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Sand, sweat and tears: Olivia races for Dad

GOOD NEWS UPDATE: Olivia Eaton has successfully defended her world beach sprint title, won silver in the beach flags and bronze in the team beach relay for New Zealand at the world surf lifesaving championships in Adelaide.  

When Olivia Eaton steps up to the line drawn in the sand on Adelaide’s Glenelg Beach to defend her world beach sprint title, she will briefly look up to the space in the stands where her dad, Craig, would have been.

But it won’t be in sadness.

In the weeks before Craig died in September from a rare and aggressive cancer, Olivia and her two elder sisters made a promise to him – that he would always be a part of everything they did.

“Dad wanted to be in the present tense, not the past,” the 20-year-old athlete says. “So I want to include him in as many things as possible.”

That begins with this week’s world surf lifesaving championships, where Eaton is determined to leave the sand with two titles to her name. Her absent 'number one fan' will be her motivation to run faster.

He was the kind of father who every week drove his enthusiastic teenage daughter half an hour to athletics club nights, watching from the stands while she ran.

The kind of dad who’d take his daughter across the North Island to Mount Maunganui every summer so she could sprint across the sand; a man who would quietly help out at a surf lifesaving event - the first on the beach and the last off the tractor at the end of a long day. 

A dad who encouraged his talented daughter to move from New Plymouth to Australia to further her track career. A decision that has helped her become one of New Zealand’s top sprinters, with her sights set on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“He’s still with me in everything that I do, which is awesome,” she says. “It’s pretty crazy how it’s all happened so quickly, and with the Worlds so soon afterwards.

“But even though it was one of the worst times ever, he’s turned it into a positive. This is what I love doing, and what he loves me doing, so I have to keep going and make the most of it.”

Craig Eaton, a builder by trade, had mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos. He was diagnosed while his wife, Lianne, was going through treatment for breast cancer.

It rocked the tight-knit Taranaki family; a “nightmare” they endured for two years.

For Olivia, living on the Gold Coast to pursue her Olympic dream, the distance made it even tougher. But she knew her parents wanted her to continue doing what she loved.

They had been visiting her in Australia, when Craig’s health suddenly took a turn for the worse, and he flew home to be admitted to hospital. 

“When Mum called and asked me to come back home, she was too petrified to tell Dad because he wanted me to keep training in my environment,” Olivia says. “And then when I got there, he said ‘What the bloody hell are you doing here?’

“He would be sleeping in the hospital and Mum, my sisters and I took turns spending time with him. He’d wake up and say hi to everyone, then look at me and say, ‘Well, when are you flying home? Have you got your ticket?’ He didn’t want us to make a fuss, he wanted me to be back in my training routine.”

Eaton never considered withdrawing from the Black Fins team competing at the world surf lifesaving championships this week. The toughest decision she had to make was returning to live in Australia after her dad’s death.

“I found it so hard coming back and returning to my normal routine without my family. But I knew Dad would have been so mad at me if I’d let that affect me in any major way. And that’s what’s got me through it,” she says.

She’s also been helped by writing about her experience on Australian website exclusive insight, which allows athletes to share their stories of tragedy and triumph.

“It was really hard to do, but I wanted it to have a positive message that would reach a few people. I needed to do that for Dad,” she says.

She writes about her family having to put on a brave face every morning to get through the worst two years of their lives. And how her father, a passionate club rugby player, introduced her to sport, kept her motivated, and was always “my number one fan on the sidelines”.

“To be able to have such a good bond with Dad through my sport is something I will hold with me for the rest of my life,” she writes.

“I never understood when someone would go through something, and then say they gained motivation from it. I always just thought that, as an athlete, you should already be motivated enough to want to succeed in your sport. But I’ve come to realise that is what tragedy can do for some people.”

Olivia Eaton wins the race to another beach flag in the International Surf Challenge at Mt Maunganui last year. Photo: Jamie Troughton/Dscribe media

Two years ago, Eaton chose to move to the Gold Coast to work with “sprint guru” Brett Robinson, who coaches Australian track stars and surf lifesaving champions.

She'd known him, through surf lifesaving, since she was 13.

His influence on Eaton at the Viking Athletics club is already telling. At last year’s New Zealand track and field championships, she won silver in both the women’s 100m and 200m sprints.

At the Australian nationals, she set a new personal best time of 23.39s in the 200m - rocketing from 16th to the fourth fastest on the all-time New Zealand list. 

The woman she overtook on the list, two-time Commonwealth Games sprinter Wendy Brown, sent a personal message congratulating her the next day. “We’ve never met, but she gave me so much encouragement, and it meant so much to me,” Eaton says.

Brown, who also began her running days in Taranaki, has been following Eaton’s path with much interest.

“Olivia is certainly a special athlete, and she’s been through such a lot lately,” she told LockerRoom. “I think her commitment, desire to succeed, coupled with her late dad’s huge support, paralleled my own early days and really resonated with me.”

Eaton will be home this summer, concentrating on setting even faster times over 200m.

Her main focus is on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with next year’s World University Games in Italy a stepping stone to a season racing in Europe. “It’s a big travel year next year,” she says.

“There’s a really strong group of girls, aged around 20 and 21, who are coming up in sprinting in New Zealand, so maybe we’ll be able to have a relay team.”

She’s an old hand at competing in Europe. She ran at the 2016 world U20 track and field championships in Bydogoszcz in Poland, where she was disappointed not to advance past the 200m heats.

And she’s been to two world surf lifesaving championships: competing as a junior in France in 2014, and a senior in the Netherlands two years ago, where she won the women’s beach sprint title and was second in the beach flags. She’s aiming for two world titles this time.

Eaton is careful not to be all consumed by competition. She’s studying, long distance, for a degree in sports management through Massey University. “It’s taken me three years so far, and I won’t be finished for another three. But I really enjoy it – the more I study, the more interested in it I am,” she says.

“I love being around all these sporting events going on over here, like this year’s Commonwealth Games. It’s really cool getting a look first-hand at how they work. Hopefully it can lead into a good job one day.”

She also has a part-time job, as a barista in a café in the Gold Coast Sports and Leisure Centre.

Right now, she’s being served coffee in Adelaide. The Black Fins are staying directly across the road from Glenelg beach. “We’ve been having coffee together and chatting, keeping it all cruisy,” she says.

Eaton will be cheering the Kiwi team on in the pool events during this week, before she competes this weekend - first in the beach sprints and relays, then in the final event of the world championship programme, the women’s beach flags.

“Because I’m used to doing it 24/7, I’m more naturally a sprinter,” she says. “But the beach flags event has the most amazing atmosphere. The music’s blaring and you feed off the crowd.”

Her mum, Lianne, will be there, among those screaming and waving. “The surf lifesaving community in New Zealand is massive, so there will be so many people around us, and so many people around Mum supporting her, too. The parents and supporters go crazy in the stands for a week,” Eaton says.

She knows when she looks up into those stands, she will imagine her dad looking back at her “with his usual warm smile”.  

“Basically now I have no excuses not to perform. I will constantly have this reminder in the back of my head – which could be a good and a bad thing! But it’s a new incentive – I’m not doing this just for myself anymore. It makes it just that much more important.”

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