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How sport saved Coast to Coast champion’s life

She's faced anorexia, abuse and attempted suicide. Now Wanaka's world multisport champion, Simone Maier, wants to help others overcome their ordeals and reach their dreams.

Simone Maier woke from a nightmare a week ago, that she can now laugh at.

She dreamed she was defending her title in this weekend’s Coast to Coast, and as she came into the transition area, she was given the wrong bike. It had wobbly handlebars. Then she got lost in a labyrinth of paths - no longer in the South Island, but somewhere in China.

Maier may have woken in a cold sweat, but she was quick to reassure herself that she will be able to handle whatever is thrown at her in this year’s Coast to Coast ‘Longest Day’. 

She did so last year: being slapped with a two-minute penalty, crashing into a van on a tricky corner and riding a damaged bike – yet still winning by over 10 minutes.

Maier has had to conquer so much more in her four decades on the planet. She’s overcome eating disorders and dealt with the traumatic memories of sexual abuse and wanting to end her life. She came to a new country with barely a smidgen of English and started over.

The German-born Kiwi, who’s called Wanaka home for the past 13 years, says rediscovering sport “actually saved my life”.

After being crowned the women’s Coast to Coast Longest Day champion this time last year, Maier shared her harrowing, but inspiring, story with the Australian website AthletesVoice.

Now she wants to help others overcome suffering in their own lives.

“I want to show them that no matter what you do, if you have a passion, you can come out of that hole and you can make changes to your life,” she tells LockerRoom.

“I know it can be hard, when people are depressed or can’t get over something. But the reality is you can only help yourself.

“I’ve been there; I know what it’s like. I know exactly how horrible it is - you feel like you want to die. But each time it happens, it becomes easier. And when you come out, it’s like ‘Woah this is amazing!’”

Simone Maier cycles alongside the Southern Alps in the 2018 Coast to Coast, where she finished third. Photo: Kathmandu Coast to Coast 

Growing up in a small town near the Black Forest in Germany, Maier was sexually abused by a neighbour when she was four or five years old.

Memories of the assault came back to her at age 14. Her parents had “swept it under the carpet” and she struggled to deal with the memories on her own.

Maier then tried to take her own life, “which I think was more of a scream for help than a wish to die”, she wrote.

She finished school at 15 and developed an eating disorder; she lived with anorexia and bulimia for three years. “My body was going downhill. I had issues with my organs and had to be on lots of medication.”

After collapsing in a club just before New Year’s Eve 1997, she went into rehab for almost a year. Her weight had dropped to 35kg.

“I remember thinking to myself that I could either die or keep fighting to get out of this situation,” Maier wrote.

When she went to live with caregivers, she rediscovered her childhood passion for sport and the outdoors. She was encouraged to take up cycling and running.

Working in a sports store, she met a customer looking for young people to try out for a triathlon team. She did the sport for a few years and then raced her first Ironman.

Then Maier wanted to leave Germany and start afresh. Keen to learn English, she came to New Zealand in 2007, and settled on a small farm in Wanaka.

“When I left Germany, I knew I was going to go [for good], so I packed up everything. Because of my past it was very easy for me to do it; no attachments,” she says today, pointing out she’s still in touch with her family there. 

“I was going to find a place that felt like home, and when I came to New Zealand it was like ‘Boom - I want to retire here!’ It was quite extreme.”

But it wasn’t necessarily a “happy point” in her life, because she didn’t speak English.

“Out shopping, people would say ‘How are you?’, I’d say ‘I’m 27, how are you?’” she laughs. Today, she has an excellent command of the language, but has retained her German accent.

A group of friends in Wanaka helped Maier get back into Ironman racing, and in only her second event, Ironman New Zealand in Taupo, she won her age group. That qualified her for the Ironman world championship in Kona, where she finished third in the 25-29 women's division.

In the transition to the kayak, Simone Maier gets help from her support crew, including partner Marcel Hagener. Photo: Getty Images.

