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Lina Nielsen
Nielsen, the eighth fastest British female 400m hurdler of all time, is a qualified yoga teacher
Date: 24-26 June Venue: Manchester Regional Arena
Coverage: Live on BBC iPlayer, BBC Sport website and app

The sun peeks over the horizon. Cows chew on thin grass. The rush of the Ganges river is the only sound.

It’s early. Not yet 06:00.

But through the gates of an ashram, in a large open courtyard, Lina Nielsen is pouring salt water from a small jug into one of her nostrils.

“It cleanses the nose to prepare for breathing exercises,” she explains to BBC Sport.

“After that we would hike into the Himalayan foothills in silence, concentrating on our breathing. We would reach the top, come back down, drink some tea. Then there was a two-hour ashtanga yoga class before a breakfast of coconut oats and fruit at 10:00.

“Then it was either a philosophy class or an anatomy class, a light lunch, a 30-min break where you could either nap or study, another two-hour yoga class, a short break, then another yoga class.

“It was really intense. Thirteen-hour days for 28 days. It was also one of the best experiences of my life. I miss it so much.”

Fifty years before, the Beatles had made the same journey as Nielsen, from London to the northern Indian city of Rishikesh.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s search for enlightenment came with a circus. Their fame brought photographers and reporters to the holy Hindu city.

But Nielsen found the anonymity she wanted.

Five weeks prior, she had finished seventh at the British Championships in Birmingham, missing out on qualification for the 2019 World Championships in Doha.

“I was really, really sad about that and wanted something to take my focus away,” she remembers.

“I didn’t want to tell anyone I was an athlete, because I would have to explain that I didn’t make the World Championships. I wanted a break from being an athlete.”

Nielsen’s cover story was that she was a receptionist.

However, as she and her fellow students stretched their minds and bodies on the mat, it slowly unravelled.

As others struggled with the physical strain, Nielsen soaked it up suspiciously well.

One night, their anatomy teacher looked at the arch of Nielsen’s feet, the impact on her soles and outed her to the class as a runner of some sorts.

Finally, she came clean.

“When you spend 28 days living so closely together, you become this vulnerable raw person. Everyone sees your true colours because you are far from home, where everything is so new, you end up becoming so close.”

Shortly after Nielsen left India with a circle of new friends and a qualification as a yoga teacher, Covid arrived.

The Olympics were postponed and Nielsen reassessed. After confessing to her class-mates, she had to be true to herself.

“The important thing was being honest about what I want from this sport, and how to follow through with that,” she said.

“I have made massive improvements in my mentality, going into training and races.

“I want to go to all three events this year [Worlds, Commonwealths, Europeans]. I want to get all the experience I can to lead to Paris.

“That’s the goal: make an Olympic Games and get an Olympic medal.”

It’s a bullish target. Nielsen is 26. Although she was named in England’s Commonwealth Games team on Wednesday, she is yet to make her major championships debut.

Her form though is fast and fast-improving.

She took more than a second off her 400m hurdles personal best in 2021, before lopping off another half second with a 54.73-second run in Rome earlier this month.

It put her eighth on the British all-time list and 12th fastest in the world this year.

Nielsen believes there is more to come. And soon.

“I was out in lane nine in Rome,” she remembered. “Most tracks have eight lanes, I can’t remember the last time I was in the ninth.

“I felt so far out of it, I couldn’t hear anyone, I thought I was about to run into one of the sponsors screens, and I had sent hurdle five flying into the air.

“So much went wrong. None of my races have gone to plan so far this year.

“If I get that race right, we are looking at a much faster time.”

She will need it too.

Sydney McLaughlin
Sydney McLaughlin set the 400m hurdles world record en route to clinching Olympic 400m gold in Tokyo last summer

On a global stage, American world-record holder Sydney McLaughlin is in a class of her own. In Europe, the Netherlands’ Femke Bol is the dominant force. Domestically, Jessie Knight is still the one to beat.

This weekend, Nielsen and Knight will face off at the British Championships in Manchester. With the qualifying standard already secure, a top-two finish will ensure Nielsen a place at July’s World Championships in Oregon as well.

There’s pressure. But, after Rishikesh, Nielsen knows how to release it.

“Through meditation, I can find that calm place before a race,” she said. “To breathe, bring the emotions down and find that Zen.”

If all goes to plan, that flow will carry her all the way to a Paris podium.

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