by Eliza McCartney

In 2016 I felt invincible. I was 19 years old, and could run around all day, do as much training as I like, but never get injured.

I felt like I could do anything and back then I took my health, my sport, for granted. But you can’t be really young forever.

Ever since the Rio Olympics, staying healthy has been a challenge, one that caused me to go deeper and deeper into a hole. It took a long time to find a way out. Last year, when things were at their worst, my mind was full of negative thoughts.

Can my body handle this anymore? Can I actually do this? Am I going to be forced to prematurely end my career?

At the age of 22, that’s a scary thought.

Eliza McCartney ()

The problems all started in 2016. About two weeks before the Rio Olympics, I competed at a small event in Germany and it went terribly. My Achilles tendon was sore afterwards, and the following morning it got worse again. I couldn’t walk on it.

But it was the kind of pain that went away once I warmed it up. In Rio, I could feel it every day walking around, but in the competition itself, it was fine. I put it to the back of my mind.

As young as I was, I’d already been to World Indoors and the World University Games, so I wasn’t completely taken aback when I got on that stage. The media in New Zealand had talked me up as a medal contender, but I felt no pressure. I was just happy to be at an Olympics.

Before the qualifying round, I was nervous. I have a terrible history at qualifiers and always seem make a mess of them, but still get through to the final. I remember that morning in Rio, struggling to get my breakfast down at 5:30am.  

Thankfully, I got through, and going into the final I was far more relaxed. As it went on and I began to jump from 12th to 11th to 10th, I saw every additional place as a bonus. That mindset, and my naivety, helped a lot.

After clearing 4.80m, I failed three times at 4.85m and then all I could do was stand behind the runway as Alana Boyd made her final attempt. If she made it, I would finish fourth; if she missed, I was third. I was sure she’d make it.

I’m not going to win a medal. That’s not going to happen to me.

When she missed, I knew instantly I had bronze and this overwhelming emotion hit me. I went hysterical.

Eliza McCartney ()

What made that moment was that everyone important to me was there: my whole family, my partner, coach, physio, doctor. They were all there at my highest moment, but they were there, too, in the years after, when it all came crashing down.

Without that support, it would have been easy to lose hope. In recent years I had periods when the injuries were under control, but it was still quite a burden, ruling me out for long periods of time.

Last year was my hardest as an athlete.

I had hamstring issues for a lot of the year and then my Achilles flared up again. Each time it seemed to get a little worse, and it left me unable to pole vault for months. We talked to a lot of Achilles experts and they noticed something unusual: it wasn’t acting like a normal tendon. But why?

We kept searching for an answer.

Based on blood test results and my family's medical history, we eventually realised I’ve likely got some form of autoimmune condition that was making these injuries so much worse.

It’s very vague, I don’t fit into a box, but after starting medication towards the end of last year I began to feel an immediate difference. The medication dampens the immune response and because of that, I was able to start loading the Achilles and build up strength. Before, nothing I tried was working. It was a mess.

During those lowest moments, I was thankful to have something else going on in my life.

Ever since I left school, I studied at university for two reasons. One: I really love it. Two: when things go really badly in sport, you have another hobby to put everything into. Even in the good times, it’s good to have another mental stimulation because being an athlete doesn’t last forever. I could be lucky and have another 10 years, but you just don’t know.

Things have turned a corner for me this year. I’ve been going up and up every month in training – the opposite of the previous year.

Eliza McCartney ()

I’m back training with my group, something I missed so much during my time away. When you’re injured, you spend so much time doing rehab on your own, which is not nearly as motivating as training with others.

I can’t wait to get back competing. The earliest possible one will be in September, but our main season in New Zealand runs from January to March. Thankfully, life has returned to normal here in recent weeks and we’re all hoping it stays that way.

With exactly a year until the Olympics, there’s no reason for me to rush things. Before they got postponed, it was going to be a real push to qualify, but I was fairly at peace that if I didn’t make it, that was just the way it goes.

But because I’m reasonably young, another year can’t be a bad thing. It gives me a chance to get a real base training going. If I make it to Tokyo, I know I’ll have a different mindset to what I had in Rio.

That’s the thing about injuries. They leave you with a certain wisdom. There’s no more taking it for granted. I’m grateful that I get to do this.