Commonwealth Games: Scotland’s high jumpers primed

Edinburgh's Jayne Nisbet. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Edinburgh's Jayne Nisbet. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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EVERY sport has its sweet spot, that moment of perfection, when it all clicks, and the parts – mechanical and mental – come together.

It happens so easily, so unthinkingly, that you wonder whether the lifetime’s work that made it possible was even necessary.

The high jump is no different, as Jayne Nisbet explains. The 24-year-old Edinburgh-born athlete, who has gone up in the world lately, loves that sensation, when the pressure is on, the bar is raised, and she doesn’t so much clear it as levitate above it, almost without trying.

“When you do it right, wow, it just feels unbelievable,” she says. “It’s like you’re floating, flying even. You think: ‘How did I do that? It felt so easy’. When you really try hard, it tends not to go so well. So you have to relax. It’s like a feeling, a rhythm more than anything . . . you just have to trust it and go with it.”

Nisbet has been getting it right a lot recently, as has her Scottish rival, Emma Nuttall, also from Edinburgh. Together, they are ready to compete in next year’s Commonwealth Games after comfortably reaching the qualifying standard of 1.80m. Both are in the top three of the British rankings, with personal bests of 1.86m and a confidence that they can break the Scottish record.

Just by appearing in Glasgow next year, they will end an era of underachievement in this country. Hazel Melvin, in 1994, was the last female high jumper to represent Scotland at the Commonwealth Games. Next summer will be the first time in history that the event has included two from these parts.

Moira Maguire (then Moira Walls) is the only Scot to have been on the podium at a Commonwealth Games. The 1970 bronze medallist, who coached Nisbet and Nuttall during their early days at Edinburgh Athletics Club, and still introduces children to the sport at Meadowbank Stadium, is encouraged by what is a minor renaissance in the art of high-jumping.

She said: “It’s been a while since we had two Scottish women high jumpers being competitive at that level. For two athletes from the same city, the same club, to pitch up at Meadowbank, go through the system and reach this level at the same time is quite unusual. I think they have spurred each other on.”

There might even be three at Hampden Park next summer if Emma Lowry steps up to the mark. The 22-year-old, from the same Edinburgh club, jumped 1.80 in December. Nuttall said: “That was before the first qualifying dates, but Emma will be hoping to get back up there, and I think there’s every chance. To have three high jumpers in our home Games would be just fantastic.”

Nuttall is in Bedford this weekend, trying to achieve the new personal best that would earn her a call-up to the European Under-23 Championships in Finland. Were she to do that, it would further justify her decision two years ago to up sticks and move to Vancouver, where she is combining athletics with a history degree.

Nuttall wanted to remain with Laurier Primeau, the former Scottish Athletics head coach, now at Trinity Western University. “It was a huge decision, a hard one, but I decided just to go for it, and I’m glad I did. At first, it was little bit hard adjusting, but I have complete faith in Laurier. Every year I have been with him, my jumping has gone from strength to strength. He doesn’t just know you as an athlete, he knows you as a person as well. He’s almost like a father figure out there.”

Former Craigmount High School pupil Nuttall loves Vancouver so much that she is tempted to settle there. Her long-term plan is to be a journalist or perhaps a lawyer, by which time she hopes to have written her name into the history books. Jayne Barnetson’s 1.91m mark, a Scottish record that has stood for 28 years, is “in need of revision”.

Nuttall and Nisbet are contrasting. The former is tall and strong and the latter shorter and more “elastic”. Nuttall, four years younger than Nisbet, has always been inspired by her more experienced colleague. “It was always Jayne I looked up to,” says Nuttall. “She’s wonderful to watch, with a very different style to me. She’s very ‘springy’, while I’m more of a power jumper.”

Nisbet is a self-employed personal trainer, based in Loughborough, where she lives with partner James Campbell, the Scottish javelin thrower. At Meadowbank last week, she cleared 1.85m to reach the top of the British rankings.

A bubbly, infectious character, there is no limit to her ambition, especially now that her risky decision earlier this year to start a new training regime with a new coach seems to be paying off. Not only does she have Barnetson’s mark in her sights, she wants the 1.92m that would take her to the World Championships in Moscow. She is also targeting a medal in Glasgow – and not just any medal.

“When you look at the progress I have made in the last ten weeks, the gold is an attainable target. I need to improve again, obviously, but I’m always striving to do that and, if you look at the Commonwealth rankings, I am definitely in contention. When you get to a championship, it all comes down to putting it together on the day. I like the big events.”

It would be quite a story. Nisbet, who describes this as her “comeback year”, has flitted between the triple jump and the high jump, partly due to injury and illness, the most notable of which was an eating disorder, which she addressed last year and spoke about for the first time last week.

Only now is she able to admit that, while she missed the 2010 Commonwealth Games due to tendonitis, other issues were at work. “I feel as though it has affected my athletics career massively. Going into 2009, I got numerous injuries and when I think back, they were definitely due to malnutrition. Tendonitis was partially to do with my eating because, if your body can’t recover, you’re going to break down.”

It was a traumatic time for Nisbet, whose first thought ahead of every competition was not “am I fit?” or “am I in the zone?” but “how have I eaten this week?” She retreated into herself, so much so that there were times when she couldn’t talk, never mind leave the house.

“I wasn’t pleasant to be around. I wasn’t who I normally am. I’m usually quite bubbly but, during that time, I closed myself off. I was very defensive.”

Now, she is relieved that it is all out in the open, proud that she has spoken out and determined to make the most of her newfound ambition. “It was psychologically draining, but now, everything seems so simple. I’m happy with my life. And it’s made a massive difference.”

Nisbet and Nuttall have different personalities and athletic strengths, but they have in common an independent streak. Just as Nuttall moved to Canada, Nisbet moved to Leicestershire, where she could forge a career away from the track while also using the facilities at Loughborough University. She talks excitedly about her post-athletics ambitions, which include being a businesswoman in the health and fitness industry.

Maguire likes the way they have committed themselves to being the best they can be. “They are very open in that they have both uprooted themselves from what was a safe home environment, and been prepared to expose themselves to something new, to broaden their lives as much as anything. It says a lot about their strength of personality. They opted for something that might not work, but they were prepared to take the gamble.”

Nisbet has also done some modelling, most recently when she was asked to be the high jumper in an advert for Eurosport’s coverage of the Olympic Games. “They wanted someone who wasn’t competing at London 2012 so I was like ‘thanks’.” If they want something similar for the Commonwealth Games, they will have to look elsewhere.