Two pole vaulters are among the small cluster of New Zealand athletes who have secured the qualification standard for the 2014 World Junior Championships. Yet as Steve Landells found out, thanks to one, very talented young coach this is more than just a happy coincidence.
‘From tiny acorns mighty oaks will grow’ could well be the motto of Jeremy McColl.
The young coach is seeking to develop the relatively virgin expanse of New Zealand pole vaulting into a formidable force capable of competing with the very best in the world.
As unlikely an ambition as this may sound – for a nation reared on its proud endurance heritage and more latterly its throwers - the early signs of his desire being fulfilled are optimistic.
Take the past two editions of the IAAF World Youth Championships – the premier global competition for under-18 athletes. At each event - in 2011 and 2013 - Kiwis have competed with the very best and finished a noteworthy fourth in pole vault on each occasion.
This year two athletes – Eliza McCartney and Pascal Kethers – have secured qualification standards for the World Junior Championships, which take place in Eugene, Oregon in July.
The duo just two are part of a stable of impressive athletes being moulded by Jeremy out of the Millennium Institute. So just who is the 31-year-old coach who is making such a noise in New Zealand coaching circles?
Born and raised in Auckland’s North Shore he was a former international gymnast who later switched to athletics. He started out as a sprinter/jumper before switching to pole vault because “it looked fun.” He was instantly hooked.
“I just fell in love with it,” says Jeremy, whose parents hail from Northern Ireland. “It is the extreme sport of athletics - a real challenge and something I was able to relate to because of my gymnastics background.”
He impressed competitively winning a couple of New Zealand titles and also securing the 2004 Oceania title before a foot injury sustained during a competition accident in his mid-20s brought a premature end to his athletics career.
Jeremy, who had worked as a gymnastics coach for “three or four years” from the age of 17, opted to move into coaching athletics – a perfect fit for the qualified builder who has had always had a ‘fascination for technique and the technical events.’
“I really loved coaching gymnastics and at the time it just so happened that my pole vault coach went back to live in Croatia,” he explains. “The two athletes that I was training with also didn’t have a coach so I decided to coach them,” he explains.
It was not easy. As New Zealand had little pole vault tradition he had to be proactive to seek out the relevant coaching information via the internet. He studiously soaked up information on everything from runway speed and the mechanics of the vault and crucially had two pole vault coaching mentors, Steve Rippon, a Finnish-based Australian who guided English vaulter Steven Lewis to the Commonwealth Games podium and Melbourne-based Mark Stewart, former coach to Australia's 2008 Olympic champion Steve Hooker. His running and general athletics advice came via Estonian coach, Kathrin Klaup the mother of his fiance, Mari Klaup, an international heptathlete who finished 21st at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.
Communicating via a combination of Skype, Facebook and email, Jeremy has quickly advanced his coaching methods and is hugely appreciative of the support the trio have given him.
“It's been pretty amazing,” he adds. “They've been around the scene a long time and know a lot of the Russian (pole vault) coaches. They've had experience of the Russian system (known as the best in the world for pole vault technique) and it is great they have been able to pass on some of that knowledge.”
The Aucklander has had to overcome other disadvantages. The range of equipment is limited in New Zealand and he has had to personally pay for carbon fibre poles out of his own pocket to keep his athletes competitive with the rest of the world.
He has also personally built a downhill runway – the only one in New Zealand - which is kept at the Millennium Institute for training. The angle of the slope is designed at about a four per cent, which allows his athletes to train at much higher volume.
“The main advantage (of the downhill runway) is vaulters can run off a shorter run up and reach the same velocity (as off a full run up) and get through three to four times the amount of work,” he explains. “On the flat, a vaulter would be limited to say 8-12 jumps, but on the downhill runway they can have 30 plus jumps in a session.”
The results have started to follow. At the 2011 World Youth Championships Nick Southgate (a 5.10m vaulter at his best) finished fourth. At the most recent edition last year Eliza McCartney also finished just one place shy of the podium.
The coach is optimistic that Pascal – another with a lifetime best of 5.10m - can leap 5.20m-5.30m in due course and he believes it is “only a matter of time” before Eliza clears 4.20m and 4.30m.
So, how would be describe his coaching style?
“I like to coach the detail and make sure everything is perfect,” he explains. “If I've got my mind on something, I'll anaylse it for two or three hours after training and make sure the athletes get good feedback. I'll keep on pursuing it until they get it right.
In the short term, he hopes that Pascal and Eliza can achieve “top 12 finishes at least” at the World Junior Championships and the pair along with Nick are capable of attaining a Commonwealth Games B qualification standard.
Coaching a gifted training group of around ten athletes he is excited by the talent within the group. Yet he would like to see more Kiwi youngsters take up the pole vault because he believes they are genuine opportunities to reach a world-class level.
“The Europeans are very successful at pole vault and we basically have the same genetics,” he explains.” We don't produce freakishly fast sprinters and incredible long jumpers but that does not matter in pole vault providing you are fast enough and have a good jump you can be a world-class pole vaulter.”
He does not lack ambition. Should more young Kiwis take up the sport and the current crop of talent continue to produce top international results he believes the event can help sustain a culture of success for generations.
“I really want the pole vault to be an event that internationally we are strong at and we can create a brand like Val has for the shot put and like we've had in the past for middle-distance. The goal is to bring pole vault in New Zealand up to a world-class level.”