Above: Olivia McTaggart on her way to a new NZ SEcondary Schools record the the 2017 schools championships. Photo by Alisha Lovrich / Temposhot.
Olivia McTaggart could be set for the biggest year in her relatively brief but exciting career. Steve Landells chats to the teenage vaulting star to find out more.
Don’t be surprised if 2018 is the year Olivia McTaggart steps out of the shadow of her better-known training partner Eliza McCartney to truly carve out her own identity in what promises to be a definitive year in her burgeoning career.
The 18-year-old not only competes in the same event, bears a similarly modest and engaging personality and also lives on Auckland’s North Shore as the Olympic bronze medallist she also shares he Mc part to her name as a nod to her Scottish or Irish heritage.
Yet with the Commonwealth Games (should she secure selection next week) and IAAF World Junior Championships on the horizon this year the gifted 4.40m vaulter could be set for a defining year.
It was last summer – only her second full season in the sport – where the former gymnast drew comparisons to Eliza.
Clearing an impressive PB of 4.40m at the Potts Classic in Hastings 12 months ago proved the high point and she went on to enjoy a consistent season, securing the New Zealand U20 and U18 titles in which she established herself as one of hottest prospects on the New Zealand athletics scene.
“Last year was the best time I’ve had as a pole vaulter,” says Olivia, who celebrated her 18th birthday earlier this month with a trip to Queenstown. “I learned so much technically competing on bigger poles and longer run-ups. I also learned a lot about myself. About how I am a different person to Eliza. She has done so much for me, but I showed some of myself on social media. It was definitely a period in my life when I thought being an athlete is definitely what I wanted to do. Pole vault is my passion.”
Following the success of the summer season and with an eight-week European adventure on the cards, Olivia opted to finish her time at Kristin School to finish her schooling via correspondence.
It was not a decision she regretted as the Kiwi spent two months living and training out of the German pole vaulting hub of Leverkusen, gorging on a smorgasbord of pole vaulting knowledge.
During her time in Europe she hung out and trained with some of the leading German vaulters, she competed in Germany, Belgium and England - winning two of four competitions - and also enjoyed two days as a spectator with her mum, Amanda, at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London.
“The whole experience was very exciting,” she says. “I learned what it was like to compete against older athletes and observed how they reacted during a competition. Another big one was I got the chance to compete in different conditions and some crazy winds. Mentally it was a big to put myself in the zone for each competition and not be intimidated. To attend the World Championships (where she watched Eliza compete in the women’s pole vault and saw Tom Walsh secure men’s shot put gold) was really inspiring.”
After taking a four to five-week break at the end of her European season, Olivia returned to training with a fresh technical approach. She has worked on an expanded 16-step run up and has progressed to compete with a 14ft pole to the longer 14ft 6ins implement.
Theoretically, at least, bigger poles and longer run ups should equate to higher heights and the early signs this summer season point to significant gains.
In December, she signed off her New Zealand Secondary Schools Championships career by securing her third successive gold medals in event clearing a championship record 4.30m – a PB off a 12-step run up.
Then in her first competition of the year in Perth earlier this month the Aucklander secured a noteworthy win in Perth clearing 4.35m to further underline her exciting potential for 2018
“I’d always wanted to jump in Perth,” she says. “I knew from talking to the Australian girls it was one of the best places to jump in the world. It always has a good atmosphere and the tailwind is one of the best in the world. I showed good mental strength to win.”
With a busy schedule ahead beginning with the New Zealand Commonwealth Trials in Hastings on Saturday followed by the Australian Commonwealth Games Trials in mid-February and the New Zealand Championships in Hamilton and Vertical Pursuit in March, the Kiwi has plenty of opportunities to uncork some big vaults off her longer poles and 16-step run up.
But the main goal of this summer season is a trip to the Gold Coast where she unashamedly is targeting a spot on the New Zealand team for the Commonwealth Games to join her brother Cameron, who has made the New Zealand weightlifting team.
“The possibility of both of us competing in the Games together is rare and would be such an amazing experience to go through together,” she adds of the potential of appearing at the same Commonwealth Games as her sibling. “Since he’s a lot more experienced in world competitions it would make me feel more at home and comfortable in a different surrounding.
“The dream since the age of five has been to compete at a Commonwealth Games. Since I was very young I was a gymnast and I recall watching the Commonwealth Games on TV and hearing the stories of what it was like to compete there from some of the gymnasts I trained for.
“It would be great to represent my country at a Commonwealth Games. I was born in Gold Coast (Olivia has an Australian dad and a Kiwi mother) and lived for five years there until moving back here.”
Beyond that Olivia, who has aspirations to start her YouTube channel through which she hopes to promote pole vaulting, has another huge event in the World U20 Championships, which take place in Tampere, Finland in July.
The biennial championships was the one in which Eliza won a bronze medal at back in 2014 and Olivia – who has already posted a qualification mark for the event - is hoping to at least match that achievement in Scandinavia.
“I’m definitely looking for a podium spot,” she adds. “It will be really cool to get the chance to finally catch up with and compete against all these girls I’ve seen on Instagram,” she says.