Nicola McDermott at the 2020 Sydney Track Classic (© Getty Images)
It is fair to say that rising Aussie high jump ace Nicola McDermott discovered her calling early in life.
Aged just eight, McDermott, who at the time stood a head taller than many her peers, was first introduced to the high jump at her local Little Athletics club.
Jumping over a bar and landing on a mattress was fun. Not only that, her height seemed perfectly suited for the event.
So smitten with the high jump, within weeks of taking up the discipline and eager to find out more, she discovered the Australian record then stood at 1.98m, jointly held at the time by Vanessa Ward and Alison Inverarity, and that no Aussie woman had jumped two metres. It was a mark she immediately vowed to clear one day.
Discovering her ‘calling’ early
“When I look back, I guess most eight-year-olds are not thinking about one day jumping two metres in the high jump,” she says with a laugh. “But back then I was tall for my age, and I had these long legs. I had tried swimming, surf lifesaving and tennis and I was useless. People would say, ‘you need to find something to use your height’. High jump was my calling.”
Fast forward 15 years and McDermott has just enjoyed the best season of her career. While not quite yet achieving the two-metre goal, a personal best of 1.98m in Sinn, Germany, in August elevated her to fourth on the 2020 world lists, just one place and one centimetre behind her compatriot Eleanor Patterson, who topped an Australian record 1.99m in February.
The dream is very much alive and given her progression, few would bet against McDermott achieving her long-time goal in 2021.
Born and raised in the small suburb of Tascott in the Central Coast region of New South Wales, where McDermott still lives today, her athletics journey began at seven.
High jumper by 10
Winning “pretty much every event” as part of a school sports day gave her encouragement she had a future in athletics. But the next year she admits she was “flogged” in the sprints and was instead wisely steered towards the high jump.
Instantly taken by the event she began working with her current coach Matt Horsnell from the age of ten, who has helped mould the Aussie into a world-class jumper with his patient and calculated approach.
“Matt always had a ten-year plan for me,” she says. “We were never in a rush and that has allowed me plenty of time to progress.
“He is always willing to learn and will talk high jump all day. He is passionate, encouraging and so humble. It is impossible not to be motivated by him.”
World U20 championship appearance builds confidence
She evolved into a state age-group champion, although success on a national level was often denied by Patterson - six months McDermott’s senior - who in her teens secured the 2013 world U18 high jump title and 2014 Commonwealth Games crown.
McDermott, nonetheless, was herself an athlete of some promise and was rewarded by winning selection to compete for Australia at the 2014 World U20 Championships.
There she performed a little below her best, clearing 1.79m to finish 16th but recalls the fun she had competing on the global stage for the first time.
“I was blown away being around other international athletes, but I also realised I was no different to them, so I had no need to put them on a pedestal,” she explains.
In 2015 and now studying a Bachelor of Sciences degree in biochemistry at Sydney University she added a further 2cm to her PB with a 1.88m clearance and later placed fourth with 1.80m at the World University Games competing in a typhoon in Gwangju.
In 2016, the then 19-year-old missed out on qualification for the Rio Olympics but still has many cherished memories of the season which saw her equal her lifetime best of 1.88m at the Eberstadt high jump meet in Germany.
“I was like a kid in a lolly store,” she recalls of that experience. “It was the first time I’d competed to a slow hand clap or jumped to music. It was an atmosphere I’d never experienced in Australia.”
Inspired by Vlasic
The trip to Europe was also special because for the first time she visited Croatia, the birthplace of her maternal grandparents. McDermott, who stands at 1.86m, believes her height comes from her Croatian genes and given her roots she understandably holds two-time world indoor and twice world outdoor champion Blanka Vlasic in high regard.
“She’s always been a big inspiration to me,” says McDermott. “I remember in the days of the old dial-up internet, the only time I was ever allowed to watch YouTube was when Blanka was competing.”
In 2017 the personable McDermott decided to adopt a fresh mindset to the sport. After more than a decade high jumping, the sport had become a little suffocating with so much of her identity wrapped up in performance.
“Returning to the sport in 2017, I was motivated to share the joy I had through my faith in God. I reminded myself that I have a gift and love to jump.”
