They were the best of times, during the worst of times.
Local sprinter Olivia Eaton has been racking up the best times of her running career, while coping with family tragedy and the loss of her greatest supporter.
Already a world champion, Olivia Eaton is eyeing the 2020 Olympics.
The world’s fastest female beach sprinter is now New Zealand’s fourth-fastest 200 metre sprinter ever, after knocking four-tenths of a second from her PB (personal best).
“The day after the race (at the Australian Champs) I received a message from Wendy Brown, the New Zealander who I had dislodged from fourth on the all-time lists. She said she had been following my progress which was so humbling and she added ‘well done, keep going and one day I will have top spot.’ That was pretty cool.”
At the time she ran her 23.39 sec 200m (Feb 2018), everyone thought she’d qualified for the Commonwealth Games. If she was an Australian, she would have, but New Zealand qualifying times are tougher.
“The first 3 place-getters (in that race), were all Australian and ran a 22.9, a 23.05, and a 23.2 maybe, and they all ended up going to the Commonwealth Games and racing.”
The New Zealand qualifying times for the Olympic Games in Tokyo 2020 have yet to be set, but Olivia is still in the running.
“I’m assuming it will be around the 22.9 stage, which is a New Zealand record, so basically I will need to run a New Zealand record to go to Tokyo. What I’m basing my training around, that’s what I’m aiming for.”
The world record for the event is 21.34, set in 1988 by the late Florence Griffith-Joyner.
Though many 200m runners excel at 100m as well, Olivia is focussing her efforts solely on the longer sprint.
“The 200m is more suited to my body type and the sort of training I enjoy.
“I’m not a powerful aggressive athlete, qualities which are needed for the 100m but I am always confident of my back end of the race, which is why I’m better suited for the 200m. I also love that feeling of sling-shotting off the bend and into the straight.”
Her training dovetails nicely into her other passion — surf life saving — for which she has represented New Zealand since 2015. The following year she first became the Open World Champion beach sprinter, at the age of just 18, and came second in the Beach Flags.
Olivia’s focus for the past year has been on getting strong, going to the gym and making her gains there … “and I think it’s paying off.”
She puts her success down to a combination of doing the little things right over a long period of time.
“Your diet, recovery, rehab on any little niggling injuries, being very specific at training, really looking after yourself, ticking boxes and doing everything right. It doesn’t mean by doing things straight away results will happen — it may take a whole summer of racing, or a whole winter of training, to see the results. I guess what I’m learning is it can happen all at once, once you have done all those little things right.”
The Bad Times
“Three and a half years ago my Mum (Lianne) was diagnosed with breast cancer,” Olivia recalls. It was during her treatment and recovery, that husband Craig was diagnosed with mesothelioma.
“Dad was a builder, so he had asbestos-related cancer.”
The family was devastated.
While her mum’s recovery and prognosis was good, the outlook for Olivia’s dad was bleak.
“There were a lot of unknowns,” says Olivia, who is based on the Gold Coast under sprint coach, Brett Robinson.
It was her Dad who urged Olivia to make the transition to Australia to help advance her athletics career and bid for Olympic selection in 2020.
“Dad was the one that got me into athletics, and loved that I was in Australia pursuing what was a shared dream of ours. Living the lifestyle of an athlete and doing what I’m doing.”
Indeed it was dad who carted Olivia out to the Inglewood athletics track every Tuesday evening from the ages of 11 to 18, for Egmont Athletics’ Club night.
“We’d just drive out together and we’d just sit in the stands – there’d be no one there, like 30 people at club night … and he’d sit in the stands during training… just smiling back at me after each run.
“Mum and Dad would go to all my competitions, but Dad would always do the driving or he’d come away with me.
“So, the amount of miles we covered across the country and … and then when I started going over to Australia, it’s just ridiculous.
“The amount of times he would’ve just been sitting down for hours, waiting… I race for 11 seconds and that’s it, or 23 seconds in the 200, or a 90m beach sprint, and then the rest of it’s just hours sitting around.
So yeah, lots of my memories are related to my sport and sharing that with Dad.”
Ever since their youngest daughter’s move to Australia in October 2016, Lianne and Craig Eaton tried to get over to see her every six weeks and stay for a mini-holiday each time. They were to continue that pattern for almost two years.
“In early September last year, Mum and Dad had planned to come visit me in Australia; they had booked their tickets to come see me, at a time when Dad’s treatment was at its heaviest.
“They were literally 24 hours into the trip over here, and then Mum and I realised at 4:30am that Dad was pretty unwell and they needed to fly back.
