Posted on Wednesday 3rd April, 2024

Suspended among a canopy of Kahikatea trees, the high ropes challenge is a quintessential part of any Outward Bound course. But for course participant Sam Fitness, it was a challenge far greater than most.

Sam last climbed a tree a decade ago, plunging several metres to the ground with life-changing consequences. Now a C5 quadriplegic, he never imagined he would find himself back among the treetops.

“The irony wasn’t lost on me; it was like I’d come full circle,” says the 27-year-old Papamoa man, who recently travelled to the Marlborough Sounds to participate in Outward Bound’s eight-day Activate programme for Para athletes.

Expertly designed for those with a physical disability, the adapted course includes adventure activities like sailing a cutter, scaling high ropes, traversing rock walls, and bush expeditions. Led by three Outward Bound instructors, it supports participants in testing their boundaries while building resilience, confidence, and self-awareness. For competitive Wheelchair rugby player Sam, it did all that and more.

“Going into it, I was nervous about how little or how much I could do. I was the highest level of injury they’d ever had on the programme, and I knew there would be people with extremely different disabilities – and abilities – to me in a physical sense.”

While the high ropes provided Sam with his most emotionally confronting experience, the waka ama provided the biggest physical challenge.

“Trying to keep my balance in the waka and hold onto the paddle with hands that don’t really work was incredibly tough, but I was stoked to be able to participate.”

As Sam quickly discovered, although the activities themselves push students to their limits, the real magic of Outward Bound lies in the learnings that come from them.

“The Activate course is one of my top experiences; I’m so glad I said yes to giving it a go. I would have previously thought, ‘I can’t do that’, but I learned that in the right environment and with a good support network, much more is possible than you typically think. Outward Bound has changed my perspective of what I’m capable of and given me more confidence just to say ‘yes’.”

Vinnie Duncan from Duncan Charitable Trust has been a longstanding and generous supporter of Outward Bound and says feedback like Sam’s makes it all worthwhile.

Vinnie says:

“Duncan Charitable Trust’s support of Outward Bound participants over many years, across all the courses offered, has shown unequivocally that course graduates consistently have higher levels of self-confidence, self-belief, cultural and environmental awareness, and a willingness and desire to take these qualities further in their lives.

“Allowing Para athletes the same opportunities to experience this is something we can give back to this community, who strive so hard, every day, to do what they do.”

Offered in partnership with Paralympics New Zealand and NZ Wheelchair Rugby, eight Para athletes attended the programme. They come from around the country and various sporting codes, including Wheelchair basketball, Para athletics, Para swimming, and Para cycling. Three support workers were there to help participants to navigate the course. Despite their sporting differences, students all shared one common goal: to push beyond what they thought they were capable of.

Vinnie adds:

“Para athletes have faced, overcome, and problem-solved multiple challenges already to arrive at the place they have in their chosen sports. Having the opportunity to participate in an OB course continues to allow the broadening of horizons, in truly living the mantras of ‘There is more in you’ and ‘I’m possible’.”

These mantras were particularly poignant for Hamilton 20-year-old Georgia Mecchia. An early childhood teacher and keen Wheelchair rugby player, Georgia lives with central sensitisation. She walks with a crutch, but she refuses to let her disability hold her back.

“Before I got sick, I was into lots of sports and outdoor stuff, so Outward Bound was right up my alley,” she says. “The course was so good! I loved climbing through the trees on the high ropes, getting up at sunrise for physical training, and spending 24 hours in the bush solo. It was an amazing opportunity to reevaluate and reset for the year ahead, although the mental challenge of doing that reflection was a hard and emotional process.”

Making new friends and “connecting with people I’d otherwise never meet” were added highlights, but the farewells really surprised Georgia.

“It was heartbreaking saying goodbye to everyone – I had no idea I would get so attached. I’ve come back feeling incredibly grateful and much more aware and intentional about how I want to spend my time. Outward Bound genuinely was an experience like no other.”