The young vaulter soaring closer to Eliza McCartney
Spread your thumb and forefinger 10cm apart.
That’s what stands between New Zealand having not just one, but two women pole vaulters at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The qualifying standards for both Tokyo and next year’s world athletics championships in Doha aren’t out yet, but 4.55m is expected to be the height athletes will need to clear.
New Zealand’s guru of the vault, Jeremy McColl, is confident of a two-pronged presence, certainly for Tokyo.
Eliza McCartney, the bronze medallist at Rio two years ago and the woman with the third-highest vault ever outdoors, yes. But the other?
Step forward Olivia McTaggart - 18, and pressing hard in McCartney’s shoeprints.
A week ago she pushed her personal best to 4.45m – McCartney is up to 4.94m. But McTaggart's progress is consistent and impressing McColl.
‘’That was no surprise at all,’’ he said of that 4.45m she cleared at an Auckland athletics meet at Mt Smart Stadium. ‘’She’s been jumping well in training and it was by 15cm her personal best off that 12-step run-up.’’
Ten centimetres to Tokyo. Not much, is it? But then things get a bit mental. More on that later.
McTaggart and McCartney are proof, if it was needed, that there's more than one way to skin a sporting discipline.
Where McCartney is a lean, running type of athletic physique, McTaggart comes from a gymnastics background, shorter and highly flexible. Both work.
Indeed had it not been for two elements of fate, McTaggart might never have taken to the pole vault.
She loved her gymnastics, and at 14, was starting to make real progress.
Then injuries struck. What she had assumed were back spasms that were steadily getting worse, turned out to be three stress fractures in her back. She had also been born with problems in her lower spine.
The specialists were emphatic: it was curtains on her gymnastics career. What she had assumed was standard discomfort in the sport, with its constant twisting and turning, was far worse than normal. She was devastated.
‘’I went to another doctor and said, 'Straight up, what sports am I able to do?' I can’t live without my sports,’’ McTaggart says.
At this point, despairing over which sporting direction to take, and with the fear her Olympic dream was gone for good, McTaggart turned up for school one day at Kristin College on Auckland’s North Shore, and there was McColl, armed with a kit for a basic coaching clinic for any students who were interested.
McTaggart couldn’t take part due to her back at the time, but she was intrigued.
There’s a long-established link between gymnastics and pole vault ,and whether McColl sensed possibilities, or McTaggart had an inkling - or a bit of both - it proved a happy meeting of the minds.
‘’I like to look at it [McColl's visit] as a blessing in disguise. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be where I am today,’’ she says.
It’s clear McTaggart had talent. Starting the sport in October 2014, she made rapid progress. She pinpoints two significant moments in her development to the point where she thought, yes I can make something of this.
She won bronze at the Australian junior nationals in Sydney in early 2015.
Then late in 2016, McTaggart broke McCartney’s under-17 national record by 11cm, reaching 4.22m. Shortly after, she lifted that to 4.30m.
In the space of a year, McTaggart has essentially gone from a 4m jumper to 4.45m.
McColl, a former national gymnastics and Oceania level pole vault representative, put it in these terms: if you’re jumping, say, 4.40m, it means you can jump 4.50m, if all elements are aligned properly. If you’re at 4.50m you can, given the right conditions, jump 4.60m, and so on. Consistency has been a key factor. Now it’s about raising McTaggart’s consistent level line.
She tried unsuccessfully for 4.55m after her 4.45m jump. ‘’I just missed it, but the fact I was going for it showed it’s 100 percent there. Everything’s coming together.’’
This year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast were a thrill for McTaggart – she was born there, in Southport, to John, an Australian, and Amanda from Auckland.
Her brother Cameron also competed for New Zealand in weightlifting. She wasn’t supposed to take part in the opening ceremony, managing a torn ankle ligament from a few weeks earlier, but Cameron, 23, plonked his little sister on his broad shoulders.
He finished seventh equal. Olivia was ninth in the pole vault, with 4.30m - 10cm below her best. Initially she was disappointed, but ‘’I’ve always been hard on myself. Then I took a step back, I hadn’t had much of a buildup and I’m quite proud of that now’’. McCartney won silver.
Remember the Evers-Swindells, rowing’s golden twins who won back-to-back Olympic titles in 2004 and 2008 in the coxless pair?
They showed schoolgirls the length of the country what is possible. Female rowing numbers surged. The likes of Olivia Loe and Brooke Donoghue, and Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler are their world champion successors.
So too Lisa Carrington, the three-time Olympic paddling medallist. Off her achievements, and inspiration, have sprung a group of around five top-class women kayakers, with another wave coming up behind them, broadening the base of the sport at the top level.
Sports cry out for an athlete who can push open the door for others to follow.
Cue McCartney, of the easy laugh and natural talents. Now McColl, who coaches both women, senses New Zealand having not one, but two vaulters in the world’s top 32 for Doha and Tokyo.
The 'Two Macs' get along well. They roomed and trained together in Europe for close on two months this year.
‘’Eliza's really helped me in little things, technical improvements, what it’s like going to a major championships,’’ McTaggart says.
Pole vault is a sport made up of several distinct points – the run-up, the balancing of the pole running full tilt, the planting of the pole, the timing of the surge upwards, and that’s even before the feet have left the ground and they’re eyeing the bar at the distance of a couple of feet. Then twist the body to arch over the bar, timing is the key. Technical all the way? You bet.
Now add in the mental aspects. Ten centimetres doesn’t sound much. Upgrade that in McCartney’s case.
The world record is 5.06m, held by Russian legend Yelena Isinbayeva. That’s 12cm short of McCartney's best. Should be easy to bridge that gap? Yeah right.
Clear head space is essential.
‘’The mental side is the hardest part but it’s also challenging in a way I like,’’ McTaggart said. ‘’Once you get past that you can feel unstoppable, but it’s such a big aspect of the pole vault. I’ve been working with sports sciences and it is really interesting.’’
McTaggart is in the process of enrolling for a bachelor of sport and exercise degree through Massey University, but she has a busy summer of athletic events ahead.
‘’I am a big goal-setter, whether in the next week or the next 10 years. Getting to my first Olympics has been my goal since I was five.’’
Nothing’s changed, except the sport.