Eliza McCartney, a 19 year old from the North Shore who you may have seen on Anchor billboards, is New Zealand’s first-ever pole vaulting Olympian, and an impressive one at that.
She stormed the world stage for the first time this year, breaking into the top 10 world rankings. Ahead of her qualifying event (on Wednesday August 17, 12:45am NZT), here are some key points to keep in mind.
Pole Vaulting's not just for sport
Before it became a track and field event, pole vaulting was used as a military tactic to clear castle walls in the midst of battle. Back then, a missed vault would mean immediate death. Now it’s much safer, but it’s still the most dangerous track and field event by a long way.
Women were late to the party
While men have been pole vaulting in the Olympics since 1896, women’s pole vault wasn’t an official Olympic event until the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Better late than never, I suppose.
It's potentially deadly
Pole vault is by far and away the deadliest individual athletics event, with over 20 reported deaths since 1982. After the minimum landing mat requirements were increased in 2003, this statistic dropped considerably. However it’s still the only event in which athletes have died while competing. Other track and field deaths usually involve being struck by another athlete’s throwing implement.
Pole vaulters are hot
Pole vault is a hybrid of sprinting (the run up), jumping (the vault), throwing (the lifting of the body), and gymnastics (clearing the bar). This requires strength, speed, flexibility, and grace. As a result, pole vaulters are often seen as being among the most beautiful of the athletes (all those weird spam ads about “Hottest Athletes” usually feature a pole vaulter on the front).
Eliza McCartney: Know the name
At 19, Eliza McCartney is perhaps the most exciting athlete New Zealand has produced in years. Initially a high jumper, she switched codes after joining in on her friend’s pole vault practice. McCartney is also a former gymnast and so had the perfect foundational skillset in place to excel in the pole vault.
The reigning champ is a no-show
Arguably the greatest female pole vaulter in history is unable to compete in Rio after a blanket ban was issued to all Russian track and field athletes. Yelena Isinbayeva is one of only two vaulters to clear five metres in the event, and holds the outdoor world record of 5.06m.
The next in-running is no slouch
The other vaulter to clear 5m is Jenn Suhr, who has cleared 5.03m and will be competing in Rio. She’s the favourite to win gold but as any athlete will tell you, anything can happen on the day.
McCartney's coach is a big deal
Eliza McCartney is coached by Jeremy McColl, one of the leading vault coaches in the world. He pioneered the downhill runway, a slightly elevated runway that allows vaulters to reach maximum speed from a shorter run up, enabling them to complete more practice vaults at full strength.