With impeccable timing high jumper Sarah Cowley booked her ticket for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games by soaring clear at 1.89m at the Australian Championships. Steve Landells speaks to the Auckland-based former heptathlete about her long and winding road to Scotland.
On a chilly early evening in Melbourne last month Sarah Cowley had an epiphany. Struggling to find her rhythm and zip on the high jump apron and with time starting to ebb away in pursuit of the Commonwealth Games qualification standard it was watching the attitude of one of her opponents that day which struck a chord. It was that moment which was to transform her entire season.
“That athlete was distinctively aggressive – ruthless in her run marks and hit the take-offs much harder,” explains Sarah. “It was while watching her I finally figured it all out.”
Returning from that Melbourne World Challenge meeting on March 22 – where the Kiwi had placed fifth equal with a modest best of 1.80m – she and her team decided to adopt a fresh approach.
With the New Zealand and Australian national championships to follow – the final two acts of the domestic season - there was little time to waste. Her and her coaching team led by Elena Vinogradova opted for a new run up with greater speed. It was a new no-holds-barred attitude to high jump and one that Sarah bluntly describes as “smashing it.”
At the New Zealand Championships in Wellington, Sarah secured her fourth national high jump title with 1.84m, but missed out on the primary objective of a 1.88m clearance (the Commonwealth Games B standard). Yet – despite time and competitive opportunities at a premium - she refused to panic, encouraged by her performance in the capital.
“My mental execution was a nine out of ten on my ninja monk warrior scale,” she says in reference to her grading system for her performance levels inspired by her psychologist David Galbraith, who works for High Performance Sport New Zealand. “I was so close to 1.88m. Coming out of Wellington I was not so disappointed with my heights. I knew what I needed to do in Melbourne to get the qualifier.”
The following weekend that goal was achieved when Sarah soared clear at 1.89m – the second best performance of her career. She finished second in the competition behind Australian teenage prodigy Eleanor Patterson, but crucially the Commonwealth qualification standard had been attained. The following day her selection for Glasgow was confirmed.
“It was an unbelievably sweet moment for me,” she explains of the joy she felt at negotiating 1.89m. “To jump such a height is a bit like jumping off a cliff into the water. Sometimes it is scary, but if you don’t do it you’ll never know the feeling. After all the ups and downs and the trials and tribulations - every single moment was worth it.”
To fully understand the Rotorua-born athlete’s story was have to rewind back to London 2012. There as a heptathlete Sarah performed with pride to finish 25th behind Great Britain’s golden girl Jessica Ennis. Yet the then 28-year-old Kiwi did not want the Olympic Games to be the final chapter of her career.
Fearing the toll continuing to train for heptathlon would take on her body she made the tough decision to quit multi-events to focus solely on the high jump.
She also knew to succeed as a specialist in her new event required some big changes with one a change in her entire body composition.
“The high jump is a real power to weight ratio event and it is a real balancing act,” she admits. “Right now I feel lean, but also really powerful as well. In the past I may have been lighter but definitely not as powerful.”
She has achieved her current strength levels thanks to a combination of her own nutritional research and iron self-discipline. Sarah has adopted a gluten-free and protein-rich paleo-style diet – with an emphasis on lots of vegetables and real food.
“I need to be as healthy as possible to train and I want to reduce the inflammation in my body as much as possible,” explains the experienced New Zealand international, who competed at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. “I try to eat as much good food as I can and not eat things out of a packet. I don’t have any gluten allergies but I’ve looked at other athletes who are gluten-free and it has worked for them. It has certainly helped me feel good.”
With her diet in order and working closely with her coach, Elena, and the highly rated New Zealand sports scientist Angus Ross (who looks after physiology, strength and conditioning and biomechanics) – coincidentally Sarah’s partner - the pair have helped provide the right ingredients for her training programme.
The coaching team have adopted a detailed and scientific approach, which has reaped rewards, and leading into this domestic season all the data suggested the former multi-eventer was “hitting the numbers.”
Personal bests were being achieved in everything from overhead medicine ball throw to 30m sprints. Physically everything pointed towards the fact the Kiwi was in the form of her life.
“It is not the be all and end all but it is nice to track those numbers”, she explains. “We adopted a no-stone unturned approach and in that regard it is so nice to have jumped so well at the Australian Championships because we’d done so much work to get to that stage.”
Her early and mid-season performances had frustrated and but for a 1.85m leap at the Auckland Championships her performances rarely suggested she was capable of threatening the Commonwealth Games standard.
That moment in Melbourne last month changed everything as a new mental attitude couple with her improved physical prowess reaped the ultimate reward.
“I knew I could do it,” she explains of achieving the Commonwealth Games standard. “To be able to represent my country is such an honour. I’m really proud that I’m going in a different event (Sarah’s other international championship appearances have all come in heptathlon). It has been harder than I expected, but at the end of the day the rewards are greater because it has been a struggle.”
Praising her coach Elena as “outstanding” and Angus as a “game changer” she hopes to continue to “smash those numbers” in training for the next three months before Glasgow.
Yet what does the 30-year-old bachelor of communications student hope to achieve eight years on from her one and only Commonwealth Games appearance where she finished 10th in heptathlon?
“I want to be in my best ever shape in Glasgow,” she explains, “and as my best ever is 1.91m I would like to be better than that. Historically to be able to medal (at Commonwealth Games) you need to be over those heights and that is my intention.”