After former Takapuna Grammar School student Eliza McCartney launched herself 4.80 metres into the air to claim Olympic bronze in 2016 at the age of 19, it wasn’t necessarily the height or the medal or her age that caught the world’s attention – it was that smile. The professional pole vaulter spoke to Heather Barker Vermeer in mid-January about the joy of sport and how she’s adapting to her new normal.
Being a professional athlete can be a bit like living on a rollercoaster, says Eliza McCartney. And there hasn’t been a more turbulent ride for international athletes in recent times than this past year, when the ride ground to an unwelcomed halt. “As a professional athlete, your job is to compete and do well. It’s been a long time since I have been able to feel like a normal athlete!
“It’s been hard . There wasn’t a lot that I could do; I didn’t have everything I needed to train with at home during lockdown. It’s not easy to practice pole vault at home!
“But I learnt that things don’t have to be perfect. There wasn’t a lot that I could do about it, like everyone. But I learnt that’s ok. Just because things are different to how you planned, doesn’t mean they can’t have a positive effect. And you come back stronger – I learnt that after injury.”
Her 2019 season was slimline after the diagnosis of a genetic disorder causing autoimmune inflammation that targets her tendons (she had been battling Achilles issues for several years). After trialling many means of treatment and recovery, Eliza is confident she has found the right mix and is ecstatic to be back in training ahead of her first competition of 2021.
“I have had enough time out to fine tune things and recognise patterns. I have an incredible team at High Performance Sport New Zealand and a really good medical team behind me. The fact that I am now able to jump twice a week feels so good!”
The late January Potts Classic meeting held at Mitre 10 Park in Hastings is one of Eliza’s favourite places to vault.
“We’ve been very careful to plan out the weeks and months ahead and it will be amazing to be competing again. The last time I competed was mid-2019.
“I haven’t reached the Olympic qualifying height yet, which is of course at the back of my mind. But I have no expectations for the comp coming up. The track at Hastings is one I really enjoy. If I can jump the qualifying height for the Olympics, that would be incredible. But simply the fact that I am now able to jump again in a competition is amazing.”
Having a focus on big goals isn’t important, or helpful, to Eliza. “I don’t set the goal that I want to get an Olympic gold medal or anything like that. Of course, I have these thoughts in my head, but I focus on the goals that I can really achieve myself, like jumping a personal best.
“But in a competition, someone else could jump their personal best too and do better than you, so there are things that are beyond your control.”
Does she use visualisation as a tool to help her reach the lofty heights needed to clear the bar? “I use that in training and in competitions, yes. However, I’ve been working more on feeling the movements rather than visualising them. I am so used to seeing video footage of myself vaulting that I can only see myself in my mind’s eye from side on now!” Her laughter is free flowing.
Atmosphere is key for Eliza when it comes to competitions. Instead of the bright lights of the international mega stadiums, she prefers the more characterful competitions, such as the quirky festival of pole vaulting held in Jockrim near Frankfurt. “They don’t even have a full track, just two soccer fields, which they convert into this incredible vaulting competition. They fill the whole area with spectators, there’s beer and sausages, people are smoking – it’s so different to anywhere else I’ve competed! But it’s an incredible atmosphere. I think atmosphere is a huge part of competing. Also, I jumped my personal best there!” Eliza reached 4.94 metres at the event in 2018.
Back home, Eliza could not enthuse more about her love of the North Shore. “I’m so grateful to live here. I love being near the ocean – it’s a part of who I am. I feel the coast becomes a part of you, so I’m very much at home around the beaches.
“I feel very fortunate to have been raised in Devonport and I’m definitely planning on sticking around!”
One of her favourite spots is Maungauika/North Head. “It’s such a magical place!”
Growing up in a positive, supportive environment around her parents and two older brothers has helped Eliza develop her glass half full attitude, but it’s something she has to work on. “I am one of those children who is definitely a real blend of both my parents. I don’t think I get my positivity from one or the other. And it’s certainly not like I spend all day everyday smiling!
“Being positive is something I have to work on. Being a professional athlete can be mentally challenging. I’m always working on my resilience and strength to handle that side of sport and not all of that comes naturally to me. It does when you find joy in what you are doing! But positivity is something I have to work on.”
Eliza has found a passion not only in pole vaulting, but in the natural environment. She is studying for a BSc in Environmental Science at Massey University, slowly. “I’m halfway through! It’s a very slow process but I liken it to a hobby in a way; it’s something I enjoy doing. It provides a perfect balance to pole vaulting for me. 2025 is my target for finally finishing my degree!”
Her drive to protect and enhance earth’s natural resources has led her to become an ambassador for Trees That Count, a charity that promotes the planting of native trees. Eliza is acutely mindful of the many human failings in regards our planet and sees this as one simple action everyone can take to play their part in environmental improvement.
“Sustainability and climate change, as we all know, are ridiculously complex issues. The more I study, the more I learn, and it can be quite upsetting at times. I need to be aware of that and be careful what I put my energy into.”
Alongside the ad-hoc study, Eliza is back into a full training schedule. “I vault twice a week, go to the gym four times a week; two upper body sessions, two lower body. I also do gymnastics; high bar, parallel bars, rings. Because of my Achilles, I can’t do a lot of work on the floor. I used to do a lot of running but the rest of my training is still rehab-based at the moment.”
As a role model, young aspiring North Shore sportspeople would be hard pressed to find better than Eliza, who is now 24. What would be her advice to them? “First, enjoy what you’re doing. Have a reason for why you do what you do – and you might need to dig a bit deeper into a ‘why’.
“It can be really tough being a professional athlete: it can be quite a rollercoaster! But when you enjoy something, have the motivation to keep going and a solid, deep reason why you’re doing it, that’s where sport is very cool!”
“I usually do my best when I’m just enjoying it.” And how it shows.