A debut Olympic Games as a teenager: a perfect opportunity to gain some highly valuable experience ahead of further appearances later in a career. A chance to learn the ropes of competing on the greatest stage in athletics, in the hope that further down the line, this insight gathered can propel an athlete towards the medal podium in future Games.
Eliza McCartney of New Zealand clearly didn’t read this script, as she claimed the bronze medal in the women’s pole vault at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games on Friday night, equalling her national record with a first-time clearance at 4.80m.
At the age of 19 years and 252 days, the Auckland-based athlete defied everyone's expectations, including her own, to become New Zealand’s youngest female Olympic medallist, eclipsing the previous record of Jean Stewart, who won a bronze at the 1952 Games in swimming.
“I was not expecting it,” said McCartney. “I wanted to get to the final and obviously everyone wants to go out there and win a medal, but it doesn’t always necessarily seem that possible.
“I enjoyed the entire thing. I think I jumped the absolute best I could and I think that’s what I’m the happiest about. I just snuck in there for the bronze medal and I’m just so happy about that.”
Keeping her cool
The world U20 record holder looked remarkably composed in her first global senior outdoor championship, and cleared the bar at the first time of asking at each of her first four attempted heights, culminating in 4.80m, which was enough to defeat training partner Alana Boyd of Australia into fourth place on count back. The New Zealander admitted that she had mixed emotions about denying her close friend an Olympic medal.
“It was mixed emotions for sure when she was doing her last attempt,” said McCartney. “My heart was pounding. I just knew either way I’d be happy though. She’s just incredible; she’s been a huge support to me this year, and I am just so proud of how she did. She has battled injuries to get here. It’s a tough one competing against your friends but that’s the way it is.”
In a cauldron of fiercely competitive, high-pressured competition, McCartney has a refreshing level of admiration and respect for her competitors and the likeable New Zealander holds friendships with many of them. Nicole Buchler of Switzerland, who finished in sixth place in Friday’s final, offered to make the youngster more presentable n the immediate aftermath of the competition before the inevitable onslaught of the world’s media.
“I got black stuff, that was on my hand, all over my face," said McCartney. “She very kindly wiped it all off for me. It’s so nice to have friends out there. Competing against those girls is so good because every time they keep pushing you to improve. They are amazing. You see what they jump, and they’ve just got so much experience. I learn a lot from them and I do really enjoy competing against them.”
McCartney grew up in the Auckland seaside suburb of Devonport. Her father was a high jumper at junior level, while her mother competed as a gymnast, so a life involved in sport was inevitable, and she began athletics at the age of 11. Initially she started out doing the high jump but at 13 she discovered a passion for pole vault.
“A friend started pole vault and I thought it looked like fun,” she said. “Curiosity got the better of me and I went along and gave it a go, and I have never stopped since.”
Since then she hasn’t looked back. She claimed the bronze medal at the 2014 World U20 Championships, following it up with silver at the 2015 World University Games, before setting a world U20 record of 4.64m last December. In her first international senior event she finished a creditable fifth at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016.
McCartney balances her athletics career, which incorporates six days training per week under the guidance of long-time coach Jeremy McColl, with her studies. The 19-year-old is studying physiology and has had to go down the part-time route to enable her to undertake the intensive training required for her Olympic assault.
“It can be tough at times to balance it all, but this year I only did one paper and I think that was the right amount to do. It’s just about being smart and planning ahead.“
The teenager’s success in Rio is another in a long list of New Zealand medals at these Games. With just 4.5 million people, the nation punches significantly above its weight across a wide range of sports, something which McCartney feels privileged to be part of.
“We’ve got a massive sporting culture,” she said. “It’s a really big deal in New Zealand and we always get behind our athletes. We’re so supportive and it means a lot to us seeing people out there representing our small country. It’s an incredible place to come from and I love the support we get.”
Having now established herself among the world’s elite, the New Zealander will have to deal with increased publicity back home and the challenge of getting her life back to normality. However, she's adamant this will not be a problem.
“It wasn’t something I thought I would have to worry about,” she said. “But going back to New Zealand I think life will be the same as always, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
She may be in for a big shock upon her return to her homeland.
James Sullivan for the IAAF