How Kiwi pole vaulter leapt over the pain barrier

Imogen Ayris

We are passionate about helping people realise their full potential. That’s why we are sponsoring five athletes who are part of the Performance Potential Squad (PPS), a programme that prepares young athletes for future success. In this interview, pole vaulter Imogen Ayris shares her personal story of resilience and how she plans to achieve her Olympic dream.

1. At Robert Walters, we often help clients find professionals with niche skills. Pole vaulting is a pretty rare skill! How did you discover you might be good at it?

I was a gymnast from the age of two and represented New Zealand eventually. But once at high school I fell in love with athletics and decided to train seriously. My coach suggested I give pole vault a try, and introduced me to Eliza McCartney, our best pole vaulter. I met her, turned up for training the next day and never left!

2. You are now part of Athletics NZ’s PPS programme, of which Robert Walters is a sponsor. That includes working with a team of specialists to carefully plan your path to success. But even the best laid plans can sometimes come undone. Have you had any setbacks?

2018 was my best and worst year yet. I began the year in top form and finished the season on a high, jumping a new personal best of 4.2 metres. I went to the World Junior Championships in Finland but, three days out from it, I landed on my foot badly and couldn’t walk. The team physio did some tests and based on the data available, it looked like I had a bruised fat pad in my heel. 

That meant there would be no damage if I competed in the World Juniors – but it all depended on whether I could tolerate the pain. 

The day before the competition, we went to the World Junior Championships track and I took one step on my good foot and one step on my bad foot, and then collapsed. I was in tears because of the pain and also the fear I couldn’t compete.

On the morning of the World Junior Championships, I woke up and my foot was black. I needed crutches and painkillers just to walk. But I went to the track and was determined to have a go. With a shorter run up, I managed to pole vault and cleared two heights in the competition. I cleared the bar in the third height but brushed it slightly – it wobbled for a moment and then came down. I crawled off the mats, put my foot in ice and cried!

The day before the competition, we went to the World Junior Championships track and I took one step on my good foot and one step on my bad foot, and then collapsed.

3. That sounds heartbreaking. What happened next? 

After several weeks off, I returned to training back home but it still didn’t feel 100%. So I went for an MRI and discovered a crack in the bone, which was diagnosed as a fractured heel bone! So I’d competed at the World Junior Championships with a fractured heel. The doctor looked at the x-ray and said, “I knew you were tough, but I didn’t think you were that tough!” I wasn’t allowed to run for several months after that. That was hard because I missed pre-season training and the start of the season. And even after finally returning to training, I found out that I had a stress reaction in a different bone in my other foot! 

4. Happily, you’re fit again now. What do you hope to achieve in the future?

Long term my goal is to go all the way and compete at an Olympics. But I’m 18 and, being so young, you can’t tell which Olympics that might be. So at the moment I’m taking it year by year. I have qualified for the World University Games in Italy this July. So my first goal will be to make the finals there. Until then, I have goals to get in top shape in other competitions and push my personal best higher.


Robert Walters helps NZ athletes achieve their potential, find out more about our sponsorship.

Our five athletes have their own story to tell, read their stories here.