Heather and Wayne Skipworth started IronMaori several years ago to help promote healthy lifestyles in Maori and Pacific Islanders.
Tight pink tops with white koru patterns on the shoulder lead a path through the darkness.
That’s about all that stands out when the sun is yet to peek over the horizon and thousands of people march towards Taupo’s lakefront for the start of Ironman New Zealand.
It’s six in the morning. Competitors and supporters are making their way to the start line of what is New Zealand’s largest annual international one-day sporting event.
About 1370 people go through their final preparations for the first leg of the Ironman, a 3.8km swim across Lake Taupo, their faces a mix of excitement, fear and terror.
They stretch and shake their muscles, chat with friends, hug loved ones, and a huge group of Maori competing take part in a karakia.
In 2009, this part of the race could be called spot the Maori.
There were 72 starters on Saturday morning who had entered Ironman New Zealand after going through IronMaori events across the country, and still more who have entered of their own devices.
They wore official IronMaori racing gear, varying from the eye catching pink to shades of yellow and orange.
No longer do the Maori faces stick out at Ironman New Zealand. Sure, their colourful kits stick out, but Maori are now a major part of the event and what they’re doing is changing the health of thousands every year.
Heather and Wayne Skipworth started IronMaori in 2009.
Initially it was Wayne’s baby, a sportswear label which allowed him to work on his passion for fashion design.
But after taking part in Ironman New Zealand for the first time, that name took on a whole new meaning and a life of it’s own.
“I used to be a lifestyle coach for overweight and obese whanau, trying to reduce the health issues within Maori and Pacific Island people, and I put them in a triathlon,” Heather said.
“Long story short, I thought I should practice what I preach. I put myself in a triathlon and loved the individualness of it. What you put in is what you get out of it.”
From there, Heather decided to enter Ironman New Zealand alongside husband Wayne, and in 15 hours of swimming, cycling and running around Taupo, a lightbulb exploded in her head.
“That’s a long time to think,” she said. “The whole time I kept thinking about my clients, how I can better their health, so I crossed the finish line at New Zealand Ironman and that was the epiphany.
“That sense of achievement is what I wanted to pass on, so they can go off and be whatever they want to be in life, whether they change their health or career path.”
IronMaori, the event rather than the clothing line, was born.
Back then, only six Maori people were on the start line. Naturally, they gravitated towards each other, and all became friends.
On Saturday, there were at least 72. Of the 639 Kiwis in the Ironman New Zealand field, at least 11 per cent were Maori, and those are numbers no other Ironman event can boast in relation to indigenous people.
Over the past sevens years, more than 35,000 people have taken part in IronMaori events, leading more than a thousand of those through to Ironman New Zealand.
The stories of the competitors vary, but there is a common theme.
Everyone wants to improve their health and wellbeing, and taking on a massive individual challenge in an environment that makes you feel like one of the whanau is inspiring for all.
Wayne is someone who has transformed more than most thanks to Ironman.
“The first time I did Ironman I was smoking marijuana the night before, freaking out,” Wayne said.
“The following year I went back and chopped off like an hour and a half because I’d changed. I was thinking about all those months of training, smoking, there was no benefits. You get nothing out of it.
“My whole lifestyle has totally changed. That first year, crossing the Ironman finish line, I never thought I’d be doing this, you know, running our own business.”
As Heather puts it, “it’s transformed our whole life”.
It’s also transformed thousands of other Maori lives, lives which are more likely to end short of their potential.
A recent study from Otago University has revealed some damning health statistics.
For instance, the study states that a 25-year-old Maori adult is 69 per cent more likely to be hospitalised due to a heart attack or stroke, than non-Maori of the same age.
Maori women are 24 per cent more likely to have cancer, and 87 per cent more likely to die from it than other New Zealand women.
Maori are twice as likely to have a mental disorder, four times as likely to have some lung diseases, and twice as likely to have a limb amputated due to diabetes.
These are statistics Maori know all to well, but Heather said it’s something they want to change and improve upon.
“I’m on the Hawke’s Bay District Health Board, so I get to see that month in, month out,” Heather said.
“There’s also a lot of, we tend to always focus on the negatives in Maori health, but some of [the positives] aren’t being stated.
“In terms of IronMaori, people that come to our event, that sign up for the IronMaori journey, usually transform their lives, but none of that is stated.
“It’s only the ones who don’t do anything about it.”
One IronMaori athlete entered Ironman New Zealand in 2015, and was originally 150 kilograms. Competing in his second Ironman this year, he’s less than 80kg.
This year there was a woman weighing about 130kg on the start line, and a man who used to be an alcoholic and a drug addict, as well as being obese.
Through IronMaori, their lives will never be the same.
“It can be overwhelming,” Wayne said of watching people come through IronMaori.
“Often someone will tell us a story and we’ll want to cry, ” Heather added.
“We’ll be driving along [at an event] and see people just trying, just trying to better themselves and Wayne and I will have a little moment, have a little cry.
“We try not to embrace a lot of praise, because we think we could get engulfed with it and forget what our purpose was, so we like to stay grounded.”
Heather and Wayne weren’t the only ones who founded IronMaori.
George and Missy Mackey were also founders, and Lee Grace is also on board with the organisation.
“One person couldn’t change the world,” Heather said.
“There’s us, and we have a wider group who support us, and a wider network amongst that.”
They may like to deflect praise, but the epiphany Heather had during Ironman New Zealand in 2009 has helped change thousands of lives.
With hard work and an inspiring passion in what they do, Heather and Wayne Skipworth will help change many thousands more.
– Stuff REBEKAH PARSONS-KING/MARK TAYLOR/BEN STRANG/Stuff.co.nz
PS: If you are interested in training for and participating in IronMaori join my FREE online seminar (webinar) on Wednesday 15th June.
Click here to register for the event.