“So they flew back and Dad was admitted to hospital, but then Mum called me two days later, telling me I had to come home.
“I wanted to ask questions, but at the same time I knew I didn’t. I boarded the first flight I could.
“When I finally arrived to my home some 10 hours later, I knew the worst was to come. I’m forever grateful that I managed to spend time with Dad before he passed away…”
Craig Eaton died on the 20th of September 2018.
“I wish I still had my Dad here with me.
“It’s been a pretty terrible experience, and to be truthful, I really didn’t want to go back to Australia and have to train for competition season.
Getting back on a plane, and leaving my family behind to mourn, was honestly the last thing I wanted to do, but they encouraged me to go back… and the more I kept thinking about it, the more I knew what Dad would want for me if he was still here. He’d be saying ‘Come on Libs, you’ve got to pull together and get through this, like we’ve always done’.”
Brush with Usain Bolt
When Craig was diagnosed, Olivia was the last of the family to know.
It was early 2017 and in a few days she had a date with destiny, though she didn’t know it at the time.
Selected to run for New Zealand at the Nitro Athletics meet in February 2017 at Lakeside Stadium, Melbourne, Craig insisted the family not tell Olivia the news.
“To Craig it was really important that she didn’t find out because this was such a fun event and gave her great opportunities,” Lianne recalls. “He knew if we told her she’d be on the next plane, and he didn’t want that. For that ten days everyone was sworn to secrecy … it was a really hard time, but we wanted her to enjoy those games. She was so cross with us when she found out.”
Oblivious to her Dad’s diagnosis, Olivia arrived at the event to a carnival-like atmosphere.
“They’re trying to make athletics more entertaining and spectator friendly … modelling it off the Big Bash in cricket,” Olivia describes. “Two of the three nights were sold out. Everyone was interacting there was music everywhere, I think there was a DJ in the middle of the track …”
“Usain Bolt was brought in as the main ambassador, and there were five or six teams from different countries over ten days. They had the traditional races like 100m and 400m, but they also brought in mixed 4 x 100m relay.”
Olivia was in the New Zealand mixed relay team that had the lane right next to Usain Bolt’s All-Star team. Bolt was running the 3rd leg for his team with Olivia running the fourth leg for New Zealand. As Bolt came thundering down the track towards her, Olivia stood her ground in her lane, waiting for the changeover.
“I was standing there and I remember literally feeling this rush of wind go past me. When I finished lots of people said to me ‘he got so close to you’. I literally felt him run past me.”
A photographer captured the moment, which was selected as one of the top 10 photos from the day. Bolt re-tweeted the shot and newspapers worldwide, printed the moment. Olivia’s parents saw it and urged Olivia to get a copy and ask him to sign it.
“I was so embarrassed. Everyone’s like standing around talking with each other, I so didn’t want to do it. But I went up to him and asked him to sign it. He looked at it and looked at me and said ‘I almost killed you’,” Olivia imitates his Jamaican drawl, “and he signed it.”
Now the image has pride of place amongst framed photos, medals and memorabilia from Olivia’s athletics career, that occupies a wall in the family home.
Reflecting on that time in her life now, Olivia says, “I feel good about it, but I also feel bad. It was like the best time I ever had, I met so many people, it was just so fun the whole experience. But I was so mad that they didn’t tell me (about dad’s diagnosis).”
“It was the right thing to do,” Lianne reflects. “It brought Craig a lot of joy to see her so happy and it was good to have something so uplifting happening at a time like that.”
The family enjoyed getting photos and videos from Olivia of the event and the last night party; their girl dancing on stage while Usain Bolt DJ-ed.
The Early Days
When her two older sisters (Rebecca, 27 and Courtney, 24) were surf lifesavers, Olivia would tag along and do what they did, but “hated all the water stuff. So I did all the beach stuff … beach sprint and beach flags.
“I was scared of the ocean and big waves. But in the different sports I did (soccer, netball), I knew I could run,” Olivia grins. “Definitely not the most gifted — I wasn’t well-coordinated in ball sports — but I knew I could get to the other end first.”
She was the only real sprinter in the family — her sisters were better at long distance running, says Lianne.
“I found running quite fun, cos I was good at it,” Olivia says.
When she joined Egmont Athletics, there was some serious female sprinting talent at the club: Laura Smith, Michaela Blyde (current World 7s Women’s Player of the Year) and Zoe Hobbs (also a competitive sprinter who holds the NZ U20 women’s 100m record of 11:53 and set a PB in January this year of 11.37 seconds — just half a second outside the NZ women’s 100m record). Hobbs also performed a PB in the 200m in Feb this year, with the third-fastest 200m by a New Zealand woman at 23.19 seconds.
