes …. I think the more that we as female athletes uplift each other and then uplift woman in general, the better we’re going to be…How cool would it be to see like a netballer on a massive sponsorship deal uplifting other young girls”.
“[Sponsors] want to invest into woman’s sport because female athletes and netballers are able to buy in and help sell the products and are really getting engagement with the community. The more personable you can be with people, the more they are going to want to follow you, and that helps with the exposure of the game.”
New Zealand sport is inseparable from its Māori cultural heritage, as the national and international stage is an arena of expression and bringing something unique to the table. With a diverse range of women playing netball, what is unfortunate is the focus upon body image, where athletes, like Maia, were scrutinised for their body shape and size. Athletes have started to talk more about the impacts of this on their mental health and Maia is avidly contributing to this conversation.
“I think within New Zealand in particular, we have a very diverse range of woman, especially within our Polynesian, Pacific and Māori communities. …. So, it’s been quite interesting to see commentators critique us, also looking at what that does to mental health in the aspects of not just body image, but about all aspects of mental health, which I feel like that is a topic that is really coming to the light, especially within netball these days. And I think it’s a really positive thing”.
“Sometimes we’re put on this platform, or this pedestal, but at the end of the day, we’re just like your average, Karen, or Tom, or whoever you are in the public. And that’s how we normally see ourselves”.
Cultural expression within the New Zealand domestic and international netball teams allows players to share and learn about different cultural practices and traditions. Maia highlights how this helps to connect with the community, as they embody what it means to be a representation of New Zealand.
“Within a New Zealand context, culture and identity have massive influences, on us as people and also what we bring in our franchises. So there have been some great movements in terms of Māori cultural heritage and really engaging with it within the Pulse, and the Robinhood Stars team. It is about just bringing our something special to light to celebrate that diversity”.
“I know within my team and the Stars, last year we learned about Cook Island, a Cook Island song, a Māori melody song, a Samoan song and just trying to really grasp the diversity, especially within our regions. So, we cover the South East Auckland, and the majority of that population is Māori and Pacific. So, we’re really trying to engage with our community and give that to them so that we are a great representation of them”.
The representation of bigger bodied women in sport that proudly wear their cultural heritage and who celebrate diversity is something that Maia aims to personify, which can help to further bolster the confidence of women wanting to pursue netball pathways and viewers who have felt victimised, due to their body size.
“… I think that is a key – representation is massive. For a lot of us speaking from experience as a young Māori girl growing up there weren’t as many of us on your television and quite public role. To be able to do what I do, do it quite confidently and in a way that only I feel I can, is trying to show those young girls who do look up to us that I can be like that because she looks like me or she has the same experiences like me.”
To further educate the wider community about the role and experience of cultural diversity in New Zealand, Maia and her co-host Johnson Raela have started a new podcast called Coco-Ngati (@cocongati_podcast on Instagram).
“… I’ve just started up a podcast with one of my friends. Talking about Season One is focused on mixed race, Kiwis and Aotearoa although I am not mixed race myself, I think a lot of the issues that we’ve been talking about are probably culturally sensitive or taboo within our cultures and that aren’t talked about often but is something that really needs to be brought into the light.”
“So, it’s been really interesting meeting so many different people from different aspects of life, and really be able to learn from them and us and vice versa about different experiences like mental health and body image and miscarriage and so many beautiful things about identity. It’s just taken a different turn. And I’m really excited to be able to do something outside of netball that is more Maia the person, rather than Maia the athlete.”
What’s next for the podcast is a mixture of interviews involving members of the lay community, as well as those with profile. Maia shares,
“and it’s been quite interesting looking at the analytics of the episodes and who’s watching and what have been the most popular, it’s not actually the people with the profile, surprisingly enough, it’s people who are able to empathise and sympathise with you…Right now, I think we’re going to be in the planning stages within the next month… potentially we have New Zealand politicians that we’re going to link up with, we would also love to cover people with disabilities and how that may help and our LGBTQI community. I think having different perspectives from so many different target groups will be a great way to show the diversity within our country”.
2021 and beyond.
With preseason and 2020 wrapped up, Maia is excited for the team to begin the ANZ Premiership season, confident that the Stars can challenge to win the ANZ Premiership.
“…. To have the likes of Anna Harrison come out of retirement and Gina Crampton to make the big move to come to Auckland from the south. She was there for nine years. So, it’s a really brave move to come up here. And we’ve got a few that have stayed, and some people have returned home to New Zealand so really excited that we have a strong group of 12, including our two training partners, and I think they are looking on fire”.
Six years on, Maia will be captaining the Robinhood Stars this year with pride and dedication to creating a supportive space for the team.
“I have the honour and privilege to captain – it was something that I wasn’t expecting if I’m being honest…. I feel like I’m a person that never strives to get these leadership roles. I think that I do have a lot of leadership qualities. But I’m definitely happy to stand and support someone else. And I’m also quite young, I’m only 23. But I’ve been around for a fair few bit now. All I have to worry about is really taking the toss, flicking a coin, making sure I’m picking the right heads or tails. Maybe saying a few good pep talks here and there. But I’m supported really well by the likes of Anna Harrison and Gina Crampton, who are within my leadership group and just make me feel quite settled. I’m able to bounce ideas off them and vice versa, to make sure that we’ve got all areas of the court covered off quite well and, and that we’re in a really good space”.
As for the starting seven, Maia talks about how fierce internal competition within the ANZ Premiership is important for fostering consistency and self-refinement.
“We have four shooters within our Stars side….no one really knows who is going to start because the internal competition is so fierce now, which is really good…If you want to be the best, you need to have really good internal competition to start competing to get on court. This just makes you a better person and a better athlete.”
“Our coach is someone who likes to have a line-up dependent on what the opposition style is…so it’s just trying to switch it up, which I think is quite a good thing. It keeps teams guessing. They have to analyse all four of us because they have no idea who’s going to be there”.
With a strong fitness and conditioning foundation, Maia is focusing on making sure she does her job well on the court, with confidence to present a second offer.
“…One of the things with the captaincy role that I’m really focusing on is making sure that I’m doing my own job. At the end of the day actions speak louder than words. So, making sure that I’m able to tick all my boxes, I’m getting those goals in the hope I’m making sure that I’m working well within my unit. That’s a massive thing for me.”
“One thing that we are doing quite well in the Ferns is trying to do multiple leads- if one thing gets cut off what’s happening next? I think now that I’ve built a really solid conditioning fitness foundation and I don’t have to worry about running, I know that if I’m going to run this line and it gets cut off and I go somewhere else, my body’s going to be able to handle it.”
You can find ANZ Premiership results and fixtures here.