It’s been a tough year for NZ pole vault champion Imogen Ayris, but she’s motivated to defend her title by the memory of her loving dad, Barny.
When Imogen Ayris takes to the pole vault runway on Friday at the national track and field championships in Hastings, it’s inevitable thoughts of her late father and number one fan will race through her mind.
It was a year ago, at the nationals in Christchurch, that her supportive dad, Barny, watched Ayris win the pole vault title. It would be the last time he saw her compete before his untimely death in September, aged 54, following a lengthy battle with cancer.
A former Metropolitan Police detective in London and fraud investigator in New Zealand, Barny Ayris was there at almost all of Ayris’ competitions around the world since the Aucklander first took up pole vault in 2014.
“It has been a long and hard season and I just want to go out on a high,” says 20-year-old Ayris, who last November set a personal best of 4.50m to sit third on the all-time New Zealand pole vault rankings.
“I want to pull out a performance to make my dad proud.”
It was, after all, Ayris’ father who first suggested she should try vaulting.
Immersed in sport for as long as she can remember, both of Ayris’ parents were sporty – her mum, Bridget, was a Maadi Cup double sculls champion rower and Dad a county representative in football and rugby in the UK.
Ayris started athletics at the age of six at Takapuna Harriers, but she also excelled in gymnastics – competing for her country in a transTasman international against Australia.
Given the close physical requirement of gymnastics and pole vault, Barny Ayris “first planted the pole vault seed, saying ‘You’d be good at it, you should give it a go’,” his daughter recalls.
“He was a massive sports fan and knew of Eliza [McCartney, the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist and now training partner of Ayris] even before I did,” she explains.
“At the time I really didn’t think much of it and we just laughed about it. But when the opportunity came, everything fell into place.”
Ayris had set several club age-group records as a talented sprinter, hurdler and jumper, but when her hurdles coach, Warwick Fenton, suggested she should try pole vault under the coaching of Jeremy McColl, she leapt at the chance.
“I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything, so I was all for the idea,” says Ayris who was 13 at the time. “I fell in love with the sport straight away. Jeremy is a great coach and given my gymnastic background, I picked up the basics very quickly.”
Within just six months of taking up the sport she won a bronze medal at the national secondary schools championships in Wanganui and the following year snared U20 gold at the 2015 track and field nationals.
In 2016, she became the youngest New Zealand woman – aged 15 at the time – to clear 4m and two years later she claimed her maiden senior women’s pole vault title in Hamilton with a PB of 4.15m, all supported by her dad.
“Dad was my taxi driver to and from training,” Ayris says. “He would help out on club nights in any way he could and he quickly fell in love with the pole vault community.
“He was not the sort of dad who passed on any coaching advice, he always left that for the coach. But he loved his stats and he always knew where I was ranked and the heights my opponents had jumped.”
Her father was even in Tampere, Finland, when Ayris bravely battled intense pain from a fractured heel to improbably clear her first two heights at the 2018 U20 world championships.
Picking up the injury following an awkward pole vault landing two days before qualification, she was nonetheless determined to compete and pushed herself through the pain to perform with pride in front of her mum, Bridget, dad and younger brother, Harry.
“I remember I couldn’t walk the morning of the competition and even when I arrived at the track I was still on crutches,” she says.
“In the call-room beforehand, I was sat with my purple leg in a bucket of ice trying to numb the pain. But I wanted to give it my all because I’d trained so hard for it.
“I don’t know whether it was the painkillers or the adrenaline which took me through, but I managed to clear my first two heights [3.80m and 3.95m before three unsuccessful attempts at 4.10m]. I didn’t qualify for the final, but I honestly believe that day was one of the biggest things I’ve achieved. To get over even one height with a fractured heel was a miracle.”
It was in 2018 when her father was first diagnosed with melanoma which led to the removal of his eye. Sadly, the cancer returned more aggressively the following year.
Watching her father suffer was taxing for Ayris, but she was always amazed by the way he handled the most intense treatment.
“Even though he was experiencing some awful things and he was in so much pain he was always so positive right throughout his treatment,” she says. “He never looked for sympathy and it was never about him.”
Cancer treatment in 2019 meant Ayris’ father missed out on watching his daughter compete in Naples at the World University Games, where she finished a respectable 10th with a best of 4.11m.
“I know it was really hard for him not seeing me compete,” Ayris says. “Even after I got my driving licence, he’d come early to watch me warm up. He’d always give me a cheer before I jumped and if I cleared the height, he’d be the loudest one cheering.”
Barny Ayris managed to see his daughter regain her national senior title with a clearance of 4.25m in Christchurch – beating 2018 Commonwealth Games athlete McTaggart – but this was the final time he’d see his daughter compete.
He spent a period undergoing trial treatment in Sydney but as time passed, the cancer was diagnosed as terminal.
Struggling through the pain, his love for his daughter and pole vaulting remained strong.
“He would normally never come to training but in the final few weeks before he died, I asked Jeremy if my dad could come along and watch. He said yes, and up until a week before he died, Dad came up to AUT Millennium to watch me train.”
Following his death, Ayris received many messages saying what a special guy he was. While the support and love was welcomed, different people mourn in different ways – the Northcote Point-based athlete made a rapid return to the runway.
“I trained the next day [after his death],” Ayris says. “I just needed to get out of the house because I knew Dad would have wanted me to continue to do what I love.”
Highly motivated by her dad’s passing, Ayris – a University of Auckland physiology and exercise science student – was in the form of her life.
In November, in Auckland she added 20cm to her PB with a 4.50m clearance – a moment which proved bittersweet for the Takapuna Harrier.
“After jumping 4.50m I was both happy and sad,” she admits. “My dad never got to see me clear that height although after coming down to training in the weeks before he died, he’d seen me jump really well, so he knew I was in good form.”
Since the turn of the year, Ayris has struggled to match that form and admits she has endured a “rocky few months” as she comes to terms with her father’s passing and also that of her much-loved grandfather and aunty Megan all within a four-month period.
“I’ve really noticed how my mental and emotional wellbeing affects my physical wellbeing,” she says. “It got to the point where I’d turn up to a vault session feeling really sad. On certain days I thought I can’t do this mentally because physically it will affect me.”
Receiving great support from her HPSNZ life advisor Carolyn Donaldson, doctor Dan Exeter and physio Lou Johnson – and her training partners – Ayris took a one-week break from training following January’s Potts Classic in Hastings to recharge the batteries.
Gradually, her fitness and most importantly her mental and emotional wellbeing has improved and at the Sir Graeme Douglas International in Auckland last month she achieved a 2021 best mark of 4.32m.
Competing at the rescheduled nationals this weekend, Ayris says the memory of her dad will give her no shortage of motivation.
“He was the most amazing dad I could have wished for,” she says. “He was so funny, loving and caring. Without doubt, he was my biggest inspiration.
“My dad always used this phrase he got from his dad ahead of a competition: ‘You can only do your best, boy’.”
It’s a phrase Ayris aims to live up to in Hastings. Few would doubt that she will.