Above: Eliza McCartney vaulting at the 2016 Auckland Track Challenge. Photo by Alisha Lovrich / Temposhot.
For many, the appearance of Eliza McCartney at the Auckland Track Challenge at AUT Millennium on Sunday in the Harcourts Cooper & Co pole vault will provide the meet highlight. Here the Olympic pole vault bronze medallist chats to Steve Landells about her expectations leading into the flagship New Zealand one-day meet.
It is hard to comprehend how the everyday life of Eliza McCartney has changed since she competed at the previous edition of the Auckland Track Challenge some 12 months ago.
Back in February last year her profile - beyond that of the hardcore track and field community - would have hardly registered as that evening in West Auckland she vaulted – albeit a highly-respectable - 4.65m to finish second on countback behind Australia’s two-time Commonwealth champion Alana Boyd.
Yet the life of the modest and endearing young woman from Devonport on Auckland’s North Shore was to change forever when she was catapulted to superstardom after winning a stunning Olympic bronze medal in Rio.
If we needed any further confirmation of her status on the New Zealand sporting landscape, that came earlier this month as Eliza’s memorable Rio success defeated the likes of Brendon McCullum’s world record century and Joseph Parker’s world boxing title to secure her first place in the public vote for Halberg Sporting Moment of the Year.
Far from the glare of glittering award nights, Eliza remains fully focused on her bread and butter – vaulting high - and she, for one, can’t wait to compete at the Auckland Track Challenge - New Zealand’s premier one-day international track meet.
“I’ve just got up to a run-up of 12 strides, which is good enough to compete on,” says McCartney, who made her competitive return after a six-month break earlier this month to win at the Porritt Classic in Hamilton with a clearance of 4.40m.
“It is just nice to be competing again, it feels like it has been quite a while.”
With a dizzying round of sponsor commitments and other functions to attend for some athletes it could have be tempting to lose focus. However, Eliza insists – with the full support and positive guidance of her coach, Jeremy McColl, and manager, Scott Newman - it has been quite the reverse.
“I think it has been somewhat easier (to refocus on training) because now I have all this motivation (following her Olympic bronze) to keep training,” she adds. “It is good to have that little boost to help you through the hard training.”
Post-Rio, the Aucklander took a one-month break before making a gradual return to training in mid-September. After struggling with a niggling Achilles problem, which hampered her preparation for the 2016 Olympics, she sensibly “slowly got back into” training mode and with the injury issue under full control she has progressed nicely over the past few months.
Due to the complexities and intricacies of the pole vault there are no shortage of elements to work on and Eliza believes she has made significant progress in several areas.
“We’ve really worked on speed and strength and the benefits are starting to show,” she adds. “We’ve worked a lot on making sure the run up is really solid. There are always technical things to work on.”
Before taking to the runway for Sunday’s Auckland Track Challenge – which also feature her fellow Rio Olympic and Paralympic medallists Tom Walsh and Liam Malone – Eliza first takes to the streets to compete in the Vertical Pursuit supported by Les Mills at the Atrium, Britomart in Downtown Auckland tonight.
Street pole vault competitions are hugely popular - particularly in Europe and North America and the Devonport-based athlete, who has competed in several in her homeland, is looking forward to competing at the event.
“The crowd will be able to get close to the pole vault mats and see firsthand what pole vaulting is all about,” she says. “It is a great opportunity for people to come along and gain a greater understanding of the sport. The atmosphere and noise generated at these events always gets the adrenaline going, so hopefully we’ll jump high and put on a good show for the crowd.”
Attention will then switch to the Auckland Track Challenge on Sunday afternoon with the pole vault runway and pit close to the spectators for what is likely to prove one of the meeting highlights.
Across both the Vertical Challenge and ATC, the Kiwi number one faces strong domestic competition led by 17-year-old Olivia McTaggart - who last month cleared 4.40m just 5cm shy of Eliza’s National Under-18 record - and the senior vaulter believes the meteoric rise of her young training partner is a huge positive for the sport.
“It is great we have those promising young vaulters coming through and that we can hold these high-level competitions in New Zealand,” she adds. “It is really exciting because it offers more of an opportunity for other young vaulters to come through.”
Besides the strong domestic challenge across the two events, Eliza will face some top quality overseas opposition headed by Canadian Olympian Alysha Newman (4.65m) and American Morgann Leleux (4.60m).
So, what are Eliza’s expectations leading into the meet?
“I’ve only just started back this season, so I’m not going in with any great expectations,” she says. “For me, it is just about getting back into competition mode. My personal best off a 12-step run up is 4.65m, so if I can push that kind of height again, that would be great.”
Beyond Auckland Track Challenge, Eliza has a busy forthcoming domestic schedule which includes appearances next month at the Auckland Championships, New Zealand Track & Field Championships concluding with the Australian Championships in Sydney.
Later this year the intention is to base herself in Europe to compete on the Diamond League circuit leading into her main goal for the year – the IAAF World Championships in London.
Growing “more accustomed” to the attention she receives on a daily basis the New Zealand pole vaulting queen has chosen to accepts the positives of the all opportunities which have come her way since winning Olympic bronze and she points to an invite to attend the Halberg Disability Foundation function as one of the highlights.
“It was really cool to see how two groups of people were able to be involved in sport,” she says. “I feel very lucky that I am able to go to such events.”
But the next step is a pair of top-quality competitions in Auckland and the 20-year-old can’t wait.
“I feel ready to go out and perform,” she says. “It is a little too early to talk about heights. It is all about getting back out there and competing.”
Vertical Pursuit Pole Vault
The Atrium, Britomart, Auckland CBD
Wednesday 22 February starts 6:00pm
Vertical Pursuit Website
Auckland Track Challenge
AUT Millennium, 17 Antares Pl, Rosedale, Auckland
Sunday 26 February starts 2:30pm
Auckland Track Challenge Website