'I trained spiritually just as hard as physically'

Our Aussie Olympican reflects on her calling to ‘go for gold’

“This silver is like gold for me today.”

This is part of the memorable speech given by Aussie high jumper Nicola McDermott when interviewed after competing at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Nicola was awarded silver
in a nail-biting final, to become only the second Australian woman to win an Olympic medal in high jump.

25-year-old Nicola, married earlier this year to Rhys Olyslagers, is in an exclusive club – one she has spent many years working towards joining. And yet being an Olympic medallist does not define her. Nicola finds her worth in the Creator of the universe, and she believes she has been given the platform that comes with a medal to tell more people about Jesus Christ.

“I don’t have a filter anymore,” Nicola explains. “I would say, ‘well when God told me about this and then the Holy Spirit revealed this to me, then I realised that this song was really important’ … And I found that nine times out of ten, it just leads to more questions.

“It’s been a sort of breakthrough,” she continues, “getting more and more people involved and reaching more people by being unfiltered and just speaking the gospel as it is.”

Most of us will never know what it takes to become an Olympian, let alone win a medal. But talking with Nicola, one gets a very tiny sense of the willpower required to stick at training, more training and even more training.

It starts early, long before a person actually qualifies for the Olympics. Nicola had been training in high jump for 16 years, since she was eight years old!

Nicola Olyslagers chats to Penny Mulvey via video link.

Many parts of our conversation left me in awe of this young woman – so much wisdom and understanding of God! But perhaps what was particularly interesting for a total non-athlete was that for those who dream of competing in the Olympics, the dream stops there – they don’t dare dream of winning a medal.

I had the privilege of having this conversation with Nicola for the Christian Media and Arts Australia’s (CMAA) CONNECT22 conference. Nicola is in Switzerland for the European athletics calendar. She was recovering from a calf injury, sustained the day before she was due to compete in the high jump final at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.

There has been much discussion among athletics commentators about what they believed were Nicola’s sports tactics in the lead up to her run to the bar: the smile, the clapping, the arms stretching into the air. “It appeared that you were handing everything over to God,” I say.

That is indeed what this amazing athlete was doing, and God was speaking to her.

She explains that during the 2020 COVID quarantine, she had worked on a discipleship course to encourage athletes.

“It was like, I can’t wait to make the Olympic Games so I can disciple athletes … It doesn’t matter how I compete. But I just felt God say, ‘I want you to go for gold next year.’

“I was thinking, ‘Getting a medal would be amazing, but I can’t even think about getting gold.’ And then I really felt God saying, ‘You need to train as if you’re going to get the gold medal and believe in your head that you can do it.’ For me, that meant changing everything I did. To make the Olympics might require this much effort – it’s really, really hard. But to get an Olympic medal and beat everyone else that you’re versing in the Olympics, I would say is almost twice the effort.”

“Building up towards the Olympic Games, I was preparing spiritually just as much as physically.” – Nicola Olyslagers

She goes on, “And I said, ‘Lord, I’d have to change my habits, my sleeping, my eating, my training, my social life if I really believe that I can get the gold medal. It’s going to require this much work.’ And I just felt God give me the grace and say, ‘It’s going to come through prayer.’”

For Nicola, prayer centred her day, since often the training was more like suffering. Previously the athlete had been jumping 1.95cm, but now to win gold, she had to jump over two metres. This tiny distance meant she had to change everything.

“I could no longer sit down and relax and go ‘Yeah, I’ve made the Olympics.’ The hard work began when I qualified.

“[You had] to try and continually go for gold when you had a really bad competition or when your competitors were jumping so well. So my whole centre point of every day was on prayer and intimacy with God. Because I started my season back in September 2020, I had that intentionality for one year.

“Building up towards the Olympic Games, I was preparing spiritually just as much as physically. I knew that when I went out there, doubt was going to be so present, as well as the temptation to hide my faith in order to gain sponsors or to hide my joy just in case I missed the bar.”

“I knew that even if I didn’t make it my identity in Christ meant that I was more than enough.” – Nicola Olyslagers

So connected was Nicola to God that she knew absolutely that he was in control. She pushed herself harder and harder, knowing the potential of injury, but also knowing that this was what God wanted.

She explains that it has been years of not only pursuing God but also pursuing a community and a vision that creates the kingdom on earth.

“In the Olympic Games people saw my performance, but most people didn’t know about all the prayer meetings and all the things I was doing in the Olympic Village outside of that.

“The fruit of that was the joy and confidence of seeing what God was doing inside the village, knowing the impact I was having on those athletes.”

A huge smile envelopes Nicola’s face as she recounts her mindset in the lead up to the final on that memorable day, 8 August 2021.

“I was fearless because I knew when I was pursuing the highest thing that I could do in that Olympic Games that even if I didn’t make it my identity in Christ meant that I was more than enough.”

“Being able to be bold and confident and firm in who I was was one of the greatest opportunities to show what was in my heart, which was just the best.”

When I ask if she felt she had let God down because she didn’t win the gold medal, Nicola calmly responds, no – God asked her to aim for gold, but it didn’t mean she had to get the gold. Judging by the preparation required to win a medal, Nicola may not have won any medals if she hadn’t responded to God’s voice to go for gold.

There is something quite remarkable about this young woman. It is her total confidence in God. Her life, and those of her support crew, are centred in prayer. Her love for Jesus radiates out of every pore of her being. She wants everyone to know her Lord as she does. And she believes that the platform given to her through becoming an Olympic medallist is exactly what is needed for her evangelistic heart. This is a woman with a big vision for God.

Penny Mulvey is Bible Society Australia’s Chief Wellbeing and Communications Officer.