From over­weight to iron woman


Monica Stretch tipped the scales at 120 kilo­grams af­ter she gave birth to her daugh­ter four years ago. The Wainuiomata mother of four smoked, drank too much booze, and puffed walk­ing any­where. She fed her young fam­ily take­aways sev­eral nights a week.

It’s hard to be­lieve to­day. Stretch is on a new journey to health and fit­ness, one that has con­sumed her since she took part in her first Iron Maori event about four years ago.

The 40-year-old has re­placed take­aways with healthy home­cooked meals. She sets her alarm for 5.30am each morn­ing to pedal kilo­me­tres on her sta­tion­ary bike, join­ing friends - ‘‘the Hutt chick­ies’’ - for Sun­day cy­cle rides.

It’s a com­mon tale for Iron Maori founder Heather Skip­worth, who has trans­formed hun­dreds of lives through her whanau-based fit­ness move­ment.

The only in­dige­nous half Iron­man triathlon in the world, Iron Maori chal­lenges par­tic­i­pants to a 2 kilo­me­tre swim, 90km cy­cle and 21.1km run. About 300 com­peti­tors raced in the in­au­gu­ral event in Hawke’s Bay in 2009, and the num­bers have now surged, with about 2500 peo­ple com­pet­ing an­nu­ally in seven events around New Zealand and on the Gold Coast.

Stretch’s ma­jor life shift came about four years ago, when she and her girl­friends got to­gether af­ter one of their best friends took her life. They wanted to pay trib­ute to their fit­ness fa­natic friend, who had reg­u­larly taken part in the Iron Maori event on the Gold Coast.

‘‘At the time, I was drink­ing hard and smok­ing hard. But we all de­cided we wanted to turn some­thing neg­a­tive into some­thing pos­i­tive,’’ re­calls Stretch.

The wananga stu­dent laughs re­mem­ber­ing her first train­ing ses­sion. Walk­ing up Wainuiomata hill in prepa­ra­tion for her first Iron Maori run, she ‘‘al­most died’’.

Low­er­ing her­self in the pool to start her swimming train­ing, Stretch had no idea how to swim. Iron Maori is all about com­mu­nity, and Stretch put a call out through the Tri Poneke train­ing group for some­one to teach her. Marama Puke be­gan meet­ing her at the Wainuiomata pool for train­ing ses­sions.

Stretch put her­self on a rig­or­ous diet. Gone were the take­away meals - they’re now a once a week treat - and her hus­band, Leo, who has di­a­betes, also lost weight.

By the time Stretch swam across the fin­ish line in Hawke’s Bay in March 2014, her weight had dropped by al­most half to 65kg.

She got the Iron Maori bug, and has com­peted in the quar­ter dis­tance and half dis­tance events at least once a year since then. Cur­rently train­ing for an Iron Maori com­pe­ti­tion in Novem­ber, be­ing fit and healthy has also in­spired her to con­quer other chal­lenges. She stud­ied te reo last year, and is now study­ing Maori weav­ing.

She has also in­spired her fam­ily. Her hus­band goes to the gym most days, while she cur­rently trains for up to 15 hours a week. Their 12-year-old son, Rawiri, is a young Iron Maori par­tic­i­pant, also play­ing touch rugby.

‘‘My hus­band loved com­ing and watch­ing Iron Maori and see­ing ev­ery­one get­ting to­gether. There’s an amaz­ing vibe.’’

Puke’s story is sim­i­lar. She was an over­weight, un­fit 50-yearold and a mother of a four-yearold son when she got the Iron Maori bug. Join­ing the Tri

Poneke train­ing group, she was in­spired by oth­ers to push her­self to get fit.

Com­plet­ing her first half Iron Maori last year, the 55-year-old Welling­ton sec­re­tary says: ‘‘I have never been so proud of my­self.’’

Skip­worth, who won a Queen’s Ser­vice Medal in 2014 for her com­mit­ment to im­prov­ing Maori health, did her first Iron Maori in the in­au­gu­ral event she founded with hus­band Wayne in 2009. ‘‘You never for­get it. It took me 14 hours.’’

Striv­ing for such race dis­tances in­spires a ma­jor life change and that’s the whole point. Skip­worth ex­plains that it’s not pos­si­ble to train seven days a week with a hang­over, or when you’re ad­dicted to cig­a­rettes. The train­ing groups that have sprung up around the coun­try meet for lat­tes and ‘‘healthy kai’’ af­ter a week­end road ride, rather than Satur­day clu­b­room drink­ing ses­sions. ‘‘Peo­ple change ca­reers, they leave low-pay­ing jobs and go off and study, they end their ad­dic­tions and go off meds.

‘‘When women do that, it has a flow on ef­fect through a whole fam­ily.’’

Head­ing into the 10th an­niver­sary of Iron Maori next year, the Hawke’s Bay mother of three says ev­ery­one is ac­cepted - and that’s the point. ‘‘No mat­ter what shape or form, that’s fine, and every­body is em­braced, not just the winner.’’

Monica Stretch is on a new path to health and fit­ness, thanks to Iron Maori. Here she is third from left, with Marama Puke, Lena Taulima-Bi­dois, and Melissa Wharew­era, at the start of the half Iron Maori last year.

Iron Maori par­tic­i­pants from Welling­ton and the Hutt Val­ley: left to right, Lena Taulima-Bi­dois, Kim Rus­sell, Marama Puke, Monica Stretch, Lisa Davies and Melissa Wharew­era.

Heather Skip­worth con­quer­ing the fin­ish line of Iron Maori last year.

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