2 May 2024

Bailley Unahi’s Paralympic goals: 'I couldn't ask for a better lifestyle'

6:27 pm on 2 May 2024
Bailley Unahi

Bailley Unahi Photo: Red Bull

Bailley Unahi's life was changed forever at age 19 when a balcony collapsed on her and left her paralysed. However, she is now a competitive skier with goals to represent New Zealand at the next Winter Paralympics.

Her inspiring journey has already taken her around the world, and this weekend she will be part of the Wings For Life World Run in Auckland, to raise awareness for spinal injuries.

Unahi has just returned from three months in Europe, honing her talent in the paraskiing sit-ski discipline.

"Obviously we've got no snow in New Zealand during that time," the 27-year-old said.

"We were based in the Dolomites in Italy, about 30 minutes from where the 2026 Games are going to be held in Cortina. We would drive to races in Austria, Switzerland and France because it was all so close together."

Bailley Unahi

Bailley Unahi Photo: Red Bull

It was Unahi's first time in Europe, following on from a similar stint in North America at the same time last year. She noted that paraskiing brings with it a few more things to take into account while abroad.

"It was pretty interesting, with the language and access. Definitely more of a challenge in terms of snow conditions and figuring out how to use T bars and pommels while being in a sit ski. There was a bit more rain and slush over there, but I feel like I've improved a lot as a skier. I feel a lot more confident and faster."

Unahi said she was "hopefully ... on track to represent NZ in 2026" at the Winter Paralympics, which will be held in Italy.

The skiing disciplines will be on the same Cortina d'Ampezzo slopes she has just been training on. Until then, it is just a case of "skiing more, faster and improving my times".

"We're so far away from everyone else and it's a small crew," she said of the current NZ paraskiing contingent.

"So going over to Europe was cool to be able to link up with other females that have represented their countries at the Olympics, getting their advice and benchmarking yourself against them."

Wings for Life World Run in Auckland,  New Zealand on May 8, 2022

Wings for Life World Run in Auckland, New Zealand on May 8, 2022 Photo: Graeme Murray

If successful, Unahi will be the first female New Zealand Winter Paralympian since triple-gold medallist Rachael Battersby in 2002. Sit skiing is one of the Para Alpine categories, which has competitors strapped into a custom sit ski frame.

"The similarity with able-bodied skiing is that we can clip into any old ski but the binding is a bit higher so we don't pop out - we don't have knees that need to be saved. We have two outriggers that look like crutches with skis on the bottom that we use to push around and give us extra balance.

"Before my injury, I had no idea what sit-skiing was, I'd never really skied anyway. After my accident, I was trying to figure out what I could do with my friends and family, so that gave me the same outlet that touch and rugby had. I got into it through Parafed Otago and went on a day trip to Cardrona, they have an awesome adapted skiing program and I got hooked. After that I was pretty hooked, I could leave my wheelchair on the side of the mountain and go up and ski as fast as everyone else."

Wings For Life World Run in Auckland, New Zealand on May 7, 2023

Wings For Life World Run in Auckland, New Zealand on May 7, 2023 Photo: Graeme Murray

The Wings For Life World Run will be held at Mt Smart Stadium's athletics track on Sunday, 5 May. It will be Unahi's third time taking part.

"It's always a fun event and it's growing every year. It's nice to do something that's inclusive, do it together and raise awareness for spinal injuries. Anyone can do it, you don't have to walk."

Bailley Unahi with friends

Bailley Unahi with friends Photo: Red Bull

The next Winter Paralympics are the goal, but Unahi is more than happy to be enjoying the moment - something that has given her a unique perspective on a life-changing accident.

"The opportunity it's brought me, I've been all over the world and met so many people. I feel like so much good has come out of an accident that could have been negative, I feel like I've gained a lot. I'm loving it, really. I couldn't ask for a better lifestyle."