Rio Olympics 2016: New Zealand's Eliza McCartney claims bronze medal in pole vault
At 19 and in the biggest competition of her life, Eliza McCartney should have been a bundle of nerves. Instead, she showed poise and demeanour beyond her years to deliver a fairytale bronze medal in the Rio pole vault.
McCartney, the teenager form the North Shore who hopes one day to be a doctor, is right now one of the premier women's pole vaulters on the planet after finishing third in a thrilling competition at the Olympic stadium.
After nudging Aussie Alana Boyd out of the bronze spot on a countback at 4.80 metres, McCartney becomes New Zealand's youngest female medallist at an Olympic Games.
It is also New Zealand's first ever medal in the event, the third for athletics at the Games (behind Valerie Adams' silver and Tom Walsh's bronze) and increases the record Kiwi haul in Rio to 16 medals − four gold, eight silver and now four of the bronze persuasion.
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But there are bronze medals, and there are bronze medals. McCartney's stunning run of clearances that at one stage had her holding the gold, with just five athletes left in the competition, definitely falls into the italics category.
She was the youngest athlete in the field by a whole five years, with the world indoor champs in Portland in March (where she finished fifth) her first taste of elite global competition. Just a year ago she never even had Rio on her radar as she was still contemplating getting over 4.50 metres and putting the final touches on her career in the junior ranks.
But then things started happening in fast forward for this immensely likeable Takapuna teen who once played in the same netball team as pop star Lorde, but right now might be rivalling the diva for fame in her home country. As she started knocking off the heights (a national record 4.50m last November, and then a world junior record 4.64m in December), suddenly these Games became not only a reality, but an enticing prospect.
And so the fairytale script continued in Rio, with her family watching in the stands. In a stunning result, McCartney produced an incredible array of clearances to go over the bar at the first attempt at 4.50m, 4.60m, 4.70m and 4.80m. The last success equalled her national record and personal best.
"I'm so happy, I can't even talk properly right now," she told Sky Sports afterwards. "I just jumped amazing. I was so happy with how I jumped. I guess as they say the bronze medal is one of the best ones because you just snuck in there and you're stoked."
She couldn't quite live with eventual winner, Greece's Ekaterini Stefanidi, or American Sandi Morris who both cleared 4.85m to set up a duel for the gold. But she wasn't far off at all.
The terrific teen narrowly missed with all three attempts at 4.85m− the last two featuring an aborted runup. But she was agonisingly close with the first, just brushing the bar on her way down, and wasn't a million miles off with her last two either.
It was a massively honourable finish for the Kiwi youngster, just 5cm off the winning Olympic height. If she had nailed that first attempt, she would have walked away with the gold.
And if there was a hallmark of her breakthrough performance, it was the remarkably relaxed and upbeat approach she took throughout the competition. Her body language was positive throughout, she celebrated every clearance with gusto (and some while she was still in mid-air), the smile barely off her face as she enjoyed every moment of her event.
It was a laidback approach that paid huge dividends for a young woman who just a couple of years was laid low by glandular fever, wondering if she could regain the gusto to compete again.
"I felt like I had nothing to lose and everything to gain and I was really enjoying it," she told Sky Sports. "I just wanted to go out there and jump the best I could. We got the pole selection right this time, and once you're on a roll you really start getting into it."
When the 32-year-old Boyd also missed all three of her attempts at 4.85m, McCartney landed the bronze medal, on countback, by virtue of her 100 percent clearance rate up to 4.80m.
"We just took every height and wanted to nail every jump, and that's what happened," she told NZ Newswire. "First attempts are hugely important in finals − that's the difference in getting the medals."
She also paid tribute to the man without whom she could not have achieved this special feat. "I have to give almost all the credit to my coach Jeremy [McColl]. He's just incredible. He knows pole vault inside and out and he's the reason I'm here."
Stefanidi won the gold medal on countback over Morris after both cleared 4.85m but could not quite manage to get over at 4.90m. Morris' final attempt went very, very close, but a brush of the bar handed the victory to the Greek.