21 Apr 2024

Eliza McCartney's journey back from the brink: 'It's almost like losing who you think you are'

9:25 am on 21 April 2024
Pole vaulter Eliza McCartney

Pole vaulter Eliza McCartney Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The significance of the setting was not lost on New Zealand Olympic Committee boss Nicki Nicol.

Looking out to the rust-coloured track at the AUT Millennium complex on Auckland's North Shore, where a small crowd of family, officials and media had gathered ahead of the naming of the Olympic team for Paris, Nicol noted: "It is where these athletes have written their stories."

Looming at the far side of the track, behind the reflective windows of High Performance Sport NZ, was the scene of a particularly heartbreaking chapter in pole vault star Eliza McCartney's extraordinary sporting story.

Three years ago, in a last-ditch effort to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games, McCartney competed in a series of indoor events over three successive weekends that butted hard up against the qualification deadline.

Plagued by ongoing injuries, the Rio bronze medallist could barely get herself down the runway, let alone over the 4.70m height required to secure her ticket to Tokyo. But each weekend she turned up, hoping grit and sheer determination would guide her over the bar.

Only, the athlete in that gym back in 2021 was not the same one that catapulted into the New Zealand public's hearts with a surprise bronze medal at the Rio Olympic Games. The exuberant teenager with an infectious smile and boundless optimism had been replaced by a grim-faced shell of herself.

McCartney knew the last-ditch qualification events were a long shot, but she described the feeling when her time and chances ran out as "absolute emptiness".

"I should never have done [the events] to be honest. As an athlete you need to learn these things. Or not so much learn it, you have to go through it, right?" she said.

"It was obviously really hard not qualifying for Tokyo, but I knew that, essentially, back in January [2021] that I wouldn't be going, and those competitions were in June. So I had about six months to come to terms with what was coming.

"But it is hard when you plan your whole life around it. It is your job, it's what you do for a living and your livelihood. It's almost like losing who you think you are when moments like that happen. It can be a bit traumatic in a way."

McCartney wore the scars of the past five years proudly on Friday when she was named among the 15-strong track and field team for the Paris Olympics.

Her position in the team was effectively secured in July last year after meeting the Olympic qualification standard just days after the window opened. But she said receiving the official confirmation was nevertheless an emotional moment.

"To have this official moment is such an important milestone and it's such an important step, because over the last year there were so many moments when I thought 'I just don't know if I'm going to get to another Olympics'."

Following a run of chronic injuries that kept her out of top-level competition for four years, McCartney overhauled her support team in late 2021, linking up with elite trainer Matt Dallow and his wife, Chelsea Lane - a former performance therapist turned NBA executive.

Biomechanics experts were of the view that McCartney's ongoing injury concerns were a result of poor technique modelling, which was exerting too much force down one side of her body. It meant McCartney was forced to rebuild her movement patterns from scratch.

She said she was thankful the system did not give up on her.

Coach Scott Simpson and pole vaulter Eliza McCartney chat during the 2024 National Athletics Championships.

Coach Scott Simpson and pole vaulter Eliza McCartney chat during the 2024 National Athletics Championships. Photo: Supplied / Athletics NZ

"Athletics NZ and High Performance Sport NZ have been incredible in understanding that I had found myself in a hole and that we could actually get out of it. We needed some time and we needed to stop doing the same things, because they weren't working," she said.

"I feel very grateful to have that support to move through, carry on and get to a better place."

All going well, the 27-year-old could be among three Kiwi pole vaulters in the women's field, with fellow teammates Olivia McTaggart and Imogen Ayris also named on Friday. The younger pair's selection is conditional upon meeting additional performance targets before 30 June.

It is an extraordinary result for a programme that has been through major turmoil over the past 12 months. In July last year the trio's long-time coach Jeremy McColl copped an unprecedented 10-year ban from the sport for serious misconduct.

Athletics NZ was fortunate to secure the services of top British coach Scott Simpson to lead the national pole vault programme.

McCartney, who won silver at the world indoor championships in Glasgow last month, said she had been "blown away" with how quickly things have gelled for her under Simpson's tutelage.

"He's had a lot of experience with athletes in similar situations to me, which has been super helpful. What we've achieved together in the last six months, I think has surprised both of us.

"Scott's been able to tune in so quickly to what I need as an athlete. Obviously his technical knowledge is strong - that's a given, but his ability to coach the person is huge and I've gained so much from that already and it makes me excited for not just Paris, but the next four years."

New Zealand pole vaulter Olivia McTaggart.

New Zealand pole vaulter Olivia McTaggart. Photo: Athletics NZ

New Zealand's pole vault trio are set to fly out to the UK in two weeks to link back up with Simpson, who will need to juggle the various demands of their programmes.

McCartney, with her selection already secured, will compete in only a few select events in the lead-up to Paris as "my body can't handle competing every weekend".

McTaggart and Ayris meanwhile will have six opportunities to tick off the Olympic qualification standard.

Athletics NZ has not publicly disclosed what the performance target is for the pair, but McTaggart has described the mark as "very doable".

McTaggart has a personal best of 4.71m - 1cm above the World Athletics automatic qualifying standard for Paris.

But the 24 year-old says she doesn't want to fall into the trap of chasing the magic mark - she wants to be setting herself up to compete well in Paris.

"I'm trying not to be chasing that, I want to be jumping higher anyway, I don't want to just go to the Olympics, I want to be a competitor at the Olympics."

Athletics team named for Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

Athletics team named for Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

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