Five years ago Greer Alsop and Charlotte Muschamp blazed a trail for Southland athletes by winning college scholarships to study and compete in the United States.
After five years at Washington State University, Alsop is back in New Zealand ready to take on the next phase in her sporting and academic career.
SouthlandSport.com editor Nathan Burdon caught up with the former New Zealand under 18 and under 20 triple jump champion to talk about her college experiences and her dream of becoming an Olympian in Tokyo in two years’ time.
How do you sum up five years of life experience in a couple of paragraphs?
For Greer Alsop, the past half decade seems like both a lifetime and the blink of an eye.
Now 24, picture a teenager from Invercargill heading to the other side of the world to take up a sports scholarship in the United States, something almost inconceivable, like space travel, at the time.
“I learnt a lot about myself,” Alsop says.
“Domestic students here talk about being independent, but you don’t really know independence until you live in a different country for five years.
“Being able to compete and study at a high level - that was the whole reason for going there.
“My friend Charlotte Muschamp tried to do it from here and she got sick and injured. I wasn’t really great at studies here, but I got really competitive with my studies over there, I wanted to do just as well academically as with my sport.
“One of the biggest highlights was getting to travel. I got to go to California every weekend, and it was all paid for, which was nice. It was just a huge experience.”
Washington State University is home to 40,000 students.
The athletics programme is a quality one. Competing at division one level, the highest in the United States, the WSU Cougars share a conference with powerful track and field schools like Stanford and Oregon.
The conference is ranked by many as the second hardest in the United States.
“Competition was high - the highest level I got to was the west regionals, which is the entire west side of America. There are awards just for qualifying for that meet. I was three places out from getting to nationals, the competition is just huge, especially when you are used to being the best and you go over there and it’s a really big pond and I’m a small fish. I learned a lot. I learned how to fail, a lot.”
When Alsop talks about failure, believe her.
An accident during a PE class at Southland Girls’ High School had left her with a niggling, painful ankle injury.
With her scholarship confirmed, but before she had even left New Zealand, it was discovered that the injury was much more serious than first thought.
“I had ankle surgery in my first year, I actually found out I had a broken ankle in New Zealand before going over there. It took like two years to get my muscle back. Every meet I went to, I wasn’t focussing on winning, I was learning how to jump again,” she said.
“It was gut-wrenching, a really hard time for me. I’d set my sights on the 2016 Olympics and I was in the Rio training squad. When they did the MRI they found out there was bits of broken bone in my tendon. I don’t even know how that happens. That first year I had no muscle in my calf, it was skin and bone and I had to build all of that back.”
Some athletes bounce back from surgery quickly. Alsop wasn’t one of them. In fact, it was only last year that she started to rediscover the potential which first attracted the interest of the university scouts.
“The thing I’ve learned about Southlanders is that we breed grit,” Alsop said.
“You know you have to work hard for a long time, so I knew if I stopped there I would always regret it and I kept pushing. It took until 2017 to get back to where I had been jumping, it was a tough three years.”
Alsop is proud of the fact Atipa Mabonga and Hannah Miller have also been able to make it to the United States after training on the same Surrey Park athletics track as her.
“I’m hugely proud of that. I remember when I first heard that Atipa and Hannah were going over and they said in newspaper stories that they had seen myself and Charlotte do it and I felt like I’d made a huge difference.
“Southland was one of the first places that started to get a lot of athletes over there. To show Southlanders that it’s possible to go overseas and study and compete, I’m really quite proud of that.”
Spurred on by the disappointment of missing out on the Rio Olympics, Alsop is committed to achieving her dreams in Tokyo.
She has already jumped the B standard for Tokyo a couple of times in practise, but has a bad habit of overstepping on her best jumps during competitions.
“I’d feel a lot of regret if I don’t get there because I’ve been working so hard, for so long, and I had the last Olympics taken away from me already,” she said.
“I was always so focussed on results and winning, but I’ve come to realise that I do just love the sport. I want to keep doing it right up until I have to have two hip replacements and can’t do it anymore. I’m just going to keep going as long as I can, keep setting high goals. “
Alsop is looking forward to moving to Christchurch and working with national jumps coach Terry Lomax.
“There are some things I need to get down. The American philosophy for training includes a lot of gym and I did get really big and bulky and that didn’t work for me.
“Being a shorter jumper, that’s all weight that I need to carry through the air. I didn’t really work that out until my last year, but now I’m looking forward to having a more European approach to training where it’s power to weight ratio and carrying the most effective amount of weight.”
The past five years have seen Alsop go through huge growth, both personally and as an athlete. The next couple of years will be fascinating to watch.
Don’t bet against this tough Southlander pulling on a black singlet at the Tokyo Olympics.