2 September, 2021
‘Unfinished business’ lures Eliza back to action
Rio pole-vault medallist Eliza McCartney had to watch the Tokyo Olympics on TV, but her sporting ambition still burns brightly. She spoke to Helen Vause.
Eliza McCartney sat on the sofa glued to the Olympic Games, along with the rest of the world. And to her surprise, she loved it all, including the pole-vaulting.
“I didn’t think I’d want to watch it. But then I really got into it and I couldn’t stop,” says McCartney, who won bronze in the pole vault at the Rio Olympics in 2016, but missed selection for Tokyo after a long-running battle with a tendon injury.
She fell short in a last-ditch attempt in June to achieve the qualifying mark for Tokyo. Two months on, McCartney spoke to the Observer about returning to training and competition after a physical and mental break that’s seen her quietly putting herself back together and hanging out with those she’s closest to.
Watching the Olympics was a good indication that she was recovering from her own personal setback. “I loved watching the athletes. I felt like a kid, watching it all, flicking through the channels, and I felt the pole-vaulters were just fantastic. Weeks earlier, I might have thought it would be too painful to watch, but I’m so glad I could.”
Looking back on battling the odds to get into form and recent experiences of pain as she struggled in her run-up, the Devonport resident recognises the value of having taken a break.
“Of course, I knew trying to make it to Tokyo this year was against the odds and I thought I was prepared for whichever way it went. But it turned out I wasn’t really prepared for not being able to do it and I wasn’t going to give up. I was going to go at it, until it was over.
“At some level, I still had a belief at that point that there was a good chance I could make it and qualify to get to Tokyo.
“What happened then hit me harder than I expected. I felt pretty devastated at the time and for a while there my whole world felt like it had crashed down. Sport has been my whole life and my livelihood.”
But team McCartney swung into action and bundled its temporarily flattened member off on holiday. She headed south with her father, William, on a road trip and met up with her mother, Donna, and brothers Hamish and Finn for an outdoors break in Wanaka. They went hiking, biking and skiing.
“It was just fantastic and I know I’m lucky we were able to do that together,” says McCartney. “It was a very long time since we’d all been on holiday together like that.”
When she returned from the family trip, McCartney went to Gisborne to spend time with an aunt. “I have a wrap-around family and a great partner and all round I know I have a pretty privileged life. But I have been working on myself a lot to move on from this and I have been able to listen carefully to the experiences of others who, like me, have missed out on selection at some point in their sporting careers.”
Although McCartney is only 24, she’s had more than a decade in high-level athletics, and was passionate about sport well before that. “As a toddler, I’m told, I was never still. I must have been a handful, climbing up trees, running and jumping,” says McCartney.
At school she had a go at most things, excelling at netball and high jumping. As the slender, 1.79 metre athlete puts it, she’s “tall, springy and fast”.
Things started to take off in 2011, when she was 14 years old and discovered the thrill of pole-vaulting. Within six months of taking up the new discipline, she was in Australia winning a national junior title.
“Not long after that trip my coach sat Mum and me down. He said he thought I could be heading for the world championships in 2013.”
Everything shifted up a few gears for McCartney and her family. Her training regime took her to the Millennium facility every day after classes at Takapuna Grammar School.
The young athlete, who’d once described herself as a “gangly, uncoordinated kid”, kept raising the bar, setting new international records. It quickly become apparent that she could make it into the team for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
After winning bronze there, with a vault of 4.80 metres, McCartney continued to improve, until she cleared 4.94m in Germany in 2018. But then came the injuries and uncertainty.
After one of the longest breaks from sport that she’s known, she is aiming for the Common- wealth Games in Birmingham and the athletics world championships in the USA. After that, she hopes to be at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
For now, sport is her top priority. But McCartney says she’s fully aware there’s life and work after sports. She is studying environmental science part-time through Massey University.
“I know sport is a transient career and I’m lucky to have found another passion that will become my future,” she says.
“I’m totally committed to that, although I have to work slowly at it. In my future I see myself being able to make a difference in the environmental space. ”
Meanwhile, she considers herself lucky to be surrounded by the conservation and restoration teams working all around the Devonport peninsula on a daily basis, and to be able to join them when she can.
But after a period of gardening, studying, hanging out in her close circle and sharing the cooking with her partner, kite-foiling champion Lukas Walton-Keim, McCartney will soon be getting back to what she’s best known for.
“I couldn’t leave it like this. I have unfinished business,” she grins. “I’m a very optimistic person.”
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