Baby steps taking Eliza McCartney to new heights

As Eliza McCartney continues to rise to new heights, and she launches into a major pole vault season in Europe, she admits to still feeling "quite naive" on the world stage. Suzanne McFadden reports.

She may have just leapt to a new record high, inching ever closer to the “magic five-metre” mark, but pole vaulting star Eliza McCartney still feels she’s taking baby steps in her sport.

Even with Olympic bronze and Commonwealth silver safely in her clutches, McCartney admits she still feels a little green when she turns up to the big events on the international track and field circuit.

With her larger-than-life personality and glittering success that has made pole vaulting cool, it’s easy to forget that McCartney is just 21 years old.

“I still feel quite naïve in some of these competitions. I just don’t have the same experience as a lot of the other girls. I’ve been around the international circuit for three years or so now, but I still feel that I’m growing into it,” she says.

“I'm getting better though, and I certainly felt much more at home in this last competition.”

McCartney is back in Auckland after her whirlwind trip to Eugene, Oregon, on the weekend. It was there she set a New Zealand record of 4.85m in the Prefontaine Classic, driven by a classic battle with world indoor record holder Jenn Suhr. An Olympic and world champion, Suhr is still competing at the age of 36.

And even if McCartney carries on pole vaulting for another 15 years – she laughs in mock horror at the thought of it - that naivety is a sensation she wants to cling to.

“Even if it’s 10 years in the future from now and I’m jumping amazing heights, I don’t want to forget that I can always be learning from these experiences,” she says.

“There’s something new to take from every competition. So that’s really important – almost staying humble, in that respect. You’re never going to be perfect. You’ve got to always be open to learning.”

“I’m forever working towards that 5m. The sooner it comes the better. It might be this year, it might be in a couple of years, I don’t know. But I’m not letting that out of my sights."

- Eliza McCartney

That’s why she’s about to head off to Europe for three months - to get as much exposure to intense competition as she can.

“I’m really hoping to get a solid season where I compete at every event that we’ve planned, and I’m not hindered by injury," she says. "I’ve often been held back by injuries. Last year was a lot like that, and so was the year before.

“The first thing I have to do is be healthy for the season and get to all the competitions. That’s a really important thing because the more experience I get the better I'll be at competing.”

The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games dealt McCartney her biggest lessons yet. It was the first time she’d walked up to a major competition as a clear podium favourite; ranked No. 1. “Usually I’m sitting back comfortably, with, like, a top 5 or 6 ranking. That ‘I could do well’ position, you know?” she says.

“That completely new situation is where all the learning from the Comm Games stemmed from. And I needed that. If I want to medal at the Tokyo Olympics in two years’ time, I need to be able to deal with that."

Her latest showdown in Eugene was also an event of firsts. Obviously, it was the first time she’d cleared 4.85m at a major competition, surpassing her previous record of 4.82m set in Auckland early last year, before an Achilles tendon injury slowed down her progress.

It was the first time McCartney had sliced open her hand with her shoe spikes, while in mid-air. “It was kind of annoying, because it kept bleeding and I was trying to keep jumping. But it’s not too deep,” she says.

And it was the first time she'd been tested to compete soon after a long-haul flight. “We had plans in place to battle any soreness or tiredness,” says McCartney, who’s still making her way back from a frustrating hamstring injury. “And it turned out much better than I thought it would be.”

But perhaps the biggest lesson came from her lengthy tussle with Suhr. Both athletes had to shake off a world-class field before they cleared 4.85m (an event record) on their first attempts, then took their two-woman battle to the 4.90m mark. Suhr eventually won the title on countback, because McCartney had missed a jump at 4.70m.

“It was particularly interesting,” she says. “We’d both done a lot of jumps, and both of us were exhausted. But when you have someone else pushing you, you just keep fighting. Sometimes in training it’s so difficult to keep going when you’re tired. So it’s really good to know that all you need is some fierce competition and you can go for it.”

It also gave McCartney a massive confidence boost after a vexing summer where she couldn’t quite get her timing right.

In Eugene, she sailed over the bar at 4.85m with room to spare, and reckons she could have cleared 4.90m with the same jump.

“At a lot of the comps recently I was reaching those same heights, but I wasn’t matching them to where the bar was. So I was often jumping well over the bar before I got to it, and then I’d hit the bar on the way down,” she says.

She knows now that the 4.90m height is well within her grasp. “This year is really about pulling out the heights I know are there, competing well and getting the high bars when I need to,” she says.

McCartney makes a conscious effort not to focus on numbers, though. She knows chasing a targeted height can make the goal a lot tougher: “It can be tricky, but you’ve got to think about the process before you think about the outcome.

“So I tend to focus more on other goals, that don’t really relate to the height at all. If I jump well and stick to my process, then I will get those heights.”

But she can’t deny that the “magic number” – the 5.0m – is what she’s ultimately gunning for. Only two women in history  have cleared that height outdoors: American Sandi Morris, who beat McCartney for silver at the Rio Olympics, and the legendary Russian vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, who set the current world record of 5.06m back in 2009 (remarkably, her 28th world pole vault record).

“I’m forever working towards that 5m. The sooner it comes the better," McCartney says. "It might be this year, it might be in a couple of years, I don’t know. But I’m not letting that out of my sights.

“It will always be the magic number until I get it. It’s the thing that can sit in the corner or on the shelf, and you can look at it and think about it, but you’ve got other things to focus on in the meantime.”

A decent wedge of McCartney’s focus this season is on staying injury-free. She is determined to compete in the remaining Diamond League events this season, and in other competitions that “slot nicely around them”. The next Diamond League meet is in Lausanne on July 5.

McCartney and her coach, Jeremy McColl, will be based in the German town of Leverkusen – home to Bayer, both the soccer team and pharmaceutical giant – near Cologne.

Last year, she spent around three months in Europe, but had family around her, including her father and her boyfriend. “That made it feel more like home. This time I won’t see as many people, and those three months will feel a little longer,” she says.

But she will have little spare time to fret.

“This time will be about attacking all the opportunities, being able to train and compete, and be healthy. I’m in a pretty good space at the moment. And I’m excited to get over there, to some warmer weather, and feel confident that I’m going to do my best.”

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