Pole vault star Eliza McCartney still flying high as she reflects on her Rio feats
If Eliza McCartney needed a reminder of what she had just achieved in Rio, then the new young sensation of New Zealand sport got it when she went back to her old school in Takapuna for a visit that brought the emotions flooding back.
The Olympic bronze medallist in the women's pole vault only arrived back in New Zealand from Rio in the early hours of Tuesday morning (surprised to discover her Instagram account had swelled by 35,000 followers in less than a day) and by 9am there she was, centre stage and special assembly guest of honour at Belmont Intermediate in Takapuna − her old stomping ground.
For the 19-year-old Takapuna teen, looking out and seeing the hundreds of awe-inspired young faces all looking up from a spot where she had been just a few years earlier, well, it did hit home once again what an influential and important role it is she now performs.
"Yeah, it's pretty special," reflected Kiwi sport's new 'It Girl'. "Sport is a funny thing, it goes up and down and there's incredibly rewarding moments, but they don't happen that often. I feel like this is one of those moments that are so rewarding and you don't forget them."
McCartney, of course, owned the moment, just as she had in Rio when she sailed over those first-time clearances at 4.50 metres, 4.60, 4.70 and then 4.80m into that historic bronze medal.
She was charming and charismatic and engaging and, frankly, just herself. She laughed a lot and reflected in just the right terms on what is clearly an incredible time in her young life.
If the young pupils of Belmont Intermediate needed a life-size reminder of what can happen when you work hard, focus your talents and your energy and, well, reach for the sky, then they certainly had it in the "old girl" sitting before them.
"It was really cool, and singing the school song again, that was something I didn't think I'd be doing again. It's funny how much I actually remembered of it," reflected McCartney who remained remarkably bright and energetic, for all her travels.
It was here, after all, that she truly discovered her love for sport.
She told the pupils she gave "everything" a go, and later confirmed she had thrown herself into squash, orienteering, water polo, netball and cross-country with equal zest.
Soon enough she would be heading down the road to Takapuna Grammar, where athletics would come on to the radar, and then pole vault within that. One thing would follow another, and then eventually there she was soaring over 4.80m for that bronze medal she was celebrating even before she had hit the mat.
Truth be told, her remarkable achievement − she was six years younger than anyone else in that Olympic final − is still really sinking in.
"Certainly the first couple of days it was all a bit weird, and it wasn't until I got away from the [Olympic] village and had a chance to think about it that it all hit home. I'm not going to lie, it makes me feel like crying when I really think about it," she said.
"It was such an incredible moment. I feel like I know it was the best moment in my life, and that's a pretty incredible thing to know."
It's a feeling she says she will return to, possibly over and over again.
"It's the nature of sport," she added. "You want to keep going up and up, but it's probably not going to happen. There are always moments when it goes down a bit and that's when you need to remember these moments because sport is hard but it's very rewarding."
McCartney also reflected a little on the Rio experience with watching New Zealand left in awe by her relaxed attitude and seeming absence of nerves through the biggest competition of her life. It turns out it wasn't an act.
"I don't even know how to describe it. I was confident, I was ready to go and I didn't feel expectation and pressure. I just wanted to jump the best I could, and come away feeling I left everything out there.
"That's the best I've ever competed and I'm so glad I could bring it in an Olympic final. And that just made everything OK, and that's what made me so happy."
Yes, she knows how close she came to clearing 4.85 at the first attempt, and winning the gold (she soared over the bar, but just brushed it on her downward arc), but that just elicits another fit of giggles.
"It couldn't have happened. It wouldn't have been fair to win a gold medal at my first Olympics," she said. "A medal is incredible and I'm not ever going to be dissatisfied with bronze. The fact that I left everything out there is something I feel very proud to say."
Yes, this school that was also home to singing sensation Lorde, and to fellow Rio Olympians Jacko Gill (shot put) and Paul Snow-Hansen (sailing), knows all about pride.
These kids of today are fair bursting with it over their new Olympic hero.