New Zealand has historically punched above its weight on the global athletics stage, despite a population of only about 4.5 million people.
From male middle-distance legends Peter Snell and John Walker to female throwing stars Beatrice Faumuina and Valerie Adams, the country boasts a proud roll call of world and Olympic champions.
Endurance and throwing events have generally been the focus of New Zealand success stories in athletics, yet on 19 December at Auckland’s homely Mt Smart Stadium, Eliza McCartney served notice the country boasts now a special pole vaulting talent after the teenager added one centimetre to the world junior record mark (subject to ratification) with a stunning 4.64m clearance.
It was an unforgettable moment for the vivacious Kiwi, who has built a steady reputation over the past three seasons for being able to perform when it counts.
“To clear 4.64m on my last attempt in my last competition as a junior was pretty special,” explained the erudite McCartney, who celebrated her 19th birthday just eight days before her world record performance.
“It would have been amazing to achieve at any time of year, but the fact I did it in the last competition at the last opportunity is a great feeling. It is amazing to know I now have the world record.”
To many outsiders, hearing news of McCartney’s world junior record may have come as a surprise. The performance represented a huge 14-centimetre improvement on her previous best of 4.50m – set when taking both the national senior and junior records in her native Auckland just the month before in November – yet the vaulter and her lifelong coach, Jeremy McColl, had been quietly optimistic the goal was within reach.
Since winning the World University Games silver medal during the summer, McCartney had made a series of technical adjustments, notably developing her gymnastic agility.
Meanwhile, she also extended her run up by two strides from 10 to 12 and moved up to compete with a 15-foot pole from the 14-6 implement she used for her successful 4.50m clearance.
The recipe worked wonders as last month she propelled herself into a new stratosphere of vaulting.
“Jumping this height (4.64m) puts a crazy, different perspective on this year,” she added. “It gives me a lot of confidence and shows if I continue to train well, I can keep pushing those heights.”
Born and raised in the beautiful Auckland seaside suburb of Devonport, she jokes that she had the perfect genetic background to pole vault as her father, William, was a talented high jumper leaping 1.95m aged 16 and her mother, Donna, is a former gymnast.
Keen to follow in her father’s footsteps, McCartney started her athletics career aged 11 as a high jumper, but two years later, after a friend suggested she try the pole vault, she immediately became intrigued by the prospect.
“It looked like fun and being young and adventurous I gave it a go,” admitted McCartney, who now trains six days a week. “I recall the first time I tried the pole vault it was a pretty special feeling to bend the pole to go up in the air.”
It was also her good fortune that from the outset she was coached by McColl, the man McCartney readily admits she owes “everything” to as far as her athletics career in concerned.
McColl, a two-time former New Zealand pole vault champion, is a passionate and inventive coach with a thorough no-stone-unturned approach to his art, a manner fully appreciated by McCartney.
“He works so hard on knowing everything he can about pole vault and if he doesn’t know something he goes away and researches it,” she adds. “He continually seeks to be updated on new techniques and is always looking at new drills in an effort to improve us as athletes.”
McCartney first gave a hint that she was capable of great things when she placed fourth with a personal best of 4.05m at the 2013 IAAF World Youth Championships.
She returned from Ukraine invigorated by the memory and the following year overcame a bout of glandular fever and shin splints to take bronze at the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships with a personal best of 4.45m.
“I remember I was completely overwhelmed (by winning bronze) and just burst into tears,” she recalled of the moment it was confirmed she had secured a podium finish.
Putting the fun back into pole vaulting
Yet her path to the world junior record last year did not run smoothly.
She described 2015 being for the most part “a rough year” in which she struggled to handle the rising level of expectation.
She only produced a relatively modest best of 4.30m during her 2014-15 domestic campaign and opted on a ‘back-to-basics' approach to training at her AUT Millennium training base in Auckland in a bid to lift her from her rut.
“I decided to bring the fun back into training again,” says the part-time physiology student. “I reminded myself, I was there to enjoy the experience and have more fun.”
It worked. A more relaxed McCartney delivered an unexpected silver medal courtesy of a 4.40m leap at the World University Games in Korea and the 1.79m-tall vaulter maintained this approach for the remainder of the year to finish on the ultimate high.
She is currently spending January training on Australia’s Sunshine Coast and then hopes to enjoy a good domestic season leading into her first ever European campaign later in the year.
With the qualification mark already banked for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, there is little doubt her main goal of 2016 will be to perform with distinction in Brazil.
“At the Olympic Games my aim is to be competitive against the best girls and reach the final,” she said. “The Olympic Games is going to be like nothing I’ve experienced before and I just want to go out there and have fun.”
A principle which has so far served her so well throughout her burgeoning pole vault career.
Steve Landells for the IAAF