Pole vaulter Eliza McCartney: ‘You have to think about the process and not the outcome because it’s so easy to get caught up in the height and suddenly lose everything you’ve done.’
When she’s soaring four and a half metres above the earth, propelled only by her own athleticism and an obliging pole, the hottest young prospect in New Zealand athletics often feels as though everything is unfolding in slow-motion as she plunges back to terra firma.
Welcome to the world of Eliza McCartney, the 19-year-old Auckland pole vaulter who has just taken a massive leap not only into the record books but towards a spot at the Rio Olympics.
Right now, as the new year unfolds, she is what you might call on top of the world. In the past two months of 2015, this North Shore-based athlete soared to new heights when she nailed not one but two significant vaults that put her in some esteemed company.
First came the 4.50m clearance at an otherwise nondescript November meeting at Mount Smart Stadium, improving her national resident record for the second week in a row and also meeting the B qualifying standard for Rio. Good enough.
But McCartney wasn’t done. Because she turned 19 in December, the world junior record of 4.63m − tantalisingly within reach − needed to be knocked off before the end of the year if McCartney was up to it.
No problem. Up she stepped, again at Mount Smart, on a blustery afternoon, and on her final attempt soared over 4.64m to become just the seventh Kiwi athlete to own a world junior record. Not only that, but she also broke the 17-year-old New Zealand allcomers’ mark, set by Aussie Emma George at 4.57min 1998, and booked her ticket to Rio by surpassing the A-standard.
To get an idea of the level she’s now at, McCartney joins shot put immortal Valerie Adams as the only athletes to hold every New Zealand record from under-17 through to senior allcomers. The exciting thing is McCartney, now ranked 19th in the world, is only scratching the surface of her technical sport while she comes to grips with the myriad requirements of nailing a world-class vault.
“People ask is it scary falling from that height, but really it’s over so quickly you often don’t realise you’re up there,” McCartney says.
“There’s a lot to think about, but not the height so much. Sometimes it goes so quickly you don’t know what’s happened, but other times, especially on the big heights, you definitely have that memory of going over the bar almost in slow motion. You’re falling down and looking up to see the bar still up there. It all feels so slowed down you almost have time to look around and enjoy the view.”
McCartney certainly makes an impression when you meet one summer evening at her AUT Millennium training venue on Auckland’s North Shore. She’s tall (1.79m), lean and exudes athleticism. She’s also bright, chatty and vivacious, with eyes sparkle with the possibilities of life.
For someone still in their teens, she exudes a confidence that belies her years. It’s no surpriseto learn later she hopes to become a doctor one day. This is a young woman who knows exactly what she wants in life.
McCartney was bred to pole vault. Her father William McCartney, a lawyer, was a national-level high jumper, and mother Donna Marshall, now a GP, was a gymnast of no little ability. “Coincidentally, those are two very good backgrounds for pole vault,” the young gun adds.
As McCartney explains, this is a complex sport she has chosen. Part-athlete, part-gymnast, part-daredevil, a lot goes into mastering the most technical, and dangerous, discipline in track and field.
Think about it. There’s the runup, which is where the explosive force is generated. Then there’s the plant, where the pole must be positioned just right for takeoff. Then there’s the vault itself, where the athlete springs skywards as the pole flexes and straightens. Finally there’s the clearance, where the athlete pushes over the bar, before starting that tremulous journey back to earth.
“It’s all about the preparation,” McCartney says. “You can do what you want on the day, but it comes down to all the training we’ve been doing the last year. You have to think about the process and not the outcome because it’s so easy to get caught up in the height and suddenly lose everything you’ve done.
“You break it down to runup, plant and jump, and if you get it right the pole will pop you up and you’ve just got to keep pulling and pushing off the pole to get as much height as you can.”
McCartney’s longtime coach Jeremy McColl has worked hard to forge a career teaching this exacting discipline. “The key thing is the transfer of energy,” he says. “You’ve got your runup speed, and it’s about putting that kinetic energy into the pole.
“She’s got such a good feel for how to transfer that energy into and then out of the pole. The better your lines are on the pole, the more energy you can store and apply back for the pushoff.”
McCartney started in athletics around the age of 11, initially as a high jumper before morphing into the pole vault a couple of years later. From there it’s been steady process under McColl, a two-time national champion and former gymnast, of accumulating the techniques required.
“She’s always had a great feel, and an ability to move her body and change things quite rapidly,” McColl says. “But the work on the pole has taken a long time because she’s quite tall and hadn’t done much gymnastics before, which is quite uncommon.”
But that height is about to become a serious advantage for McCartney, McColl adds. “She’s got the full package with the speed and strength to go with that height. And her gymnastics abilities are coming together really well. There’s so much more to go to technically and physically, and we haven’t really tapped into how much she can keep getting better.”
For McCartney, the progressions have been trying but memorable, capped by that dramatic 4.64m record vault last month. “It’s an incredible feeling,” she said afterwards. “I’m just overjoyed.”
All things considered, with the wind, using the 12-step runup for the first time since mid-year, and a late decision to switch poles for her final attempt, it was a dream result.
McCartney still recalls her first competitive clearance of 2.40m as a callow 13-year-old, and from there she has slowly but surely ticked off the milestones. The first time she bent the pole in training was a massive mental breakthrough. “That was a funny feeling where you just get shot upwards. I remember thinking, ‘oh my gosh, that was actually a pole vault’. It was a buzz, and I was, ‘yeah, I gotta keep doing this’.”
There’s also a fear factor to be conquered. Poles snap, landings are miscalculated. And that’s some height to come down from.
“If you know what you’re doing and how to bail if something goes wrong, it really isn’t as bad as it seems,” McCartney says. “But there are definitely mental barriers to overcome.
“The further away your runup, the bigger the poles, they’re things that can play mind games. I struggled a bit at the start of this year with a few mental challenges but I’ve gotten through it.
“In many ways it’s an irrational fear. I’ve never injured myself in pole vault so it’s just a mental thing you have to work through, the same as in any sport.”
McCartney’s achievements have been impressive, especially when you consider she had to take time out in 2014 with a debilitating bout of glandular fever. She was a bronze medallist at the 2014 world junior championships (4.45m) and took silver at the 2015 World Student Games (4.40m). Now, with four more steps to be added to her runup this summer, serious senior competition awaits a young woman also studying part-time for a bachelor of science, majoring in physiology.
McColl: “All the work has paid off. We’re a great team, we get on really well, she does what she’s told and is a breeze to coach. She does the work and has a lot of trust in me and I have a lot of trust in what she is doing, too.”
McCartney says she “would not be anywhere without Jeremy”.
“He’s the most incredibly supportive person, and anything that needs done, he’s right there behind you. He comes with me to every training, every meet, every trip. I need Jeremy, as there’s still so much for me to learn.”
You wonder how far she can go, given her age and breakthroughs achieved. McColl doesn’t like to put a number on it, but says significant improvements are imminent. McCartney has a goal to medal at the 2020 Olympics, and is now intent on making the final in Rio.
“Nothing’s changed. I’ll keep training as usual, and we’ll get back to my long runups,” she says of a looming month on the Sunshine Coast training with Australia’s double Commonwealth champion Alana Boyd. “There’s still a lot more to come this season, and a lot more to do before I’m ready for Rio.”
The ultimate leap? “Not many have cleared five metres,” McCartney says. “It’s huge, but one day I want to break that barrier. It’s taken a lot of time (she trains six days a week, three hours a day, across an array of disciplines) and I’ve had a lot of barriers to overcome, but I’ve learnt so much and now it’s just a matter of pulling my technique together.”
A young woman for whom the sky really is the limit.