Oceania record-holder Eliza McCartney has propelled herself to the top echelon of women’s pole vault during a memorable campaign. Steve Landells caught up with the 21-year-old Aucklander at the IAAF Continental Cup in Ostrava to look back on her breakthrough season.
When Eliza McCartney reflects on the 2018 season one highlight stand out above all others.
It was to a street competition in the German city of Jockgrim on the left bank of the Rhine and clearing a world leading mark of 4.94m, which raises the biggest smile.
“It felt amazing (to clear 4.94m),” says Eliza of clearing a height only three other women in history have surpassed (Yelena Isinbayeva, Sandi Morris and Jenn Suhr). “It is more than the physical thrill of clearing the bar, it was also the many emotions that had built towards that moment. It was so special.
“That day I knew I was going to clear the bar, I was so confident. The first two jumps (at 4.94m) were so good and after Jeremy (McColl, Eliza’s coach) showed me the video, I knew I only needed to make the tiniest tweak to clear the bar. To vault 4.94m and to also know how to achieve this has brought me so much self-confidence.”
Three national records
After a campaign which began which began back in late-January in homely Hastings with a clearance of 4.70m and which ended abruptly in Birmingham with injury in the Diamond League - the year has brought a full spectrum of emotions.
A fourth-place finish at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham was followed by Commonwealth silver in Gold Coast. Then during a stunning first half of the Northern Hemisphere summer she posted no less than three national and Oceania records with 4.85m in Eugene, 4.92m in Mannheim followed by that 4.94m vault in Jockgrim.
A 4.75m effort for seventh in Monaco – a result which encapsulates the quality of women’s pole vault globally - followed by injury in Birmingham is not how she would have chosen to end the season, so how does the 21-year-old assess her 2018 campaign?
“Overall, the year has mostly been highlights, especially when you compare it with 2017 when I struggled with (an Achilles) injury for much of the time,” adds Eliza.
“I had many moments to be proud of and I’m very happy with how it went,” she says. “I had a couple of low moments but not in a way which is comparable to last year.”
Longer run up
Undoubtedly, a sustained period without serious injury since January has contributed to her improved heights in 2018. Yet other factors have also allowed the “poster girl of New Zealand athletics” to shine.
“The biggest (factor) is I’ve been on a longer run up (14 steps) compared to last year,” she explains. “Also my technique has really come along. I don’t know if I’m a whole lot faster or stronger but technically I’ve made some improvements and being on bigger poles has all made a difference.”
Experiencing a three-month period based in Europe – the longest stint in her career – has also proved a critical part of her development.
Living and training in Leverkusen she has enjoyed an extended spell on the Diamond League circuit, where she has developed a great friendship with many of her pole vault rivals -including Sandi Morris (who cleared 4.95m to edge ahead of Eliza on the 2018 world lists) and world and Olympic champion Katerina Stefanidi of Greece - and the Aucklander insists the knowledge gained during 2018 has proved priceless.
“Everyone assumes that because I am an Olympic medallist I am a veteran of the sport, but it is a little bit deceiving,” she says. “I was 19 when I won that Olympic bronze medal and I have had to build a lot of experience over the past couple of years. This season I really feel like I belong to the top group; I have jumped the (top) heights and I feel more confident.
“I believe I’ve learned more about myself as a professional athlete and I’m willing to trust myself more. I sometimes don’t give myself enough credit but I’ve surprised myself with my mental resilience this year. I feel like I am developing as an athlete.”
Which brings us to another point. With the women’s pole vault currently at an all-time high in terms of strength in depth – nine women have surpassed 4.80m or higher this year – and with Eliza having banked a stunning 4.94m clearance how much higher does she think she can go?
“I believe the world record (of Yelena Isinbayeva at 5.06m) is something that is achievable, and I think they are a few of us (women) who could get it,” she adds. “We have not yet reached our max and that is so exciting.”
“Frustrated” to end her season prematurely and miss out on both the IAAF Diamond League final and Continental Cup her time switches to a well-earned end-of-season break.
The pole vaulting superstar will now have more time to devote to her environmental science degree, which she started extramurally at the beginning of the year and completing the set of Game of Thrones books “I’m about two-thirds through the series” in the coming weeks and months.
A natural “planner” Eliza and her coach have already mused the 2019 season, which creates the challenge of a very late IAAF World Championships in Doha (Sept 28-Oct 6). The pair have already considered a plan A and a plan B for her competitive schedule but it could well be that that after the domestic season and a period in Europe from May might be followed by a six-week block back in New Zealand before returning to Europe for the back end of the season and then on to Doha.
“I know it will be hot (in Doha) but I think the humidity is a concern,” she explains. “I’ve also never competed in Doha. I was scheduled to compete there in May but I had to pull out through injury. I’m hoping to compete in the Doha Diamond League next year (if there is a women’s pole vault), so (at the moment) I don’t know what to expect (in Doha).”
The late scheduled 2019 World Championships also create another conundrum; how best to then prepare for an Olympic Games in Tokyo which is only ten months later away.
That is, of course, something for Eliza and her support team to ponder. However, whatever exciting possibilities await, then 2018 will definitely be remembered fondly.
“You always face a lot of mental difficulties and challenges with pole vault, there is always something else I need to work on,” she explains. “I’ve enjoyed a good breakthrough this year in terms of my mental resilience and my approach to competitions, and that is so important.”