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News posted on Saturday 8th June, 2024

Milly overcomes adversity to achieve her throwing goals

Milly, a young woman, sits outdoors on a bench, wearing a white and black Puma sports shirt. She looks thoughtful, gazing into the distance. The background shows trees and a fence, with warm afternoon sunlight.

Credit: ACC New Zealand

This week Milly Marshall-Kirkwood, who has overcome real odds to be one of our most exciting young Para athletes, made her national debut and won gold. Peter Thornton ACC reports.

Every time, Milly Marshall-Kirkwood gets ready to compete in throwing discus or shotput, she thinks of her mum.

In her mind, she can see her in the stand, sitting next to her dad, Rob. She hears her yelling words of encouragement and she sees the pride emanating from her.

But, cruelly, it’s been five years since the Marshall-Kirkwoods lost their mum and wife Paula to bowel cancer and the grief is plain to see. She went to the ED with acute stomach pain and eight months later the 49-year-old passed away

“Every time I go out to throw, it’s like she’s sitting in the audience, there with me,” says the 16-year-old para-athlete from Taranaki.  “That memory of her being with me and supporting me is so vivid.”

For Rob, who carries on valiantly as a father to the three children, it was an unbearable loss.

“Paula and Milly had a really tight connection,” he says fighting back the tears. “So, it was bloody awful, and it has been awful for years.”

Rob has picked up the reins from his late wife and is now the organiser for Milly’s training and competing. Paula performed the role of the supporting mother perfectly – she organised every last detail like a well-oiled machine.

“She was exceptionally well organised,” says Rob. “But then when it was all done, she’d just say: ‘Go out there and do your bloody best. Just go for it. Whatever happens, we are so proud of you’.”

Marshall-Kirkwood has given her family plenty to be proud of in recent years. She competes in Para athletics in the F57 discus and shotput and has tallied up a number of New Zealand records.

Marshall-Kirkwood’s personal best for T57 discus is 18.96m which is the national record for the open, U20, U19, U18 and U17 levels and she is one of the most exciting young Para athletes in New Zealand.

This week, she was proud to represent New Zealand for the first time at the Oceania Athletics Championships in Suva, Fiji.

It was a hugely proud moment and her gold-medal winning performance in the T57 discus confirmed she is on track to achieve her goal of representing New Zealand at the 2028 Los Angeles Paralympics.

She dreams about that moment of donning the famous black singlet on the world stage.

“It would mean so much for me to become a Paralympian,” she says.

“It would be a really big confidence thing,” she says. “All of those people who have doubted me – you might not walk, or you might not live a full life or get through this or that.

“You know, having my own unique Paralympian number – that only a very select number of people get to have – would be great affirmation of what I have overcome.”

Marshall-Kirkwood is no stranger to adversity. She was born with Marfan Syndrome – a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue – the fibres that support and anchor a person’s organs and other structures in their body.

“It means that I was born without the protein that makes my connective tissue strong,” she says. 

“So, everything that is kind of held together with connective tissue is very loose. And that mainly affects, like, my heart and my feet.” 

Marshall-Kirkwood had open heart surgery when she was six and has had three foot surgeries since to gain the ability to walk unaided and pain-free.

Growing up in Taranaki with her physical challenges was a struggle.

“It was always hard at PE class – there was never a place for me,” she says.

“Like it was, you know, you can take the score, or you can ref, but I was always sitting on the sidelines. And that wasn’t very exciting.

“And now here I am. I am just like everyone else. Everyone is in the same boat. And now I have a sense of belonging through my sport. My development in Para sport has helped me a huge amount with my confidence in life.”

In the 30 minutes talking with Marshall-Kirkwood, she is eloquent and honest in her responses. When she is asked about how she overcomes her challenges she is stumped.  

“That’s a good question, I have never really thought about that before,” she says. “I guess you just keep going. There’s no point in stopping right? I’m so young I’m going to miss out on so much. There are so many things that I want to achieve.”

Her dad Rob is proud of her personal growth and maturity.

“It’s good knowing she is actually one of the best in the world at what she’s doing,” he says.

“So, this is not just a pipe dream. This could be her reality.”

Over the past 12 months, Marshall-Kirkwood was a member of the first cohort of the ACC-funded Para Sport Collective.

It’s a three-year initiative from Paralympics NZ supporting pre-high performance Para athletes and coaches to achieve their goals, after a need was uncovered for greater support.

A total of 42 individuals came together for three in-person camps where they gained skills, shared experiences and built relationships.

For Marshall-Kirkwood, it was a life changing experience.

She says it was great being around peers with disabilities who could share common experiences. 

“Not even just for my goal to become a Paralympian. It helped me from the second I joined, in everyday life. It gave me real purpose and a sense of belonging. 

“Going back to my experience growing up where I was always left out. The Para Sport Collective was the opposite of that. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where I felt like I belonged and that was hugely empowering for me.”

Marshall-Kirkwood first got into Para sport when she was invited to attend an Athletics NZ ‘Give it a go’ day. After impressing with a few of her first throws in discus, she was encouraged by Athletics NZ Para Lead Raylene Bates to take up Para-athletics.

At the Halberg Games in October 2022, she met Athletics NZ Throws coach John Eden and threw sitting down for the first time. She loved it and hasn’t looked back, and Eden is still her coach today.

Away from track and field, Marshall-Kirkwood is in Year 12 at Inglewood High School and has her heart set on studying medicine at the University of Otago.

She has simple advice for any young people growing up in New Zealand with a disability.

“Just keep going,” she says. “Life is hard, and there’s probably going to be more bad stuff happen, but you can overcome it all and when you do, there are good times to come.”

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