Overcoming adversity to achieve her goals

Milly Marshall-Kirkwood was born with Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue. Photos: Julia Sabugosa.

Every time Milly Marshall-Kirkwood gets ready to compete, she thinks of her mum.

She can see her in the stand, sitting next to her dad Rob. She can hear her yelling words of encouragement and she can see the pride emanating from her body.

“Every time I go out to throw, it’s like she’s sitting in the audience, there with me,” says the 16-year-old.

“That memory of her being with me and supporting me is so vivid.”

It’s been five years since the Marshall-Kirkwoods lost their mum and wife Paula to stage four 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.

For her husband Rob, who carries on valiantly as a father to their 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.

Paula performed the role of supporting mum perfectly – she organised every last detail in Milly’s training and competing 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’”.

Milly 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.

Her personal best for the 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.

She is representing New Zealand for the first time at the Oceania Athletics Championships in Suva, Fiji from June 1 – 8.

It is a hugely proud moment and confirmation for her that she is on track to achieve her goal of representing New Zealand at the Los Angeles 2028 Paralympics.

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

“It would be a really big confidence thing. Having my own Paralympics number – that only a very select number of people get to have – would be great affirmation of what I have overcome.”

Milly 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.

Milly Marshall-Kirkwood with her dad Rob, siblings Archie, 12, and Daisy, 14, and her dog Maggie.

“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.” 

Milly 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 with her physical challenges was a struggle.

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

“It was like,‘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.”

Rob is incredibly 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, Milly was a member of the ACC-supported Para Sport Collective, in partnership with Paralympics New Zealand (PNZ).

It’s a three-year initiative created and delivered by PNZ supports pre-high performance Para athletes and coaches to achieve their goals, after a need was uncovered for greater support.

Milly was part of the first cohort where a total of 42 individuals came together for three in-person camps where they gained skills, shared experiences and built relationships.

For Milly, it was a life changing experience.

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

Away from the track, 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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