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.