‘I’m still one of the fastest in the world’: Lina Nielsen opens up on battle with multiple sclerosis

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Nielsen competed at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham  (Getty Images)
Nielsen competed at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (Getty Images)

Nothing was going to stop Lina Nielsen from running in front of a home crowd again, not even the lingering after-effects of a multiple sclerosis flare-up - and that’s the point.

The 400m hurdler took to the start line at the Commonwealth Games for the first time since revealing she had been diagnosed with relapsing remitting MS aged 17.

She took the decision to tell the world the secret only those closest to her previously knew after the condition sabotaged her dreams of a World Championship medal in Oregon last month.

The ramifications of that relapse were still evident as she made her Commonwealth Games debut on Thursday, finishing last in her heat in 58.95 - more than four seconds slower than her personal best.

But considering Nielsen was struggling to even walk just a few days before, the fact she was out on the track at Alexander Stadium at all was testament to her strength of will.

“I’m still navigating recovery,” she said. “I did have right-sided weakness up until about Monday this week, so not long ago. I couldn’t walk normally, I was limping walking my dog in the park.

“I think emotionally to try and suss yourself out for a race it takes a week anyway for a normal athlete to go, ‘hey, we’re racing in a week, make sure you hydrate, recover well’.

“Up until about a week ago, I was like maybe I won’t even race, let’s just try and recover. I’m still trying to recover from the relapse I’ve just had and I’ve also not really trained.

“I’ve not really had a training session in the past 10 days so something like the hurdles you need to practice it, the pattern is so drilled in, and I haven’t been able to practice that stride pattern.”

Such was her determination to experience a home support comparable to the London 2012 Olympics, the Leytonstone runner said she would have competed even if she hadn’t gone public.

“I would have run anyway,” she continued. “It’s a home crowd, the last time we experienced a crowd like this was London 2012 and it’s not something that comes around often.

“It was always the goal for this season to do the Commonwealth Games so the moment I went into training, that was the goal, and I just couldn’t pull out because I’m not 100 percent.

“I’m not 10 percent in shape but I’m not 100 percent either, I’m somewhere in between.

“You know the whole point of sport is going out and giving it your best shot. I went out and gave it my best shot so I’ve got what I want from my Commonwealth Games.”

The day before her World Championships debut in July, Nielsen began to notice the symptoms of the condition - which affects the brain and nerves - ones she first experienced aged 13.

The condition sabotaged Nielsen’s dreams of a World Championship medal in Oregon last month (PA)
The condition sabotaged Nielsen’s dreams of a World Championship medal in Oregon last month (PA)

Her left arm and leg felt numb by the time of the race, while she also started to feel right-sided weakness, factors that resulted in her coming last and prompted her revelation.

Since opening up about her MS, Nielsen has been inundated with messages of support but she is not yet sure telling her story has lightened the load she has carried for almost a decade.

“A lot of people have asked me that but I don’t know, it kind of feels like a bit of weight on the shoulders. I don’t think I’ve processed it really what it means to put it out there,” she said.

“It doesn’t change anything. I’ve been experiencing this for the past 13 years of my life - half of my life even - I’ve known about it for nine years and it doesn’t change how I live life.

“Everything is just staying the same, people just now know more about me. I’m quite a private person when it comes to my life anyway so I just feel a bit vulnerable at the moment.

“My teammates knew, my friends, family, everyone that needed to know knew. It wasn’t like a big secret. It was just something I decided not to publicise.”

Nielsen’s biggest supporter has been her identical twin sister and fellow British sprinter Laviai, a two-time world 4x400m medallist who has also been given a very early MS diagnosis.

It took two months for Nielsen to reveal her diagnosis to her sister, struggling with the guilt that overwhelmed her, but she admitted she would not be where she is without her.

“When I was 17 that was the worst it had ever been, that was when I had pretty much paralysis all down the right side of my body so I couldn’t move my right arm, my right leg,” she said.

“I couldn’t brush my teeth. I couldn’t brush my hair. She was the one that did all of that for me, so it was a very vulnerable place to be and she was the one that helped me through that.

“I was still navigating whether I wanted to do sport and she was always like, ‘come to training with me, you can do that with me’, so I honestly don’t know what I’d do without her.”

Nielsen competed at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (Getty Images)
Nielsen competed at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (Getty Images)

Nielsen has decided not to compete in the 4x400m relay in Birmingham but there is no doubt in her mind that she still has what it takes to compete with the best on the international stage.

“I wouldn’t be doing this sport if I didn’t believe I could,” she added. “I fully believed I could make the World Championships final. I was in such great shape and it was such a shame.

“But I definitely think I can still make world finals and Olympics finals. I wouldn’t be doing this otherwise. There’s always uncertainty, I don’t know when a relapse is going to happen.

“Typical it happened the day before my world champs but I can still run fast and I’m still running with some of the fastest people in the world - I’m still one of the fastest in the world.”

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