Eliza McCartney has had plenty of down time in the last year, wrestling with a series of injury setbacks and the anxiety of whether her athletics career might be over before it has really begun.

But it hasn’t been time entirely wasted.

The pole vaulter who won Olympic bronze in Rio has been putting more of her time into her future career ambitions – revolving around the planet’s environment, and her commitment to making New Zealand a cleaner, healthier place.

She’s passionate about environmental issues, and with more time on her hands than she ideally would have liked, she’s switched her university degrees. She now has a clear idea of what she wants to do when her athletic days are over.

Add in that McCartney has had promising results from the latest, and hopefully final, diagnosis on what’s been ailing her, effectively since 2016, and she feels as if the clouds have cleared and blue skies are on the horizon.

McCartney, who turns 23 today, has been diagnosed with a genetic disorder that causes autoimmune inflammation, targeting her tendons.

It’s not yet fully locked in but that’s what her medical team believe she has.

But she is feeling significantly better. Now that she has the right medication, and there are early good signs on that, she’s been able to refocus on being ready for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

However, she’s made it clear much of the planning remains loose, along with the recovery prognosis.

“Our aim isn’t to rush it at all. I don’t want any more setbacks before Tokyo,” she says.

“But if we take it slowly and do things properly, I do have a lot of time before then. I should be firing in the build-up and competing in some Diamond League meets [which start in April].”

Still, fingers are firmly crossed and the early indications are hugely encouraging.

Eliza McCartney is an ambassador for Trees That Count, to plant more native trees in NZ. Photo: Getty Images.

In the meantime, McCartney has been giving her future beyond pole vaulting more thought.

She was doing a Bachelor of Science, majoring in physiology, at the University of Auckland. But that required plenty of time in the lab, which clearly wasn’t possible given her travel and sporting commitments.

So her degree has now become a BSc majoring in environmental science, studying at Massey University. It’s an area that’s become near and dear to McCartney.

“Science has always been my thing; I’ve always been a science person,” she says.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve become fascinated by environmental science, to the point where this is what I want to do. I’m absolutely loving it. It doesn’t feel like studying; I’m really enjoying it.”

McCartney points out having another interest to work on is essential while you’re travelling and whiling away the hours in a hotel room somewhere in the middle of Europe.

“When I’ve been injured, at least I can focus on another area of my life that I really enjoy. Then, at least you feel you’re achieving something,” she says.

Warming to the theme, McCartney zeroed in on sustainability as the specific topic that’s really captivated her.

“We live on a planet where everything is finite,” she says.

“We seem to take and take and take. That’s just the way we find ourselves, not to blame anyone in particular. I find that part particularly fascinating.”

Anyone who fancies signing on McCartney to do promotional work would be advised to remember where her interests lie. She’s choosy about who she works with.

For example, she’s been ambassador for the Re:Mobile campaign for the telecommunications collective, promoting the recycling of old mobile phones; and has worked with the New Zealand Dental Association promoting switching to water rather than sugary drinks.

“There are organisations I’d want to work with and there is definitely a shift to more environmentally focused organisations,” she says.

“I’ve slowly been angling myself that way and that’s been nice.”

Eliza McCartney leaping to bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Photo: Getty Images

A lot has happened to McCartney since that wonderfully unexpected success in Rio three years ago.

Curiously, she revealed she first had pain in the right Achilles a couple of weeks before competing there.

The number of injuries she’s had have been “quite relentless, injury after injury”, she says.

She competed in just four events this year – the Sylvia Potts Classic in Hastings in January, where she cleared 4.85m (her personal best is 4.94m in Germany in July 2018); the Sydney Classic in February, and Paris and Zurich in August. She failed to complete a leap in any of the last three events.

She withdrew from the world indoor champs in Doha in September, came home and had a cracking month of training.

“Then totally out of the blue I had quite intense pain in my Achilles one day, and from then on things really went downhill,” McCartney says.

“It’s taken us a really long time to get a grip on what’s been going on. It didn’t respond at all in the way we expected it to respond [to treatment].

“In fact, it got worse with things that should have made it better. It was incredibly confusing.”

News of the genetic disorder shocked her.

“It was quite a scary thing to be told. From what I understand of people with similar conditions, it doesn’t usually come out this early,” McCartney says.

“So, I’m really hoping this is the issue, this is the solution and I can go back to being a normal athlete without these injuries.”

McCartney said she’d coped with the frustrating run of injuries pretty well – until this year. She accepted injuries were part and parcel of being an athlete.

But this year was different. She’d started getting hamstring pain last November, and that carried through until July when she had a brief reprieve after a diagnosis of deep gluteal syndrome. Then the pain moved to her calf and set off her Achilles.

She had let her mind wander to dark places. Was the Rio bronze to be her lot, a hugely promising career chopped off, just like that?

“It was tough at times, but I’d just think I’ve been unlucky,” McCartney says of her previous injury layoffs.

“But this year’s been ridiculous. At times it does make you question yourself. Am I even capable of doing this? Is it something my body can handle?

“You have all sorts of weird thoughts coming in. It’s really easy to think that way.

“But I’ve got incredible support from my team and my family. It’s so important because they keep you thinking more clearly.”

McCartney acknowledges she’s lucky, given her age. Potentially she has another decade of pole vaulting – “so even if it took another year to get back it’s not so bad,” she laughs. And she hasn’t had much to laugh about of late.

 “I love the sport, but it’s also my job and my livelihood. It’s a big part of how I define myself and when that’s taken away from you it’s incredibly tough.

“You can be left feeling a bit lost, your purpose has gone and that’s really tough to work through.”

The qualifying mark for Tokyo is 4.70m. McCartney is confident she will do it, now that the dark clouds have drifted away. She has the advantage of knowing she’s sailed well over that in the past.

The discipline is in good shape in New Zealand, with youngsters Olivia McTaggart and Imogen Ayris making good progress. A country is entitled to three entries in an Olympic discipline. That might be a stretch for Tokyo, but it’s hugely encouraging for Paris in 2024.

As for clearing 5m, which only three women vaulters have achieved? “Absolutely – that’s the next thing I need to get,” McCartney says, by which point the laugh is well and truly back in place.

Happy birthday indeed.

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