Laviai Nielsen is the double British Champion at 400 meters. She is also a silver medalist in the 4x400m at World Championships (London 2017), and 2 silver medals (Glasgow 2019, Belgrade 2017) at European Indoors. Stuart Weir did this piece on Laviai Nielsen about battling the 2020 pandemic.
A year in the life of Laviai Nielsen in 10 questions
Laviai Nielsen disappointed herself at the 2019 World Championships running 52.94 in the semi-final of the 400m, two seconds slower than her PR. Typically, Nielsen did not let the disappointment get her down. She learned from it including how to shape her training. Unfortunately, no sooner than she had got through her winter training and was ready to start preparing for the Olympics, everything began to fall apart with her training facility, Lea Valley in London, closing down as part of the government’s response to Covid and the Olympics were postponed. Lockdown was difficult – training facility closed, only seeing her coach once in three months, lifting weights at home but not above her head in case she hit the ceiling! In answers to 10 questions she takes us through the last 12 months.
What did you learn from a disappointing performance at the 2019 World Championships?
I learned so many invaluable lessons from Doha. It was my first world championship as an individual athlete. It didn’t work out exactly as I would have wanted it to but I came back knowing exactly what I needed to do in training and what I needed to work on. I evaluated my race and my mentality going into it and I learned so much that I was able to take forward into training.
Coming into this season, although there weren’t going to be any major championships, and the races were nowhere near the class of field that Doha was, I felt that I was a much more experienced athlete because of the lessons I had learned in Doha. I was able to take that into the races that I had, the two Diamond Leagues and the Continental series. The past two seasons have been beyond amazing.
What was your approach to training in lockdown?
Because I could not race it was just about trying to maintain the shape I was in from March as best we could. But that was difficult because that’s normally the time of the year I start sharpening up and getting faster for races. So to maintain that for four months was very challenging. I didn’t feel I was improving, just staying in the same place from March onwards. But once I got into the routine it was very easy to maintain it and just focus day in day out on what we could do.
Your first race was on 30 July. How did you cope with training and not racing?
It was very difficult. Normally by the beginning of July I am in peak shape, ready for championships but this year it was just the start of the season. I’d just come to the end of a training block so that first race felt like racing in the middle of February or the middle of winter so it was very bizarre. I ran 52.68. It was surreal but it was fun. My sister was there and I really enjoyed it. With the Olympics postponed and the European Championships canceled, it was the first year I was not training for a championship it was almost like when I was a junior again. It was like I had gone back to basics and was just racing for the sake of racing – but in a positive way because it meant that I could take each race as it came, not worrying about what came next. It was literally racing for the fun of it, not preparation for a championship. I really enjoyed the first race and realized that was going to be my summer, just racing and enjoying it.
Your summer has been like a whistle stop tour around Europe, did you enjoy it?
It was crazy, I’ve never had so many races in such a short space of time. I think I had more races in four weeks than in four months some years. I was racing, flying home for two days or even flying from one country to another. It’s the first time I’ve ever done that and I really enjoyed it. I remember coming back and saying to Christine [her coach Christine Harrison-Bowmaker] that we needed to do more of that because I felt that with each race I was getting better. That is something that I’ve learned this year that I might not have had a chance to with the Olympics because that would have made it a very busy season. So I think next year I will try to race as much as I can because it ended up being very useful for me.
You were second in the Stockholm Diamond League
I was pleased with that because I was in lane eight even though I was the second fastest on paper.
Isn’t that your lane? I’ve seen you run really well from lane 8 – like 2018 European Championships!
OK, that is a good lane especially if you don’t know what kind of shape you are in. I just ran blind and ran out of my skin and it proved to be successful. I don’t mind lane eight and it was good for me in Stockholm. It means that you do run your own race plan. I don’t get scared now when I see lane eight because I know that I can run in that lane. When I was younger it was very daunting.
Did you worry about your 2020 times being slower than in a normal year?
No, because I had so many of weeks that I was hardly training at all and in June I had a toe injury because I was changing surfaces a lot. So when I opened up with 52.68, I wasn’t worried and wasn’t really thinking about times it was more about just racing. In the races in Hungary and Poland it was more about positions than times. In a normal year if I had run 52.6 I would’ve been questioning my training but this year looking back at all the training I had been able to do, I was really pleased with that time. Focusing on times, is for next year.
Were you pleased with 51.70 in Slovakia?
Yes and I was also pleased to run 51.72 at the British championships in Manchester – on a very cold day. That should have been the Olympic trials and my mindset was to practice running Olympic trials. I went for it and surprised myself by running that time – a season’s best at that point by almost half a second. I wasn’t really chasing times, if you know what I mean, so to run a second 51.7 – I was really pleased with that. Perhaps I was hoping to get a little bit faster in Rome, but I think by then I’d had a lot of races and I was getting a little bit tired but I had the training to take me that far. I can’t complain about 51.7 this year and I think it validates the training I did over the winter.
Was it hard to compete with no spectators?
It wasn’t too bad at the British Championships. In Manchester there were coaches and people there and, for example, I was able to go in and watch [my sister] Lina’s race. British Athletics created a really good atmosphere using sound from previous championships. I really liked the new Manchester City stadium. If we can’t be in Birmingham Manchester’s a really good place to be. I really enjoyed the British Champs. It was much worse in Stockholm and Rome. Rome is a huge stadium and Stockholm, when it is full, the atmosphere is electric. Stockholm 2016 was my first ever Diamond League so I was excited to go back, remembering the crowd. But this year, in lane eight, I was so close to the empty stand and you could hear the footsteps of your competitors. So that was very bizarre.
What are your plans for winter?
I’m going back to training in October. I told my coach that I only wanted a few days off because I felt that I’ve had a break in the summer. I plan to do an indoor season in 2021. I forewent the indoor season this year – not because of Tokyo – but because my 2019 indoor season didn’t go very well. I didn’t enjoy it very much. We’ve decided that next year I’m going to race as much as possible – back to back – having seen how successful it was this year. So next year I want to give myself as many opportunities I can to race, starting in January.
I’m just hoping that facilities will stay open with a second COVID wave coming on. Last year’s winter’s training was very positive I want that again and build on it and run faster – no more 52 seconds!
2020 races (source World Athletics)
30 JUL 2020
City of Lisburn – Lagan Valley Club Competition, Mary Peters Track,
13 AUG 2020
Janusz Sidło Memorial, Forest Stadium, Sopot
19 AUG 2020
Gyulai István Memorial, Bregyó Athletic Center, Székesfehérvár
23 AUG 2020
BAUHAUS-Galan, Olympiastadion, Stockholm
04 SEP 2020
British Ch., Sportcity Regional Arena, Manchester
05 SEP 2020
British Ch., Sportcity Regional Arena, Manchester
08 SEP 2020
Anhalt 2020, Paul Greifzu Stadion, Dessau
11 SEP 2020
P-T-S Meeting, x-bionic sphere, Šamorín
17 SEP 2020
Golden Gala Pietro Mennea, Stadio Olimpico, Roma