Kiwi pole vault star Eliza McCartney ready to rise to the world champs challenge
The more things change for Eliza McCartney, the more they stay the same. Or, to put it another way, the higher she soars, the more grounded she stays.
It's a beautiful juxtaposition of fame and attitude that makes the 20-year-old 'It Girl' of New Zealand sport, Olympic bronze medallist in the pole vault and hot prospect for a world athletics championships podium finish in London later this year such an endearing prospect to deal with.
She has, of course, become kind of a big deal since her dramatic bronze medal at the Rio Olympics last August, where her beautifully relaxed manner and unabashed delight combined to make it arguably the most memorable Kiwi achievement of the entire Games. A nation fell in love with her that eventful Brazilian evening.
Not that you would know it. The fame, the TV adverts, the airline safety videos, the record heights and even the Olympic medal have changed McCartney not one iota.
She still giggles her way through every interview, still refuses to be captured by her own publicity and still steadfastly avoids anything resembling bluster, bravado or brazen braggadocio.
She is fabulously talented, gloriously athletic and, let's face it, a marketeer's dream. Yet the dynamic Devonport youngster has as much swag as a high country farmer. Long may it continue.
Clearly it works for her. Equally clearly it's not an act.
This daughter of lawyer father William and doctor mother Donna clearly has her head screwed on. She may now be a sky-jumping fulltime athlete backed by elite high-performance funding and growing sponsorship dollars. Yet she's also studying (part-time) physiology towards her BSc degree, because Plan A doesn't disappear with a bit of overnight sporting success. It just becomes Plan B.
McCartney leaves on May 30 for a northern hemisphere season she hopes will culminate in something special at the world championships in London's Olympic stadium in August. She doesn't dare speak of precious metal, of course, but given her Kiwi summer it has to be a distinct possibility.
In a magic week in Auckland in February she leapt 4.70m in a shopping mall, of all places, and then followed it up just a few days later by smashing her national mark (and Rio bronze medal effort) in establishing an Oceania record of 4.82m at the Auckland Track Challenge.
That remains the second best outdoor clearance of 2017, just 1cm shy of the 4.83m achieved by well-credentialed American Jenn Suhr in Texas in April.
"It was an important little milestone," she says of the 4.82m clearance off her shorter 12-step runup, following on from the 4.80 she hit in Rio. "I was stunned. It shows there's a lot of progress to keep working on. It's a really good place to be.
"It also shows if everything keeps going well and I stay healthy there's potentially another 10 years in the sport. It shows there's a career there. That's really good motivation because you know the potential is there to achieve these amazing heights."
When we speak at her Auckland training base, McCartney has no idea her 4.82m remains the second best height cleared in the world this year. "We're so removed in New Zealand, it's like a different world where they are," she says of her rivals. "But when I go over and compete against them it's a reminder I am actually part of this game and I've got a lot to bring."
In terms of her seemingly constant improvements (she has nudged her PB up nearly 40cm over the last two years), she puts that down to her tender (just six) years as a pole vaulter, a technique still being honed and her youth meaning she is still getting progressively stronger and faster.
Throw in the longer 14-stride runup and pole changes which she's still coming to terms with, and you have a lot of excitement, and a little anxiety, around what's ahead.
"I don't think I've ever had a period of pole vault when there hasn't been mental challenges]," she adds. "At the moment it's just getting my head around the big poles because they feel different in your hands and you don't want that to throw you off.
McCartney, with coach Jeremy McColl on hand for the full haul, will take in four Diamond League meets (Rome, Oslo, Stockholm and London) before the world championships from August 4-13 at the Olympic venue. Her training base will be in Laverkusen, near Cologne, at the well-appointed German national pole vault centre.
Unlike last year's Rio buildup, this time McCartney will have Kiwi company with Nick Southgate and age-group star Olivia McTaggert alongside, and fellow national squad members Imogen Ayris and James Steyn also popping over for a period.
She sees that as "win-win" with McCartney benefiting from the companionship, and her fellow national squad members picking up some valuable offshore experience.
She is also looking to replicate the laidback approach she took in Rio last year where her relaxed manner very nearly saw her steal the gold medal.
"It's a fresh day, it's one day in the year where whoever jumps highest on that day wins, and it has nothing to do with your past. I don't want to bring in pressure from previous achievements, and over the next couple of months one of the biggest things will be making sure my head is in the right place."
Life has flipped a little for McCartney now she's a fulltime athlete. Her sport is her main passion and the studies have become the part-time pursuit. It's a balance she's still figuring out, but enjoying.
When she needs help, it's never far away. Her parents, coach, growing management team and sports psychologist all chip in when she turns to them. As does Kiwi BMX legend Sarah Walker who has become a valued mentor.
"She's so lovely," says McCartney of the support she gets from her fellow Beef and Lamb campaign frontperson. "I had a lot of questions about going to my first Olympics and what to expect, and she helped a lot. Even now she has been amazing. I can text her in any situation and she's got advice for it."
You wonder about life after Rio? "At home it's exactly the same," she declares. "My brothers don't care I won an Olympic medal. I guess where it changes is as soon as I go into public places and people recognise me. That's certainly changed."
But has she changed? Maybe developed a tougher side? A little bit of competitive nasty in her makeup?
She laughs at that. "Oh, I don't think so ... the way I look at it is I can't control how they're going to jump, so there's no point having tension, thinking 'oh crap they jumped high'. It's better just to be friendly and think 'we're all trying to jump as high as we can'."
That's Eliza. She'll beat you with a smile.
- Sunday Star Times