For almost a decade, only a few people knew that Lina Nielsen had multiple sclerosis.
Diagnosed at age 17, doctors told her to stop training if her condition worsened.
She recalls: “I remember turning around and saying, ‘No, I’m an 800m runner. I have to qualify for the national championships.”
Nine years and several national events later, with half the distance to run but with the addition of a few obstacles, Nielsen lined up for the biggest race of her career at the World Championships.
It was also the day after her biggest relapse.
“It was probably one of the hardest days of my career, maybe even of my life,” Nielsen, who has relapsing multiple sclerosis, told BBC Sport.
“On the day of the race I cried all day.”
Multiple sclerosis is a disease that it can affect the brain and spinal cord. It cannot be cured, although there are treatments available. Nielsen’s relapsing-remitting diagnosis means that symptoms may be mild for a while before they flare up.
Her surge in Oregon began with her sensitivity on her left side. By the next day, it had worsened “quite a bit over time,” eventually turning into numbness.
“I remember getting on the phone with my boyfriend and he told me I would have regretted not running,” says the 26-year-old.
“I qualified correctly. I beat the time to get in and also came out in first second place [British] tests. So in my head I was saying ‘go put on your Great Britain waistcoat and do yourself proud’.
The fight helped her decide discuss her diagnosis publicly before making her Commonwealth Games debut in August.
“Never [the relapse] happened, it completely changed my whole life plan. I wanted to play and it just stopped me from doing that,” he says.
“If you were to watch this race and compare it to other races I’d run in the season, you’ll see that my body is not the same.
“A lot of people deal with things you never know. I wanted to give a little explanation as to why my World Champs didn’t go so well.”
“Laviai motivated me”
The main symptom that led to Nielsen’s diagnosis was complete weakness on the right side, meaning she struggled to move her right arm and leg. Two months later, in the middle of preparing for her A level, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
She was so upset after the diagnosis that she didn’t tell her twin sister, British athlete Laviai, for another two months.
“It felt like a life sentence. You hear the words chronic and incurable. It was really, really hard,” she says.
In 2021, Laviay, a British 400m champion, received her own diagnosis of MS.
“She had a tingling sensation in her left arm that continued for a little longer than would be normal after receiving a vaccine,” adds Nielsen.
“We knew this could be MS because she’s my twin sister and genetics can play a role.
“He turned to me and said ‘because you did it, I’m not afraid.’ She was quite early in the diagnosis, so she was looking quite positive.”
The Nielsen twins are known for their outpouring of emotional support for each other after matches, and Lina says MS is the reason for that.
“When you see her running down the track, hugging me and both of us crying, it’s because we’re the only two people who really understand what it means to even get to this point,” he says.
“He was a huge support for me. At times when I couldn’t even brush my hair, she washed my hair for me.
“He motivated me to keep going. He said ‘you never know how far you’ll go’ at times when I wanted to give up.”
Another inspiration for Nielsen is British Paralympic gold medalist Kadeena Cox.
Nielsen didn’t know Cox, but reached out to her on social media when she learned of her relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis diagnosis, which came just months after Nielsen’s disease.
“I said, ‘I have the same thing. I’m very afraid. I don’t know what this means for athletics or even my life,’ and he responded with so many positive messages,” she says. Nielsen.
“We ended up exchanging numbers and kept in touch over the years. She was a very good friend to me.
“After the Commonwealth Games, she ran up to me and I hugged her for about five minutes. She’s a huge inspiration.”
Now, Nielsen is looking ahead and focusing its energy on the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
“I feel like there’s that kind of added pressure from the outside to hopefully do a little bit better next year and go into 2024,” he says.
“I went five years relapse-free before these World Championships, so I’ve been able to do a good bit of training and really work my way up the ladder.
“With relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, you can be healthy for a long time. And so it doesn’t get in the way of your daily life as much — I can still perform at a good level and aim for this worlds and Olympic finals.”