JADE NIMMO watched the distances materialise on the scoreboard.

The Serb jumped 6.35m; the Belarussian 6.54m; Shara Proctor, the British hopeful, recorded a best of 6.55m, a result that earned her ninth place. The numbers percolated in the young Scot's head, her dizzying excitement at being inside London's Olympic Stadium, so close to the best long jumpers in the world, hampering her thought process. Finally, a startling realisation struck: her season's best of 6.47m would have been enough to earn her a place in the very Olympic final she had just watched.

Suddenly, the 21-year-old's dreams were no longer a leap of faith. They were a tangible goal, one within her capabilities. "It made me realise just how close it is," Nimmo says. "To watch those girls and see that I am almost there with them was huge for my confidence. Now I just need to keep improving centimetre by centimetre and see where it takes me."

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The philosophy of marginal gains, embraced so vehemently by the members of the successful British cycling team, has become ingrained in Nimmo's thinking. Every centimetre counts, with the first target for the Falkirk native being to add another three to her best to meet the standard ahead of the European Team Championships in Gateshead later this year.

Beyond that, though, looms the Commonwealth Games. With only one of the 12 Olympic finalists – Proctor – eligible to compete in Glasgow, the requirements are reduced, with Nimmo having already jumped the 6.20m mark on several occasions this season. Suddenly, she can see a path to the podium. "My target for this year was 6.45; next year I'm aiming for 6.55, and 6.60m in 2014, which would hopefully put me among the medals," she explains. "It's just a case of keeping doing what I'm doing and avoiding injuries."

Such an approach has already taken her further than any other female Scottish long jumper. In April last year, the longest-standing national record in track and field finally fell when Nimmo soared to that 6.47m mark at the Hilltoppers Relay meeting in Kentucky, adding four centimetres to a mark that had stood for almost 40 years.

Her memories of the event itself are somewhat hazy – "I just tried to get as far into the sand as possible and out quickly" – but perhaps that is little wonder given she had already competed in the high jump and 4x100m relay earlier that day and spent the evening celebrating by watching the varsity American football team play. "The record has always been something I aimed for but I wasn't thinking about it every day," she says. "I knew I was in the shape to do it and that the conditions were perfect but my mind wasn't really on it all day because I was doing the other events.

"Now I think about it, it's still difficult to get my head around because it had been intact for 39 years. It was not until Michael Cavanagh [chairman of Commonwealth Games Scotland] introduced me to someone as 'the Scottish long jump record holder' that it kind of sunk in."

It also served as a cherished souvenir from a six-month stint at college in the USA. Having put her exercise science degree at Napier University on hold, Nimmo enrolled at Western Kentucky University, an hour north of Nashville, with the intention of immersing herself in athletics for anything up to three years. However, despite enjoying the lifestyle, the Scot found that the focus on competition, rather than technical development, just wasn't right for her so took the bold decision to cut her stay short.

"It was like you were more of a number than an athlete, someone to score points," she explains of the college system. "I didn't agree with the coaching philosophy and I'm used to having some kind of say over my programme and I like that because ultimately it is an individual sport. When it comes to the final of the Olympic Games, you're on the line yourself and there is nobody there to hold your hand. It was probably quite a big call to come back, but it didn't feel that way because I knew it was right for me to do it."

Upon her return, Nimmo reunited with Darren Ritchie, the Scottish men's long jump record holder and her coach since her belated introduction to the sport at the age of 15. Having spent seven years as a gymnast and dancer, it was only the intervention of a PE teacher that changed her path when he suggested she join a local athletics club. Initially groomed as a pentathlete – a discipline Nimmo reprises each winter for the indoor season – it was soon discovered she had a talent for long jump and, within a few months, she was recording marks of 5.50m.

That initial progress was curtailed by serious back problems – the legacy of her gymnastics past – and a deficiency with her immune system, meaning that Nimmo is actually still relatively inexperienced in terms of time spent honing her technique, so still has more scope for development than her age might suggest. "It's been difficult, and there were times I doubted if I'd make it back," she concedes. "But I'm managing the back problems now, and I learned a lot about what I want when I was in America, so I feel I'm ready to make the next step."

It might feel like a small step, but realising just how close she is has been a giant leap for Nimmo.