Jumping High: The one who inspired me at the Olympics

 
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What does it take to be the best? Most people will tell you it’s a combination of hard work and talent. Ask Australian high jumper Nicola McDermott, however, and you’ll quickly realise it’s a mental thing. It’s absolute belief that you can achieve whatever you set your mind to.

If you watched the Tokyo 2020 Olympics you may be familiar with McDermott. The 25-year-old athlete grabbed the world’s attention as she soared over a two-metre bar during the Women’s High Jump at the Tokyo Olympics. A silver medal was just reward as she became the Oceanian and Australian record holder in her chosen sport.

But as I talked to McDermott on a video call—she was in hotel quarantine after arriving back in Australia from her European competition cycle—I was more interested in the ingredients that created that moment. What she told me exemplified her Australian spirit—to be beaten down, but never counted out.

“I had experienced a lot of bullying in my time,” she told me. “I was almost [1.82m], even in Year Six.” With her height, however, came a few advantages. She recalls a key moment in her childhood—her school’s sports carnival—where she won all her events. Scouted out to appear in the Little Athletics program, it was there she discovered high jumping.

“I just fell in love straight away and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do’,” she said. “I’m going to jump two metres one day. I’m going to go to the Olympics.” McDermott was determined, but it was going to be a long road. Linking up with experienced coach Matt Horsnell, she was now equipped with the mentorship necessary to develop her raw talent.

“When I started with my coach, I think it was 1.36m [that I was jumping],” she said. Alas, two metres needed to be the goal if she was to get anywhere close to touching a polished Olympic medallion.

Announced on home soil

As McDermott’s career progressed, so too did her improvements—at a meteoric rate. The 2018 Commonwealth Games were held on the Gold Coast in Queensland, providing the perfect platform for Gosford-born Nicola to present herself to the world.

“That’s the competition that changed everything,” she told me. “I won the [bronze] medal and jumped a personal best jump of 1.91m, which now is almost a starting height. But back then it meant the absolute world to me.”

Re-energised with a new sense of belief, she had all the vital ingredients in the metaphorical dish of athletic genius that she was about to serve the world only a few years later. But something was missing.

Was she fuelled by all the “haters”? Those who mocked her height growing up? Not really. McDermott is hardly the brooding type. Her high jumps are her artwork, and every brushstroke is filled with overflooding joy and happiness. Experiencing bullying from a young age, though, did provide a catalyst for another key moment.

“The beginning of my faith really began when I was in Year Six,” she told me. “My parents decided to send me to a Christian school.

“I was expecting people to treat me how I’d always been treated. When I walked into the school, I just encountered this love from not only the teachers, but even the students.

“I said, ‘How could somebody love me like this?’ And they said, ‘We love because Jesus loves us.’ And that day I really encountered the love of God that wasn’t based on outward appearances.”

McDermott doesn’t put her Christian faith into a separate box; it’s dispersed throughout every part of her being. Her belief that she can break the two-metre barrier is only surpassed by her unshakeable faith that she has a loving God supporting her. And the act of jumping over a bar? That’s just an outward expression of her returning love to God.

“Some people sing really well. Some people write amazing sermons and people use what they’re given—and I know I’ve got high jumping,” she said.

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Andrius Simkus—Pexels

Tokyo 2020

Trusting in God wouldn’t remove the challenges in her way. The Tokyo Games’ original schedule in 2020 was moved by a year, throwing McDermott’s training and preparation into disarray. Discouraged? Hardly—she was on a war path to silverware and postponement would give her the extra time she needed.

“All things work for the good of those who love God,” she told me, paraphrasing Romans 8:28. “I did some of the hardest training in my entire life. Every day, hours and hours of training.

“We knew that we weren’t doing it for one Olympics. It was a process, to not only be able to jump two metres . . . but to do the best that I possibly could because, who knows, maybe there’s a world record in me.”

Successfully making it through the heats, McDermott prepared for the Olympic final, the timing of which meant it would be a Saturday night in Australia. With much of the country in lockdown, she knew many people would be watching.

“I felt the weight of the nation,” she recalled.

How do you deal with that? McDermott devised a way. “While I was in my room, I’d be spending time with God in prayer and asking that [my competition] would be a sign of hope and perhaps an encouragement for every person that was watching.”

A far cry from the roars that she would hear as she jumped astonishing heights in competitions around the world—it was the quiet moment alone with God that meant everything.

“I remember writing in my notebook, God, what if it rains? What happens then? What happens if my shoes break or what happens if I wake up and everything’s sore the next day?” she said.

“The more time I spent alone in my room, the more I realised those doubts are so insignificant.” What might seem like an incredibly lonely moment was the opposite—McDermott knew she was there with God, “pruning” and “quieting myself” for the big moment. That period of peace would be fundamental for what came the next day.

The final

“If there’s the slightest doubt that’s going to show, that can potentially derail everything you’ve been doing,” Nicola tells me, adding that she’d noticed more than 16 cameras were fixated on her every move. Rather than letting it get to her, she instead focused on how far she’d come and the task at hand.

“I had this winning mindset that I was going for the gold and not settling. I’m like, silver would, [but] bronze wouldn’t do.

“Even if I was alone out there, I wasn’t. I knew that God was with me and it’s almost like worship back to Him . . . so I’m singing out there. The TV [luckily] didn’t quite catch that because I’m not an Olympic singer.

“It got to the chorus and [the loudspeaker] is like, Nicola McDermott. I’m like, oh man, they’re interrupting my song right now. And then I just heard the voice of the Holy Spirit tell me, ‘Nicola, this isn’t interrupting your worship. This is continuing your worship.’”

With a perfectly timed run, step and jump as she soared over the two-metre bar—a feat that she had never achieved in competition—McDermott had done it. An Olympic silver medal would be a proud testament to the years of blood, sweat and tears she had willed into perfecting her craft.

While Russia’s Mariya Lasitskene would walk away with golden honours that day—having narrowly surpassed McDermott’s 2.02m with a 2.04m—the latter was nonetheless the pride of Australia and a bright hope for the country’s efforts in the sport.

But if you ask McDermott what moment really mattered that day, you might be surprised by her response. “I had this speech on my heart . . . [and] if I was a gold medal winner, I was really going to use that platform to share that,” she said.

“My good friends that are believing in Jesus said, ‘as soon as you mention your faith, [the media] are going to cut’ . . . But for me, I thought, you know what? I’m going to share what’s in my heart . . . I told the interviewer exactly what was on my heart. I had a message I knew could move the nation, but even if it only meant moving that one [interviewer’s] heart, I knew it was worth it.”

It was there that McDermott provided one of Australian television’s most famous expressions of faith as she outlined her desire to one day see stadiums filled with people worshipping Jesus. To her surprise, the interview gained significant airtime on Australian television and social media. Nicola recalled thousands of messages flooding her phone from people feeling touched and inspired—not only by her medal-winning feat, but her love for God.

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Wikimedia Commons

So when McDermott tells me about her ambition to achieve gold at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, one thing is clear. It’s not about glory, fame or money. As she also grows her Everlasting Crowns initiative—a non-denominational Christian group aiming to introduce fellow athletes to God—she acknowledges her achievements on the track are just part of a “larger goal”.

“When I think about the mandate and calling on my life that could potentially change nations, I do it for God,” she said.

What McDermott has found is a recipe for victory, regardless if one is capable of jumping over a two-metre bar. She’s a God-loving woman first, one who just happens to be able to scale the highest heights.

Daniel Kuberek often writes about the efforts of athletes in Australia, New Zealand and around the globe. He is assistant editor for Signs of the Times magazine and lives in Sydney, NSW.