She was smitten with multisport, and then fell in love with the teams aspect. Now she travels the world competing in team events - and winning.

A month after her triumph in the Coast to Coast, Maier won the 600km GODZone – the world’s largest expedition adventure race – in a team with her partner, Marcel Hagener, and fellow Kiwis Emily Wilson and Chris Forne. It was the first time a team of two women and two men won the title.

“It was a great year,” Maier says of 2019. “Our team went to China and won everything over there too. It’s been rewarding to see all the hard work and time you put in finally paying off.

“I’m not the youngest anymore; I’m turning 40 just after the Coast. But age can be a benefit because you have so much experience, which helps with racing. It just keeps getting better and better each year. Now I ask myself ‘Why didn’t I focus on this 10 years ago?’

“But it just shows you that you’re never too old to make changes or go for something.”

She’s taken a different training approach to defending her Coast to Coast title, spending the past four months working up to this race under the guidance of her coach, three-time Coast to Coast champion and feted Olympic canoe coach, Gordon Walker.

“It’s been a bloody long build-up,” she says. “Around Christmas I hit the wall, I was done. Mentally I was: ‘I can’t do the Coast anymore’. It was a bit of a burnout, so I reduced my hours training; I slept a lot. And I came right again.”

Maier admits that defending the title in what’s considered the world championship of one-day multisport events is a little nerve-wracking.

“I really just hope to perform to my best and try to do my race. But at the end of the day, you are competing against others, otherwise you wouldn’t be on the start-line,” she says.

She knows who her tried and true rivals are, and Finnish-born Kiwi Elina Ussher tops the list.

This will be Ussher’s 15th straight Coast to Coast race, and she’s gunning for her fifth Longest Day title. That would put her equal with title record-holder Kathy Lynch, and with Ussher’s husband, Richard, who’s won five men’s titles.

“Elina says she’s out there just to enjoy herself, but I know she’s out there to win again,” Maier says of her competitor, who finished second last year. “I mean winning a fifth time – how amazing would that be? She’s incredible and I could never underestimate her.”

Maier also has her eye on Corrinne O’Donnell, of Whakatāne, who she’s been training with lately; Fiona Dowling, who was third last year, but has been battling with a knee injury; and Maier’s GODZone team-mate Wilson.

“I’m always preparing myself for a dark horse who I’ve never heard of,” says Maier. And this year, that could be Swedish athlete Marie Krysander.

When the going gets tough during the 12 to 13 hours Maier will be running, cycling and paddling this Saturday, she will be able to turn to her support crew and partner, Hagener.

Maier met Hagener – a professional German cyclist-turned-builder who moved to New Zealand almost 20 years ago – while they were both racing in China.

“We raced against each other, but I was way behind him all the time. Then he asked me to race with him in the Red Bull Defiance in 2014 [a two-day multisport race in Wanaka]. I was quite thrilled,” Maier remembers. They also won that race, beating the Usshers.

“He’s great support crew, because he knows exactly what’s happening, and he has the skills – especially the mechanical skills. I’m pretty happy with that,” she says.

There may be moments in the race when Maier is suffering, when she has to recall all that she’s achieved in her life to get this far.

“I have to tell myself, you’ve done a lot, you’ve overcome all these things,” she says.

“I’m still learning. I’m still trying to be a better person and to change habits. It just takes time. But like it is with your training, you have to be patient, keep doing what you’re doing, and you’ll get a result. If you put in some effort and work hard, it will all pay off.”

Where to get help:

- Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (24/7), Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7), text free to 234 (8am-midnight) or live chat (7pm-11pm)

- Kidsline: 0800 54 37 54 (24/7; Kidsline Buddies available 4pm-9pm)- Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 TAUTOKO / 0508 828 865 (24/7)

- What's Up: 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 942 8787 (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends) or live chat (5pm-10pm)- Healthline: 0800 611 116 (24/7)

- Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)- Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 or text free to 4202 (24/7)

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