Stuart Weir wrote this piece on the fine Australian High Jumper, Nicola McDermott. He will be providing us two columns a week during this time of challenge.
Nicola McDermott: How bush fires, sharks and corona cannot stop a determined high-jumper
I first met Australian high-jumper, Nicola McDermott, at the 2017 London World Championships. It was her first major championship and she failed to make the final, but was delighted to experience a first major championship. A year later – in fact only 8 months later – the Commonwealth Games were held in Gold Coast. She coped brilliantly with the home-country pressure to jump a PR of 1.91 to take bronze. In 2019, she reached the Diamond League final. Her PR is now 1.96 which she jumped in Ostrava in 2019, equaling it twice in February 2020 in the Southern Hemisphere summer season. When she achieved the height at the Canberra Track Classic, she thought she had secured the qualifying height for the 2020 Olympics, but then the Olympics will were postponed meaning that she will probably have to do it again.
It has not been an easy year training-wise. First of all there were the bush fires: “I live an hour and a half north of Sydney”, she told me, “and in that area no homes were burnt. However, the smoke from the bush fires was quite extreme. Some mornings it was 30Â° [86 Fahrenheit] and the skies were red. On those days if I wanted to do a sprint session, I would drive up to an hour to find somewhere where the air was less polluted with smoke. But there were periods when day after day it was smoky and you couldn’t really do anything. The authorities were advising people not to do anything physical, but if you’re a professional athlete not training isn’t really an option. So I was constantly adjusting my training sessions so that I was not breathing in as much and being careful the way I breathed. Sometimes I could find an indoor location. But I feel fortunate that I didn’t get the full exposure to it in the way some athletes did”.
When we spoke in March she said that at that point Australia was probably the freest place in the world but some government restrictions have been introduced since. She explained that in mid-March: “universities are closed but schools are still open. We are allowed to travel but not to be in groups of more than five people. My track is closed; my work has stopped. Many people have lost their jobs – for example in the travel industry. At the moment pretty much nobody wants to leave home unless it is essential. What you also have to understand too, is that Australia is so big. It’s a continent. It’s just not possible to shut it down. You don’t have enough people in the army to enforce it”.
Continuing to train requires Nicola to be committed and creative: “Where I live is quite rural and I’m surrounded by beaches and we’re still allowed on them. You probably saw the TV pictures of Bondi Beach, so the beaches in Sydney are closed but not in rural areas. There aren’t enough people living in my area to fill the beach, so I am still able to train on my own because there’s nobody on the beach during the day if I choose the right part. We are encouraged to exercise so in any case I can say I am running on the beach to keep healthy and that is allowed. I do beach plyometrics and jump in the sand. I do long beach runs barefoot, which activates all the small muscles in my feet and I get used to not wearing shoes all the time. There is also a staircase next to the beach where I run and jump. Now that the tracks are closed, it is not possible for me to do any high jumping. I was preparing for the Australian Championships in May but now that they have been canceled there is no need for me to be jumping. There are no competitions in Australia in the near future and I’m not allowed to travel internationally. So I’m back into a strength block of training. Afterwards I go for a swim because I can – that’s my ice bath. I’m always pleased when I see dolphins because I know if there are dolphins there won’t be sharks! The dolphins are a welcome sight”.
Seeing the Olympics postponed when she has already equaled her PR twice this year is a disappointment “but it’s the right decision, given the nature of the virus which is so big. If the Olympics went ahead with so many people in one place and someone had the virus it could quickly spread to every single athlete, who would then go home to spread it further. Until there is a vaccine or other measures to cope with the virus I think canceling was the right option. I was talking to my coach this week and saying if I have the World Indoors, the Olympics and the World Championship in 2021, that’s quite a year. I will need quite a big strength block! But I don’t control the schedule. I think it’s the perfect time for Christian Taylor’s Athletes Association to be around. I think the athletes need to have a say. It might be better to postpone the World Championships to 2022 but then what about the Commonwealth Games, do you have both or postpone the Commonwealths to 2023? And does that mean that we postpone everything by a year? And we have to remember that the Olympics is not just athletics. There are all the other sports to consider”.
One of the proposals being looked at is to have some Diamond Leagues in the fall (2020) but that is not easy for a Southern Hemisphere athlete. She explains: “That would be tough because as an athlete coming from Australia, I have to get over jet leg and then the Australian season starts in January. And because I want to be peaking for the Olympics I would normally be resting and in training in October, November, December. But if there were Diamond Leagues at that time I would feel that I’ve had my wings clipped if I couldn’t be there competing with the other jumpers. And is a great community and being on the road with them is my dream and what my profession is. So if there were Diamond Leagues late in the year, just so that I keep my caliber of competition up, I think I would do them”.
As the song says there are more questions than answers in our sport at the moment.
Nicola McDermott, photo by Getty Images / World Athletics