THIS time last year, Nikki Manson was gearing herself up for the challenge of her life.
To qualify for Tokyo 2020, she knew she would have to jump higher than she had ever jumped before and while needing such a performance was always going to be a tough ask, a great start to the year meant she remained quietly confident that selection for Team GB was an achievable goal.
Fast-forward twelve months and Scotland’s top high jumper is in exactly the same position; in the next few months, she must break her personal best by 3cm to achieve the Olympic qualification standard and while she retains the belief such a height is not outwith her reach, she admits the uncertainty of this Olympic year makes the coming months all the more daunting.
“How I feel this year definitely feels different to last year,” the 26-year-old says.
“This time last year, I was all guns blazing because we were coming into Olympic year and that was obviously a huge source of motivation for me. This year though, with everything that’s happened, it was definitely harder to motivate myself this winter with so many unknowns and so many competitions being cancelled.”
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While this year’s athletics calendar will not look identical to that of a normal season, the focus remains the same for Manson. She must clear 1.96m to have a chance of selection for the Olympics and in-addition, must secure a top-two placing at the British Championships this summer to guarantee her seat on the plane to Tokyo.
Competition will be stiff but with Manson having twice broken the Scottish Indoor record in the opening months of last year, momentum was with her as she targeted making her Olympic debut.
The interruption caused by the pandemic was, then, far from ideal but despite the months unable to train as she would have liked, she believes last year has not been wasted.
“Physically, I feel very good after last year – I feel strong and powerful,” she says of her current form.
“My boyfriend and I (Sam O’Kane, who doubles as Manson’s S+C coach) are good friends with a physio who’s got a practice in Glasgow city centre and just before lockdown began, he let us borrow some equipment from his gym.
“There’s a photo of Sam walking up Buchanan Street with a barbell with 60kgs on it – there was no one around apart from him carrying these weights, it was like being in the middle of an apocalypse!
“So having that equipment really helped me train and stay in shape.”
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There were, admits Manson, moments when the situation got to her – particularly in the early days of the pandemic, the prospect of having to prepare for the biggest summer of her life with no access to facilities did, she says, mess her head up.
But with her sister working as a doctor in Manchester, Manson had a reminder close to home that, in fact, there were others in a far worse position than herself.
“I remember doing a session in a car park and I just lost it – I admit I was being a bit over-dramatic but I was like ‘how am I supposed to train for the Olympics in these conditions?!’,” the Giffnock North athlete recalls.
“But having my sister working as a doctor and knowing everything she was dealing with, it did make me think well yes the Olympics are important but it gave me a bit of perspective.
“I do want to train hard but I also don’t want to do anything that’s putting others at risk.”
Mason has not competed for almost a full year but she is now ready to get back into action.
Her first outing will be on Sunday at the Loughborough Indoor Elite before she turns her attention to possible selection for the European Indoors in March.
And while Manson admits she is glad to have a season to look forward to, she reveals she has mixed emotions about the prospect of being back in the competitive arena again.
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“I am a bit nervous about starting competing again,” she says.
“It’s going to be a weird environment but I think when I get the first one out the way, I’ll settle down.
“I’m in good shape so it’s just about getting your head round the fact it’s not been ideal preparation and moving on from that, especially when most athletes, particularly in Britain, are in the same position.
“Now that my training is starting to taper off and I’m sharpening up, I’m getting those feelings you get when you know competition season is close. I feel it starting to bubble up inside me and so it’ll be nice to get out there and get those feelings out.”