The girls usually raced in different age groups but they still brought out the competitive streak in each other.
“The calibre was always really really good out there.”
Her dad organised Olivia’s first coach, Larry O’Byrne. Craig and Larry worked together at Port Taranaki.
“He was training a couple of boys at Sutherland Park and Dad organised for me to come along one day. I turned up and there were all these hurdles and tyres, and all these sorts of things I hadn’t really seen before, and Dad was like ‘cool, off you go’. Then Larry showed me all these things and I was terrible at it and didn’t know what I was doing. I went to every single training session for the next 6 years, 6 days a week after school.”
Larry and his wife travelled to the 2016 World Champs to watch Olivia compete.
“He’s not just a coach, he’s more like a grandfather really,” says Lianne.
“I was still growing so he was always very cautious of not trying to burn me out. It was mostly sprint training and we’d go to Inglewood or Lynmouth Park or down to Devon (for hill work) and during summer we’d go to the Sacred Heart track.
“He was really old school and would write all our sessions out on paper. If I’d go away to race and he couldn’t come, he would write on paper what I needed to do. I loved it! He was so old school … we’d drag tyres and jump up on seats for our plyometrics, it was perfect for me as a kid I used what was around me. He just set me up so well and made me enjoy what I was doing. I mean you don’t want to be doing something every day when you’re 12 if you’re not enjoying it.”
Life as an Athlete
“It’s hard to make an income from racing.”
The reality is that there isn’t a lot of money to be made from running fast, unless you’re Usain Bolt.
The track and beach season starts in October and runs until April.
At the time LIVE comes out, Olivia is due to compete at the NZ Athletics Championships in Christchurch (on their new track), with heats starting on Sat 9th March and finals scheduled for the Sunday.
She has three weeks off each May, then it’s back into training.
“Winter training is so hard. If you’re not crying or vomiting at most of the sessions from May to August then you’re not training hard enough.”
Luckily, Olivia has so many good friends training with her, it helps get her through the grind.
Olivia works at Gold Coast Sports & Leisure Centre, while studying towards a Sports Management degree she’s doing via correspondence from Massey University. She also coaches twice a week during summer and receives product sponsorship from New Balance, Taranaki Elite Athletes (Sport Taranaki), and Swift Supplements.
She says being an athlete has made her a creature of habit.
“Stick to your plan. I don’t follow any sort of diets … I just want to put food into my body that is good for me. I try to eat whole foods as much as possible, lots of vegetables, try and have a lot of fats. Being a girl athlete as well, getting enough protein into me is really important for muscle growth and things like that. I try and have a lot of fluids and I would eat more than most people think… I would be having like five big meals a day with snacking in between so I have enough energy to get through 10 to 11 training sessions a week.”
At the end of the season or after a big event, Olivia admits she knows how to celebrate and have a good time “but I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise my training.”
Running concurrently to her athletics career, the speedster continues to excel in the sport of surf lifesaving.
Her victory in the Open Women’s Beach Sprint at the World Champs in Adelaide during November 2018 was especially poignant — it was her first meet since the death of her father.
“There is no way I think that I myself would have got on the plane to come back here and try and get back into a normal routine. That was literally the support of my Mum and my sisters and our friends and family back home … just reminding me, this is exactly what Dad wants you to do.”
Another thing that helped the young athlete re-focus, was getting the whole drama off her chest.
Media company, Exclusive Insight, which works with athletes, asked Olivia if she would like to tell her story. That raw account generated “an incredible response from friends and even people I haven’t met before. Other people whose lives have been affected by mesothelioma. It was an amazing response and I was blown away by how nice people were. I had a lot of support during a time I really needed it.”
Olivia admitted that prior to her dad dying, “I never understood when someone would go through something, and then say they gained motivation from it. I always just thought, that as an athlete, you should already be motivated enough to want to succeed in your sport.
“But I’ve come to realise that is what tragedy can do for some people. And honestly, it’s been the biggest wake up call. I knew even beforehand when we knew Dad’s diagnosis and whatnot, it was important to make the most of my opportunities.
“But now it’s like… ‘Okay. I have to do this for Dad. I love what I do and I’ll do it for as long as I can, but I’m not just doing this for me anymore.’ So yeah, I fully get the 100% thing, because it’s honestly just put a whole new sort of perspective on my approach to things, kind of like a bigger picture.
“You don’t need to sweat the small stuff anymore. I’m not complaining if I’ve got a couple of niggles anymore, it just makes the bigger picture so much more important. Way more important.”