Taking The Fast Track
Balance is the name of the game: we talk to hurdling's rising superstar Liz Clay about balancing tough training sessions with beach and cafe life on the Gold Coast
By Imogen Clark
With the sun beginning to linger for longer and the city starting to sweat, memories of last year’s summer months reappear and the excitement of what is to come enters our conversation. Though unlike most, Liz Clay doesn’t recollect tales of holidays or partying; instead the Australian hurdler speaks about how she packed her spikes and travelled to Japan to compete in her first Olympics. “I had never been in a major championship before,” says the 27-year-old athlete. “It was my first major team competition away. And then you had Covid as well, so there obviously weren’t people in the stands. But to be honest, I didn’t even realise – there was enough noise and other things going on”.
And although she can’t tell you exactly how Tokyo differed from previous versions of this grand sporting spectacle, the runner’s journey to this starting line was easy to identify as she accumulated an impenetrable series of wins, cementing her as ‘one to watch’ with the label ‘undefeated’ glued to her name. Emerging from Tokyo with tenth position and a personal best of 12.71 seconds, she unlocked global recognition and a hunger to continue to push herself to be the best. But it was what came after that she claims taught her the most about that summer. “The biggest learning curve for me, and I had been (abroad) and competed (elsewhere) before, but nothing like the kind of tour that I did after (the Olympics) – it was tough. I am really glad that I went – I learned so much about travelling as an athlete. What you need, what you don’t need, what’s important. How to travel, what to travel with and what to avoid eating. So, that portion of the Tokyo trip was where I learned a lot of stuff for this upcoming year.” With her planner marked with the World Championship, set to take place in Oregon, and the Commonwealth Games being held in Birmingham, travel is on the agenda for Liz as she takes in her last couple of moments before a strict regime set to win her gold in the coming months.
So, what does this rare calm moment look like for Liz? “My perfect day off is waking up a bit later – but not super late” she clarifies. “Then venturing out to get a coffee and a snack before heading back home. Watching a game of basketball, maybe doing some groceries and a bit of a clean and then just sitting on the couch. Honestly, the simple things on a day off are perfect.” With a watchlist comprising mainly new releases on Disney Plus such as The Dropout and Dopesick, the self-proclaimed series lover now enjoys the comforts of home over her youthful partying days.
Maybe unsurprising after the two years of lockdown, but the remnants of this pandemic are still very much at the forefront of Liz’s mind. “The last 12 months I’ve probably done the least amount of going out to dinner or going out for a drink because of the virus, like I can’t really afford to get it,” she says. “I’ve really been a homebody since I got home from the Olympics. I did go for a drink two nights ago as I felt like I needed to let off some steam before I hook into two big months of training, but I love being at home, I am so content. And diet is a big thing as well.”
That comes as no surprise as one of her TikTok videos outlined what a typical day of eating in between training looked like: “heaps of water”, “protein shake”, “gluten-free toast with tuna and avocado” and “teriyaki meat with steamed broccoli” to name a few of her food choices of fuel. “I think as I kind of move through my career and every year gets a little bit more professional, I think I’m doing less (going out).” But that isn’t to say she doesn’t indulge: “I love KitKats, that’s my thing but I don’t feel guilty about having them because so much of my life is so strict, you have to have balance. Like I’ll have a pizza or burger, but I mean my stomach probably can’t really handle it that well so I can’t do it often,” she laughs.
With that said, her life on the Gold Coast makes it easy for the hurdler to adapt the healthy lifestyle of an Olympian into her day-to-day routine. Her go-to spot is No Name Lane on Broadbeach, a café that she claims to have the best coffee and an unbeatable chicken salad – “It’s the best quinoa chicken salad you will ever have” – and when she craves her favourite Japanese cuisine, you’ll find her in restaurant Etsu Izakaya. Now, living minutes from the beach in this Australian coastal city, Liz’s move here from Sydney in 2016 was the step she says inspired her to transition into taking sport professionally.
Liz had got bored of being on the sidelines every Saturday morning watching her brother compete in ‘Little Athletics’ so she decided to join in before taking dance lessons in the afternoon. As an active child, she did everything from ballet, jazz, tap and netball, to name a few, so for her athletics was just a seamless, ‘tick another box’ exercise. At university she made the decision to stick to one sport only and chose hurdles. The change in location also brought with it a new routine. “The biggest change was that we trained at like 8 or 9am every day, that’s what a professional squad does. You train in the morning and the middle of the day; you don’t train at 5pm when everyone’s finished work. Before then, I was living my life and training in the afternoon – it was just an afterthought.”
With most of her days spent pushing her body, the perks of living on the Gold Coast are still appreciated. “I live like 100 metres from the beach. I’m always getting my tan on,” says Liz, smiling as her sun-kissed skin and bleached blonde hair bring the stereotype of a surfer girl to mind. “I love walking down to the beach at five o’clock to see the sunset. Sometimes in winter I’ll take a hot chocolate and just sit there and do a bit of mindfulness and reflect.” The balance she has managed to cultivate for herself clearly works, and her social media feeds are proof of this as she showcases the best of herself on the track and those in-between moments she cherishes in the hue of the glowing sun.
Bringing the same diligence to her starting position, how important is her appearance in those minutes in front of spectators? “The reason I enjoy doing my hair and making sure I look good is because you get five minutes out there. You walk out, stand on the start line for two minutes, run your 12-second race – and then you’re gone. I feel like you’ve only got that much time to make an impact so that’s the reason why I like to do it,” says Liz. “It’s kind of like a performance, right?”
If so, you could predict a summer of applause and calls for an encore. “I am very driven and dedicated to what I do, and nothing gets in the way of that,” she clarifies. “It’s kind of like being me, at this moment, I am my sport for right now and every decision I make throughout my whole day relates to that in some way, even if I don’t realise it.” On the precipice of a relentless regime, is there an end goal for the hurdler? “Everyone’s goal is Olympic gold. You don’t do this sport to go halfway,” states Liz. “But it is insane. You know five years ago my goal was literally just to make the Olympics and live by the beach and I achieved that. But I think you can’t really put an end goal on a career because not everyone’s going to win Olympic gold.” But beyond the medals, there is something she still wants to do.
“I would like to go overseas for an extended period and train with a coach to get a different experience. And I want to own my dream car (a Lamborghini Urus).” She takes a deep breath and concludes: “But I guess I just want to make the most of the time that I have doing what I love and when I get to the end, there’s no stone left unturned. I did everything I could. I tried everything and met everyone I could. If I can get to the end of my career and say I’ve done all of that, then I will feel satisfied”.