Above: Lucy Oliver in action at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Photo by Cameron Spencer / Getty Images.
At the age of 27, two-time Olympian Lucy Oliver (nee Van Dalen) has announced her retirement from the sport. Steve Landells looks back on the career of the Wanganui-raised athlete whose career surpassed her wildest expectations.
Broadly speaking athletes come in two forms.
The first ‘type’ are the athletes who have lifelong addiction to the sport that even long after their competitive days are over remain wedded to the sport in a host of different ways.
The second type of athlete, who require a more “balanced life” and multiple interests to bring the best out of their athletics life – athlete’s like Lucy Oliver.
Aged just 27 and just a month after making her second Olympic appearance, the Auckland-based middle-distance runner has hung up her spikes to focus her attention on completing her master’s degree in Social Work and in the longer term to start a family with her husband, Tim, whom she married in January.
“Retirement had been on my mind in the countdown to Rio,” explains Lucy. “But I really didn’t want to make that decision until after the Olympics. It was only after Rio when I sat down with my coach (Adrian Blincoe) we decided it was the right time.
“I have had an amazing athletics career, a wild adventure, but I feel this is the right time to stop. I have a big desire to work with underprivileged children and families and I am really passionate about pursuing that goal in future.”
Born and raised in Wanganui, aged 14 Lucy and her identical twin sister, Holly, decided to pick athletics as their summer sport at Wanganui Collegiate. It was their good fortune that the athletics programme was driven by inspirational Scot Alec McNab, a man who has developed so many leading New Zealand athletes out of the school.
The twins had been no great shakes as intermediate school runners, but under McNab’s canny tutelage the pair quickly developed with Lucy describing winning 1500m silver as a fifth former at the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Championships as her “breakthrough moment.”
Twelve months later she repeated the feat before signing of her high school career with gold over the metric mile distance in 2006.
“I had said to myself rather cheekily after I won my second silver medal (at New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Championships) that the only way I would carry on in the sport was if I would win a gold medal in my final year at school, which I did,” she says laughing at the memory.
Yet she insists none of her success would have been possible without the input of the charismatic McNab.
“Alec is such an amazing man and coach with such a passion to help young people achieve their best,” she says. “He is so selfless and he definitely influenced my running career in such a major way in my early years.”
Coming to the end of her time at high school she was offered several US scholarships. Initially committed to staying at home, Lucy and her sister Holly decided an offer from Stony Brook University on New York’s Long Island was too good to turn down and in 2007 the pair took “a leap of faith” and headed across to the US. It is not a move she regretted.
For five years the twins thrived under the coaching of former Irish Olympic marathon runner Andy Ronan with the switch to the highly competitive US collegiate system proving “pivotal” in her career development.
“Personally, my time at Stony Brook was when I fell in love with the sport,” she admits. “Before that I can’t say I really loved it, it was just something I did because I was good at it. Yet I realised during my time in America it was a gift from God and this gave me lot of purpose.”
Flourishing in the team environment embedded within the US collegiate scene she went into the 2012 indoor season - her final year at Stony Brook - in a much more relaxed frame of mind. Freed from the burden of pressure she was about to unleash the finest year of her career as she set a New Zealand indoor 1500m record of 4:11.78 at the Millrose Games in New York and secured gold in the NCAA Indoor Championship mile in March.
“Everything just fell into place for me because I had a period of consistent training, I stayed healthy and I raced regularly,” she says of her 2012 campaign. “I often felt I needed to race a lot to bring the best out in me. While that season I was ineligible to run cross country, which allowed me to focus on training and meant I was fresh for the indoor season.”
Outdoors Lucy went on to finish an impressive fourth in the NCAA 1500m final before shattering her PB to run a lifetime best of 4:05.76 in San Diego to book her ticket for the London Olympic Games. Then in the British capital she went on to successfully negotiate the heats before placing a highly-respectable ninth in the semi-finals.
Post the London Olympics she opted to spend a year training full-time in Melbourne. Yet realising devoting her time solely to running was not the best option for her she returned to New Zealand to settle in Auckland to start her master’s degree in Social Work.
She had clocked an encouraging indoor PB of 8:53.95 at the 2014 Millrose Games in New York at the beginning of the year but started to encounter persistent Achilles issues, which had first flared up in 2012.
She qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow but running in “a lot of pain” Lucy failed to advance from the heats of the 1500m and wound up 13th in the 5000m final. Frustrated by her injury issues she took a sabbatical from the sport and spent time in Tauranga at YWAM, a Christian discipleship training school.
“I was considering whether I should retIre at that point,” she says. “I was quite discouraged and I didn’t know whether I wanted to carry on.”
However, after five months break in March 2015 she decided to return to training in a quest to make the Rio 2016 Olympics Games.
Having maintained a long-distance coaching relationship with Andy Ronan since returning from Stony Brook both decided it would be best to work with a New Zealand-based coach. Having previously enjoyed help and guidance from Adrian Blincoe, Lucy decided the New Zealand men’s 5000m record holder would be her ideal choice as coach going into her next season.
Struggling with Achilles issues from the faster speed workouts, Lucy would step up to the 5000m, although last year she opted to focus largely on training rather than racing to rebuild both her fitness and confidence levels.
Earlier this year the Achilles injuries re-surfaced, but thanks to a combination of her doctor, Dan Exeter, her physio, Jane Knobloch and the patience of Blincoe, she found a route to the Rio Olympics.
“They put a plan together to protect my Achilles,” she says. “I underwent shockwave therapy treatment, which is extremely painful, but it worked. I had three races in the US, which was my last chance to qualify.”
In June in Portland she ran a PB of 15:20.13 to gain the B qualification standard, which proved enough to clinch selection for Rio.
Lucy says pre-camp in Germany went very well and she was optimistic of a good showing in Rio. Sadly, on the day, she struggled to produce her best and in hot conditions ran a modest time of 15:53.77 to finish a distant 14th in her heat.
“I felt I was in the best shape of my life, but on race day I was impacted by the heat,” she explains. “I nearly collapsed through heat exhaustion. It was so unfortunate, but although the race didn’t go very well, the Olympic experience was amazing.”
Opting to retire at the end of a four-year Olympic cycle made sense to Lucy, who views her NCAA gold medal plus her two Olympic appearances as her career highlights. She has no regrets and reflects fondly on so many cherished memories in the sport.
“Running has allowed me to travel the world, meet so many amazing people and also taught be the value of having a strong work ethic,” says Lucy, who still intends to run regularly for fitness. “All my experiences have given me a lot of confidence and it has made me believe I can do anything that I put my mind to. I would never have imagined when I started out I would be a two-time Olympian.
“It is sad to end something which has shaped by life for the past 12 years, but I have got so many amazing memories and I will look on my time in athletics as a fantastic experience.”