Three years, a mere eight competitions, Emma Nuttall’s recent diary contains blank pages aplenty. When she was crowned as British high jump champion in 2013, the schedule was crammed with invites and enticements on both sides of the Atlantic, her calendar divided between her home in Edinburgh and university on Canada’s Pacific coast with opportunities beckoning across the globe.
Still only 25, the one-time prodigy has been forced into an almost complete reboot. Heading into the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, her knee provided a point of concern and then her back added to the malaise. “I took a bit of time off after to let it all rest but the next indoor season I was jumping for my university in Canada at our regional championships,” she recounts.
“I had just one jump but then felt an awful pain in my knee. I’d had partial tears before but it turned out I had quite a big tear within the patella tendon. I got some platelet-rich plasma treatment because initially it wasn’t deemed bad enough to operate on. But it’s been a long road back from then.”
The route has been littered with disappointing diversions and unexpected U-turns, enough that Nuttall questioned whether the juice was worth the squeeze. On scholarship at Trinity Western University, she was thrust into uncertainty when her long-time coach Laurier Primeau – formerly Scottish Athletics developmental supremo – defected elsewhere when she had a year of her degree remaining. His replacement was able but it convinced her it was time to come home.
“I was kind of treading water, waiting for it all to end. But I don’t regret not jumping over those three years because I’m at a point where I can jump now whereas if I’d tried then, I’d probably be out of the sport now. I had to take my time.”
Even so, choosing Canada over a Scottish education – she completed one year at Strathclyde University – was a decision she does not regret. Life-changing, character-building, it allowed her to study and compete but without the often-bewildering restrictions imposed by the similar-but-distinct American collegiate system.
Yet there is unused knowledge to be put into practice, starting with a rare outing in Scotland’s colours at today’s Loughborough International. The early season meeting has traditionally provided a platform for burgeoning stars to illuminate themselves. In Nuttall’s case, it is a chance to remind the athletics world that her ambition remains undimmed.
Rather than return to Meadowbank, she has opted to make her training hub on the campus, shuttling between there and a part-time admin job in Birmingham in order to work under UK Athletics jumping guru Fuzz Ahmed, who also oversees Olympic medallist Robbie Grabarz as well as Isobel Pooley.
She has been pieced back together, not just physically but mentally too. Speedy steps forward, the occasional regression. “I had another setback in September, just before I moved to Loughborough to work with Fuzz,” Nuttall reveals. “I fell off a box at training and landed right on the side of my ankle. That kept me out of competing indoors because although I was fit, I didn’t have enough training.
“Touch wood, finally, I’m ready to go. It’s just taken far longer than I was expecting. I was close to giving up. But I didn’t want to. I felt I had to give it another good go and thankfully Fuzz and his team have got me to that place again.”
Or at least somewhere en route. In Nuttall’s virtual absence, domestic high jumping has moved onwards and far upwards, with Pooley vying with heptathletes Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Morgan Lake for a supremacy sitting almost ten centimetres beyond the Scot’s lifetime best.
Making this summer’s world championships in London would require improbably quick gains for Nuttall but more achievable targets have been set, initially August’s World University Games in Taipei and then the Commonwealth Games in Australia next spring.
The qualifying mark is just one notch below her outdoor best of 1.87 metres. “But if I get it, it will mean I’m up there again,” she states. This afternoon, she knows, is unlikely to see the Nuttall of yore reappear. It will be step by step, trials and occasionally errors, until – she hopes – what was previously achieved is surpassed.
“I know I’ve put in a lot of work to get where I am now,” she reflects. “But I know I need another solid block of work, probably another full winter with Fuzz and then a decent indoor season just to solidify things.
“The good thing is I’m no longer putting restrictions on myself. But I’m also not putting any pressure on myself. I know it could take another year before I’m back to where I was where hopefully I’m right up there with those other girls.”