News & Updates

30 May 2024 • Para Athletics

Mac overcomes huge medical trauma to compete for New Zealand

Mac Denniston competes at the 2024 Jennian Homes New Zealand Championships in Wellington.

After suffering a traumatic brain injury which threatened his life, Mac Denniston has defied medical predictions and is all set to compete for New Zealand at the Oceania Area Championships in Fiji (1-8 June) next week.

The 18-year-old Para athlete, who only took up athletics last October, has enjoyed a meteoric rise and plans to compete as a T34 athlete in the shot, discus and javelin in Suva.

Some nine months on from first engaging in the sport. the Alexandra Athletics club athlete is a fully focused highly motivated teenager excited by where the track and field journey can take him.

“Since taking up athletics it has made me more resilient and given me more drive,” adds Mac. “If I hadn’t discovered athletics, I’d probably be sat on the couch not doing much.”

Mac was a “very sporty, outgoing” youngster and promising school rugby centre when on a Sunday afternoon in October 2020 he suffered an horrific mountain biking accident.

“I probably did a jump that was out of my league, that I shouldn’t have been doing,” admits Mac who missed the landing, fell of his bike and struck his head.

Mum Maree – who was unsure if Mac had gone motor biking or mountain biking that day – received a call from the Police and when he was told her son has endured a mountain biking accident, she initially felt relief.

“I thought, phew that won’t be as bad as a motor bike accident,” she says. “We didn’t know until that night it was a brain injury. I just thought he had been knocked out.”

Transported by helicopter to Dunedin Hospital the enormity of the accident soon became apparent for Maree.

“That night the neurosurgeon said he would have to remove some of Mac’s skull to deal with the bleeding,” she explains. “The procedure might save his life or kill him but either way surgery would have to be carried out.” 

Following surgery Mac faced a long road ahead. Early testing revealed little brain activity with the Denniston family facing up to the very real possibility that if he did survive, Mac may be some way short of fully functioning.

He had sustained throat damage, which it was initially diagnosed could impact on his ability to swallow, he was told walking might not be possibility. Yet despite the huge uncertainty Maree was “forever hopeful” and two months on from the accident and with Mac based up at the Wilson Centre, a rehabilitation centre on Auckland’s North Shore, he uttered his first words post-accident.

“He said, ‘are we on holiday in Fiji?’ We were close to the beach and the sea, and a group had come into sing Christmas carols that day. To Mac it would have felt like being in a resort or a cultural group coming in and singing songs, that’s why he thought we were in Fiji.”

That day the Mac and his mum spoke for an hour but through the inevitable tears there was a steely determination from Mac to recover from his injury.

“I knew I didn’t want to be burden, so I had to try my hardest not to be,” he says.

Over time, Mac has relearned to walk and according to mum Maree is like any normal 18-year-old. However, with stroke-like symptoms, which impacts his balance and grip on the left side of his body, and suffering high levels of fatigue can be a challenge. But his life was to gain new impetus after his mum “dragged” him along to a Have a Go Athletics day in Dunedin last October.

Here he met Athletics NZ Para Lead and distinguished coach, Raylene Bates, and given his co-ordination challenges she quickly saw a need for Mac to target seated throwing.

“Raylene could see that I was strong but to be seated took away all that extra thinking, so I could focus on the top half,” said Mac. “I enjoyed (athletics) it showed me there was more I could do, and I wanted to keep going with sport.”

Given clear motivation, Raylene started coaching Mac. He quickly took on a training programme of three throws sessions at Molyneux Park in Alexandra plus three gym sessions a week – and although sessions have to be tailored to help overcome his high levels of fatigue, he made a spectacular entrance to the sport by winning shot put gold and discus and javelin silver medals at the 2023 New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Christchurch.

Continuing to progress through 2024 at the Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Wellington he won Para discus bronze in a PB and earned fourth place finishes in the Para shot and javelin. A national senior, U20 and U19 record holder in the men’s javelin F34 and possessing good natural strength and a competitive streak he was elated to be selected for the Oceania Championships.

“I jumped through the roof when my mother told me I’d been selected for Fiji – and that I was going for real as an international athlete,” he recalls.

In Suva, Mac competes in the Para shot, discus and javelin. He prefers the shot because of the relative technical simplicity of the event. However, he has some clear goals on how he would like to perform.

“The aim is to win and to experience being part of a major international event,” he says. “I just want to win.”

Next year the South Islander is looking forward to competing in Dunedin at the 2025 Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships and the longer term goal is to compete for New Zealand at the 2028 Los Angeles.

Yet whatever happens in the future, mum could not be happier that Mac has discovered motivation and passion through athletics.

“I’m proud he is sticking with something,” she says. “He wants to see how good he can become and what we are hearing from Raylene he has the potential to get even better,” she says.

Mac will compete at the Oceania Championships in Suva, Fiji on:

Tuesday 4 June – Men’s Shot Secured Throw Para – 1pm

Wednesday 5 June – Men’s Discus Secured Throw Para – 11am

Thursday 6 June – Men’s Javelin Secured Throw Para – 11am

***Full entries for the Oceania Championships go here

***Timetable of the Oceania Championships go here