Above: Olivia McTaggart flying over a new NZ U17 record of 4.22m. Photo by Temposhot.
Olivia McTaggart appears the latest New Zealand pole vaulting star of the future. Steve Landells caught up with the New Zealand under-17 record holder to find out more.
When a Radio Sport broadcaster recently announced in their ‘what they have learned for the day’ segment when he commented ‘New Zealand is a nation of pole vaulters,’ it was hard not to disagree.
Eliza McCartney’s stunning Olympic Games bronze medal in Rio had brought the discipline to the forefront of the public consciousness as a wave of ‘McCartney mania’ swept through the country.
Yet hot on the heels of Eliza’s success has emerged Olivia McTaggart – let’s call her ‘Mac Two’ – who smashed her training partner’s national under-17 record of 4.11m – with a mighty clearance of 4.22m at an Auckland Twilight meet at Mt Smart Stadium earlier this month. A performance which elevated the 16-year-old to seventh in the world under-18 lists for 2016.
Not unsurprisingly a product of the Jeremy McColl school of vaulting, the Aucklander is clearly another potential vaulting star of the future offering further evidence of the growing strength in depth here in New Zealand of track and field’s most adrenaline-fuelled discipline.
Born on Australia’s Gold Coast to an Australian father and Kiwi mother, Olivia moved to live on Auckland’s North Shore with her family aged five. A keen gymnast she quickly progressed through the ranks winning a New Zealand national age group title on the beam and a silver medal in the all-around competition.
Yet aged 14 her dreams of a future international gymnastics career were cut short after medics advised her to quit the sport after she suffered a stress fracture of the back.
“It was heartbreaking,” she explains. “I’d been involved in the sport for ten years and trained five or six days a week.”
In 2014 while watching her elder brother, Cameron, compete at weightlifting at the 2014 Youth Olympics, Olivia recalls watching a little of the pole vault. Then shortly after returning to New Zealand, when a friend recommended she give pole vault a bash she jumped at the chance.
“I didn’t know too much about the pole vault, but I thought it would be the sport for me because going upside down is similar to gymnastics,” she explains of her motivation.
After being assured by McColl the sport would not cause any further stress on her back she began vaulting in October 2014. Describing the sport as “not a very natural thing to do” Olivia quickly adapted to the sport’s many technical intricacies.
“It didn’t take me too long to pick it up because of my gymnastics background and body awareness,” she insists. “Jeremy is also from a gymnastics background and he helped me adapt with the skills I already had.”
Within just six months in the sport she successfully cleared 3.50m to claim second at the Greater Auckland Schools Championships to earmark her as an athlete of some potential. Meanwhile, in her first season in the sport she also tasted her overseas competition at the Australian Junior Championships in Sydney – an experience which opened her eyes to the international scope of the sport.
She continued to make progress in her second season, clearing a best of 3.90m and landing both the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ crown and national under-20 title.
Yet to make further progress, Olivia, who possesses great naturally elasticity and flexibility from her gymnastics background, was aware she needed to focus more on strength and speed.
Stepping up her work in the gym on arms and legs coupled with longer running sessions has allowed to flourish in her first two competitions this season.
Hoping to crack 4m this season she achieved her first target at the AUT Millennium track North Shore off a ten-step run up (note, her full run up is 12 steps) only to then to smash her PB on no less three occasions in her next competition at Mt Smart Stadium from her full approach. Clearing 4.12m to successfully add one centimetre higher Eliza’s national under-17 record she then found her groove to soar over 4.17m and then 4.22m. In just one competition she had bettered her PB by 22 centimetres. It was some performance.
“I couldn’t quite believe what happened,” says Olivia of vaulting 4.12m. “I knew I needed to keep a level head to make 4.17m and then to clear 4.22m was another story.”
Since her performance at Mt Smart Stadium she has received a welter of media headlines with inevitable comparison made with her training partner Eliza McCartney.
Yet the inspirational qualities of the “golden girl” of New Zealand athletics should not be underestimated, according to Olivia.
“It is awesome to have Eliza as part of the group,” says Olivia, who is a keen rock climber in her down time. “I train with her fairly often, so when I do I try to make the most of it. Only the other weekend, I was asking her advice of how to deal with waiting so long in a competition. It is a really weird to think she has become a huge superstar and people are wanting to take photos with her. I have seen her progress and she has done so well. But I know that I too have the same coach, which gives me the believe that one day I can one day reach that standard too.”
Which brings us to that key ingredient in her success; Jeremy McColl. Described variously as a “boffin” and one of the finest pole vault coaches in the world depending on who you ask, there is a little doubt the quietly-spoken ex-gymnast is among the best in the business and Olivia whole-heartedly agrees.
“He’s such a good coach,” explains the Kristin School student. “He’s very open-minded when it comes to drills and focuses on us as individuals. If I have an injury or I need to work on something specific, he puts the time in with his vaulters to work on those areas. He’s very motivating, easy going and inspiring. He’s an amazing coach.”
Having started the season in sensational fashion her next target is the next month’s New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships in Auckland, where she has half an eye on Eliza’s championship record of 4.11m. In the new year her main goals will be New Zealand nationals and Australian Junior Championships, but the question is does she believe there is a room for improvement?
“I never thought I would jump 4.22m this year, so it hard to tell what is left in me,” she says “Hopefully, I can get to 4.30m and 4.45m (Eliza’s under-18 New Zealand record) is a longer term goal, although I have more than a year left to achieve that.”
The IAAF World Youth Championships in Nairobi, Kenya in July is another option while longer term goals include the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Yet for how the articulate and modest teenager from Auckland’s North Shore is motivated to jump for much simpler reasons.
“I just love that feeling of going over the bar,” she says. “It is just amazing.”