Above: Olivia Eaton setting a new personal best at the Australian Championships on the Gold Coast. Photo by Bradley Kanaris / Getty Images.
Sprint ace Olivia Eaton has proved one of the breakout New Zealand performers of the 2018 summer campaign. Steve Landells caught up with the Taranaki 200m speedster about her stunning progression.
In a statistically-driven sport sometimes it is the numbers which reveal everything about the quality of a performance.
When Kiwi Olivia Eaton thundered around half a lap of the Carrara Stadium at the Australian Championships in Gold Cast last month she not only scalped 0.41 from her personal best to record 23.39 for fourth she did so into a 1.7m/s headwind, which made her immediate elevation from 16th to number four on the all-time New Zealand lists even more astonishing.
“I honestly had no idea time-wise what I could achieve but I knew I was in good company racing Riley Day and Maddie Coates (the one-two in the 200m final),” explains Gold Coast-based Olivia “It was only two minutes after the race I realised the time I had run. It makes me feel extremely proud. I had no idea I was capable of jumping that much (from my PB) in one race.
“The day after the race I received a message from Wendy Brown, the New Zealander who I had dislodged from fourth on the all-time lists. She said she had been following my progress which was so humbling and she added ‘well done, keep going and one day I will have top spot.’ That was pretty cool.”
Top spot at the moment belongs to Monique Dell who blitzed to a New Zealand record time of 22.90 In 2009 and it is a mark which would appear possible for the versatile 20-year-old sprint talent, who has proved just as adept running on sand as tartan.
Born and raised in New Plymouth, Olivia first realised she had a gift for running when impressing at a surf lifesaving carnival aged eight. Then, she recalls, during her later primary school years her speed was so impressive teachers used to race her against the boys.
Aged 12 she joined Egmont Athletics and under the guidance of her first coach, Larry O’Byrne, her athletics journey began in earnest.
During her years as a pupil at New Plymouth Girls’ High School, Olivia developed into an accomplished performer on the national stage winning the New Zealand Secondary Schools 200m title in 2014 and the following year she completed the 100m and 200m double at the Oceania Junior Championships in Cairns.
“It was my first trip away and it was really special to me,” says Olivia of her double success in Queensland. “I was not expecting the result at the time. I had a blast (in Cairns) and it set me up for where I am now.”
Running concurrently to her thriving athletics career the young speedster also continued to excel in the sport of surf lifesaving.
A member of the Mt Manganui Surf Club in 2014 she competed at the World Junior Championships, winning silver in the beach sprint. In 2016 she made her first senior New Zealand Black Fins team aged 18 and struck gold in the beach sprint at the World Championships in the Netherlands.
There is no questions surf lifesaving – which she still competes in today – complements her athletics but there is little doubt where her main passion lies.
“Athletics is definitely my main priority,” explains Olivia. “I see more of a future with athletics. It is a measurable sport with times and wind readings, so you knew exactly how well you have run. I love athletics and I have become obsessed with it.”
Her athletics career stepped up a notch in 2016 when she competed in the 200m and the 4x100m relay at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz in Poland. Although personally disappointed with her competitive outcome after failed to advance from the heats of the 200m running 24.13 – having set a 200m PB at the time of 23.89 in her final pre-event competition – and suffering the pain of disqualification in the 4x100m following a lane violation, the experience left a lasting impression on Olivia.
“It was so inspirational and it was great to go over with a group of six (New Zealand) girls in the sprint squad,” she says. “I got to see the likes of Candace Hill (who won 100m and 4x100m gold for the US) compete, who had already turned professional. Competing at World U20s was a massive eye-opener for me and showed the future potential in the sport. It was an incredible trip.”
However, she was to make a big decision in October of that year when opting to leave New Zealand to relocate in Gold Coast to join the training group of Aussie sprint coach Brett Robinson.
Olivia was aware of Brett through surf lifesaving circles and she was convinced he was the man to guide her to the next level.
“I’ve known him since I was 13,” she says of the man who also guided Murray Goodwin to the men’s Australian 400m title last month. “He is a phenomenal coach and I am extremely lucky to have access to incredible facilities, great training partners and be under his guidance.
“The whole environment is so professional. Brett has an assistant coach. I have access through the training group to a physio at the end of every training session. He’s very specific when it comes to numbers and statistics, but he also has a very relaxed approached to racing.”
For her first summer season under Brett in 2016-17 Olivia adopted a low-key competitive approach as she became accustomed to his training methods and a weekly regime of five tracks sessions and two strength and conditioning sessions per week.
Last year she raced sparingly, but he did briefly become a social media hit after none other than Usain Bolt shared an image of her almost being flattened by the Jamaican sprint superstar at the Nitro meet in Australia.
“I was competing in the 4x100m and I was running anchor after receiving the baton from Joseph Millar,” she recalls. “Usain Bolt ran third leg and was one lane outside. He was so close to me, I felt the rush of the wind as he went past me. He ended up sharing the photo and I remember telling my room-mates, I told you he was close to me!”
Studying a part-time Bachelor of Sports Management extramurally from Massey University and working part-time in a café, Olivia believes she has fully benefited from 18 months under Robinson stewardship coupled with her whole-hearted commitment to the sport.
“I always make sprinting my priority,” she says. “I don’t just turn up to training to tick a box. I also look after my body in that I make sure I have regular massage and physio. While my diet also plays a massive part in why I recover so well. I hope my preparation is close to perfect, so by the time I race I know I have done everything I can.”
After trimming 0.09 from her previous 200m best in January in Canberra with a 23.80 performance she knew she was in good nick but then came her stunning display in her adopted home in Gold Coast to elevate her career to a new stratosphere.
Her next big goal is competing in this weekend’s New Zealand Championships where she will be hunting a first national senior title beyond that she has half-an-eye on the 2019 World University Games and 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Yet having achieved her best results in the 200m why does she believe she is so well suited to the half-lap distance?
“I’m not a powerful aggressive athlete, qualities which are needed for the 100m but I am always confident of my back end of the race, which is why I’m better suited for the 200m. I also love that feeling of sling-shotting off the bend and into the straight.”