London no-height followed by Commonwealth bronze
The relaxed attitude worked. After recovering from a hamstring tear she set a PB of 1.89m in the Australian winter at a low-ley meet in Mingara. One week later she added another centimetre to her best in Brisbane and secured selection for the World Championships in London.
Unfortunately, for the first time in her career she no-heighted, failing to negotiate 1.80m. But rather than become downbeat she chose to look at the positives.
“I was extremely jet-lagged coming into London and it was also my first time competing on a Mondo track – which felt like walking on the moon. After no-heighting I could have sulked, but I thought, I have the best seat in the house to watch the best high jumpers in the world. I watched the girls jumping technique and thought, ‘I know I too can do this’. I was determined not to let the performance define me.”
Once again adopting a stricter mindset for the 2018 campaign she – controversially in some quarters - won selection for the Australian team over her long-time rival Patterson for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
The decision to select McDermott over Patterson had generated some negative media for the young woman but from the moment she set foot inside the Carrara Stadium she had no doubts.
“I just felt at peace,” she explains.
Inspired by the occasion and the passionate home support, she delivered, setting a PB of 1.91m to clinch bronze.
“It was so good to win a first medal on the international stage – I thought, I can get used to this.”
Discovering the importance of rest
Later that year she returned to the European circuit but was unable to match her performance at the Commonwealth Games. In September she finished fifth at the Continental Cup in Ostrava and it was while she was sat around a table with a group of superstar athletes that she discovered a key factor in the art of success - the importance of rest.
“I recall one athlete saying all she planned to do for a month after the season ended was sit on a beach. I normally take two weeks off, but I still jog during this time. These athlete were all incredible but each were comfortable having a month off.” So she took a full month off, too.
She used the month’s rest wisely by spending some time on holiday in Australia in a small house by a waterfall. While there she wrote down her goals for the 2019 season which included changing her approach from ten steps to nine.
“With the ten-step approach I often took off too close to the bar, although I knew adopting a shorter run-up would mean having to change from a speed to a power jumper.”
Now focusing more on a strength and conditioning programme, the changes appeared to work. In February she smashed her PB with a 1.94m leap in Canberra. In Ostrava in June she improved to 1.96m and later finished third with 1.94m at the Monaco Diamond League.
“I surpassed my goal that I’d written down at the start of the year, which was to jump 1.95m,” she says. “It was a dream season.”
The only disappointment was missing out on a place in the final at the World Championships after qualifying 15th with a best of 1.89m.
Meeting the Covid pandemic challenges
If 2019 was good, 2020, despite its unique challenges, has proved even better. During the Southern Hemisphere summer she cleared 1.96m in Canberra and Wellington.
She was next looking forward to a strong showing at the Australian Championships only for the global pandemic to strike. However, rather than wallow in disappointment, she and her coach adopted a positive approach to put in place an elongated strength block which included grindingly tough sessions running and jumping on the beach.
“During lockdown, I’ve never trained as hard,” she insists. “This gave me a real sense of purpose, although some of the sand-based sessions were made even tougher by some of the Covid restrictions in New South Wales.
“The rule was that nobody could sit down on the beach, which is all I wanted to do during some sessions!”
In the shape of her life and keen to compete, “the stars aligned” to allow her to fly to Europe to compete in August and September. With the blessing of her family and coach, she was granted special dispensation by the government to travel as an international athlete. The flights and insurance all came together and the Aussie made the most of the opportunity by excelling during the European campaign.
Performing to a whole new level of consistency, she won in Brussels and also claimed top three finishes at the Stockholm and Rome Diamond League. Yet the standout highlight came at a low-key meet in the German town of Sinn when she cleared 1.98m – a performance which elevated McDermott to joint second on the all-time Australian list.
“It was a dream to clear 1.98m but it was also good to attempt 2.01m with confidence,” she adds. “For me, this meet was even better than the Commonwealth Games.”
But the ambition in 2021 is to finally fulfil those dreams she has held since she was an eight-year-old girl.
“I would love to extend my PB streak next year and jump two metres,” she says, noting that she’s equalled or bettered her personal best every year of her career. “My ambition is to try and jump two metres in every competition next year including the Olympic final. If that wins me a medal, then I’ll be stoked.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics