There are not too many major bones in the feet and legs of promising sprint hurdler Liz Clay (Qld) that have not been fractured throughout her messy journey to making a senior Australian team.
For all the time and effort spent recovering from injury, while cross training harder than ever before, it seems she has made a pact with herself that there must be a happy ending around the corner.
“Since 2014 I have had five rounds of stress reactions or fractures where I’ve had to take extended periods of rest, spread over 10 different bones including navicular, femurs, shins and metatarsals,” Clay recalled.
“The next year I could not put together more than four weeks of training without an injury and I was honestly lost for answers.
“In my heart, I knew that I wouldn’t and couldn’t leave the sport just yet because it had become such a part of my lifestyle.
“But there were countless nights where we would sit and wonder whether I would ever get to the position I am in right now - training to improve rather than training because I could.”
It takes remarkable persistence from Clay, who in 2016 moved her life from Sydney to the Gold Coast to team up with a new coach and training group. Without knowing anyone, Clay pledged she had no other option than to make her athletics career work.
And so far, things are looking very promising, with Clay capping off the domestic season with a personal best of 13.36 seconds at the SUMMERofATHS Grand Prix in March following an extended injury-free run since being coached by Sharon Hannan.
That run also qualified her for the World University Games, a more than fitting outcome for someone who nearly came close to giving up on her dream of becoming a full-time professional athlete.
It was only two years ago Clay considered unburdening herself from this unnegotiable desire to make it as a professional hurdler, while enduring injury after injury despite doing all she could to limit the risk of another stress fracture.
“When I was injured I was so extremely worried about getting unfit and losing strength that I would cross-train myself into the ground every day,” Clay explained.
“With each round of rest from the track, I grew hungrier and more determined to get it right on my return which pushed me to become a very driven and diligent athlete.
“So when I moved to the Gold Coast, I was on my own, so I told myself that there was no option to be injured, I just had to make it work, make smart decisions and avoid any training errors.
“I think these two experiences have taught me important lessons and made me a little tougher on and off the track.”
Naturally, like most who dream of competing at the Olympics she wants to become a full-time athlete and the carrot of that lifestyle is yet another incentive motivating her to train hard and smart.
“Most people would say that I am a committed athlete, I'm not lazy and don’t miss sessions or skip recovery,” Clay said.
“I do love working hard and I think I'm grateful for the sessions where I can put in 100 per cent because of all the training I have missed over previous seasons.”
Clay has taken advice from Hannan to make sure there is a balance of athletics and other things to work on in her life, which has her working, coaching and back studying at university.
Working at Under Armour, coaching a group of high school hurdlers and studying at Griffith University is providing that balance while she does her best to stick to a more conservative training philosophy.
“I still treat my training as a full-time job and number one priority,” Clay reasoned.
“If something doesn’t fit in with training I won’t do it or I’ll move it around.
“I think every athlete has a goal of being a financially supported athlete at some stage in their career, and I know I definitely do.
“I’ve seen the process it takes to become an athlete at that level and am willing to put in the work.”
If she needed any more inspiration, Clay only has to look across the track at training to see Sally Pearson working on her form as she continues to make her own way back from injury.
To have the sixth fastest woman all-time in your event training at the same track, not to mention being mentored by her former long-time coach, Clay has put herself in the best position to make it to the big time.
“Having Sally around is motivating for me because she proves that Australian sprinters and hurdlers can match the best and I think it is important for young athletes to experience that,” Clay said.
“I do look up to her and admire her work ethic, we train at the same track some days on the Gold Coast.
“Racing Sally and actually anyone consistently running under 13 seconds is a challenge.
“Not so much a challenge to win at this stage, but a mental challenge to execute your own race plan without getting distracted.
“Hurdles is a high-stress event and is just as much a mental game as it is physical.
“As your speed improves, the calibre of athletes you will be up against becomes higher, so I have started to embrace opportunities like racing Sally, because they prepare me for future competitions.”
Clay made a humble start to her athletics career trying a number of events as a young girl, even the walks, while spending most of her time outside of school dancing with friends.
Now she is preparing to compete for Australia at the World University Games in Taipei, an elite competition that will hopefully be a dress rehearsal for a senior major championships appearance in the future.
“Becoming a part of Sydney University Athletic Club was a turning point for me as I was offered a position in the Elite Athlete Program which encouraged me to take athletics seriously,” Clay said.
“At the 2013 Australian University Games I met Ella Nelson and Anneliese Rubie, who since then have both had an enormous influence on me and become two of my closest friends.
“They both had breakout seasons the following year which left me extremely motivated to do the same.
“A few years down the track I joined Fira Dvoskina’s squad and spent a year training with fellow SUAC athletes, in particular Justin Merlino.
“Although it wasn’t a successful season injury wise, training with an older experienced group of athletes taught me a lot about real hard training and recovery.”
Without knowing Clay personally, you would still know for sure that she is a tough character with intent – you can see it on her face during competition and at training.
She has now legally run under 13.50 three times, while clocking a windy 13.34 to come fourth at the recent national championships.
“Training and recovery is very structured and I don’t skip out on either aspect no matter how boring,” Clay said.
“We do pool sessions three times a week which help with recovery and I have great physio and massage therapists.
“I spend an hour every night doing prehab exercises for my feet and shins - most importantly when I don’t have any niggles.
“My diet is another huge aspect which I pay a lot of attention to, along with hydration and sleep.
“I think every athlete is different, and we have discovered that my body only works when all the one-percenters are taken care of, which is a lot of effort, but worth it.”
The effort required to get those results this season was significant, but Clay is willing to keep giving all she has to earn that tag of a professional athlete, she has no other option.