Unstoppable on slopes and in life

Bailley Unahi trains at Cardrona three times a week. PHOTOS: SHANE BOULTON ACE
Bailley Unahi trains at Cardrona three times a week. PHOTOS: SHANE BOULTON ACE
Winton woman Bailley Unahi’s back was broken when she was crushed underneath a balcony that collapsed at a Six60 concert in Dunedin in 2016. Now she is flying. She talks to Peter Thornton about her journey and not holding back.

Bailley Unahi is at the top of an icy, steep slope poised on her sit-ski.

The 24-year-old pauses for a moment before making a rapid descent over the ice and through the fresh powder.

She carves her way down the mountain and slides in alongside the Whitestar chairlift with a big smile on her face.

She is in her happy place.

"I love everything about being up here," she says after a day on the mountain. "I love hanging out with my mates, being in this environment, going fast . . .

"Up on the mountain I don’t feel disabled, I just feel like everyone else."

The truth is Miss Unahi has overcome challenges much more intimidating than this steep slope at Cardrona Alpine Resort.

The Winton woman broke her spine when she was underneath a balcony that collapsed at a Six60 concert in Dunedin in 2016. Her life changed in a moment.

"I remember it was really sore and I just couldn’t move," she says of the incident. "I was struggling to breathe. My legs felt like they were floating, but I couldn’t get up. All my friends were, ‘just stay there, just stay there’. I didn’t realise that my spinal cord was severed. It wasn’t really until I came across a news article the day after my surgery and read that I’d never walk again."

Following her injury, Miss Unahi wanted to help others and changed her course to study occupational therapy. She completed her degree in 2019.

Bailley Unahi trains at Cardrona three times a week. PHOTOS: SHANE BOULTON ACE
Bailley Unahi trains at Cardrona three times a week. PHOTOS: SHANE BOULTON ACE
That same year she travelled to Banff in Canada where she trained with Rocky Mountain Adaptive in the professional development programme for 12 weeks.

She is now part of the high performance Snow Sports NZ adaptive development programme and trains with the Wanaka ski team at Cardrona.

"I’d love to represent New Zealand at the Paralympics. That’s definitely a long-term goal," she says. "That’d be pretty amazing for a girl from a small town like Winton."

The members of Six60 were deeply affected by the incident and sent Miss Unahi a message recently.

"Kia ora Bailley, Six60 here. We just wanted to touch base and tell you how stoked we are with everything you’ve been doing. We really admire your courage and determination with all of the challenges you have been faced with.

"Awesome work on your studies of occupational therapy and we hear you are doing some skiing too. Bailley we just want to wish you all the best and say never give up. Nga mihi from all the Six60 boys."

Miss Unahi spent four months at the Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch completing her rehabilitation which she says was incredibly tough, mentally and physically.

She had known little about spinal cord impairment and what her life would be like.

"I didn’t really know anyone with a disability or using a wheelchair and how they did things. When I found you could use hand controls to drive [rather than foot pedals] and live a pretty independent life, it was pretty cool being able to get back to normality."

ACC has supported her rehabilitation and paid for equipment like her modified car with a robot that picks up her chair and places it in the boot, and hand bike to help her live an independent life.

Britt Hawes, the Snow Sports NZ media manager, who competed at the PyeongChang Winter Oympic Games, says Miss Unahi is ‘‘super-fast’’.

"I have to ski at my limit just to keep up with her. If I’m a few seconds behind she’s gone, and I can’t catch her."

Bailley laughs and says she wasn’t always so graceful. Over a beer in Wanaka, she shows videos of her first days on the slopes where she is being guided and crashing all over the place.

"At the start I was hopeless," she says. "I just wanted to give up, but I hung in there and every day I got a little bit better and now I love it."

Her success has been the product of hard work.

Three days a week, the alarm goes off at 6am and she makes her way up to Cardrona for training from 8.30am to 2pm, followed by a session in the Snow Sports NZ gym.

Winter Performance programme athlete life adviser Carol Goodlass, says Miss Unahi is good at receiving constructive feedback.

"She’s a fast learner," she says. "Bailley is an amazing, positive athlete to work with. She’s high energy and she’s come a long way in a short time. She is fully committed and determined, and we are excited about her potential."

Miss Unahi is not one to dwell on the past. She is determined to make the most of her life and make the most of every opportunity that comes her way.

‘‘People make that quick assumption because you look different, because you use a wheelchair, that your life must be terrible. So many people are like ‘I'm so sorry you’re in a wheelchair. I wish you could walk again’," she says.

"But I still live a very good life. I just want to keep doing the things I enjoy, trying new things and making cool memories."

- Peter Thornton is a senior adviser at ACC.


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