The experiences of twin sprinters Lina and Laviai Nielsen with MS

BIRMINGHAM, England – Every time Lina Nielsen finishes a race, the same thought crosses her mind. “Look what you did,” she tells herself. “It’s crazy.” She has good reason to tell herself that, too.

The past week has been a whirlwind one for British sprinter Nielsen, one of the top 400m hurdles athletes in the world. On Wednesday, she revealed in an interview that she has had multiple sclerosis – a lifelong condition that affects the brain and spinal cord and can cause problems with vision, movement and balance – and has had it since she was 13 years old first time symptoms showed over half of their lives. Only a handful of people knew: their family, close friends, teammates. “Everyone who needed to know knew,” she said. But this isn’t her first big revelation. The first came when she told her identical twin sister Laviai, who is also a sprinter.

Lina, who was officially diagnosed with MS shortly before her 18th birthday, blamed Laviai. It was two months before she was able to tell her sister. They were in the back of a car.

“What is that?” asked Laviai, like most teenagers would. Lina described what MS is and said it’s why she sometimes can’t control her fingers and why she occasionally can’t walk or why she sometimes suffers from double vision.

But Lina had something else to say to her identical twin sister that was on her mind and made her feel guilty. That was why she hadn’t told Laviai in the first place.

“I’m sorry,” she began, “but as identical twins, you may have to go through this, too.”

Lina and Laviai are inseparable. They always have been.

“We don’t have any other siblings, so we’ve always been incredibly close,” Laviai told ESPN. “We’re best friends and it’s great to always have someone who understands you day-to-day. It’s a very deep level of understanding. I can walk into a room and immediately understand her mood. It’s really helpful when it comes to her condition.”

It was Laviai who was always there for Lina when she suffered her relapses. She was there at the age of 17 when Lina became paralyzed on her right side from this condition and Laviai brushed her sister’s hair or helped her brush her teeth before school. She was also there for her during last month’s World Championships in a hotel room in Eugene, Oregon, when Lina suffered her first relapse in five years. It was the day before Lina’s heat at the biggest event of her career.

“I could tell something was wrong,” says Laviai. “I just felt like I could see something was going on.

“She was really quiet and reserved and looked a bit battered. I didn’t want to believe the worst, but I figured it might be nerves or stress. She said to me, ‘I can’t feel my upper body.’ I haven’t heard those words out of her mouth for five years and she had a world championship race the next day.”

The numbness Lina had felt upon waking had progressed to the point of her running, her left arm and most of her left leg felt numb. She also had a weakness on her right side.

“I felt her every emotion,” Laviai said. “When she was upset, I was upset; when she cried, I cried; if she was nervous, I was nervous.”

As always, Laviai was by her side. She traveled to the stadium with her sister, who was becoming increasingly concerned about falling on the track during what might be the biggest meeting of the year. And then she watched as Lina prevailed, ran her race and finished last.

It was a huge disappointment, but it also set in motion the public revelation that was to come. When Lina returned to London she processed what had happened and decided it was time to spread the word and hopefully inspire others with MS. That included her sister.

Laviai had known for nine years that she was likely to have MS too.

“I kind of always hoped she wouldn’t have to go through that,” Lina said. “If you follow our Instagram, we live a very healthy lifestyle and always eat healthy. So I would say, ‘Make sure you get your vitamin D, make sure you do this, make sure you get your omega 3, do this, don’t do that.’ I really don’t want her to go through that.”

But that couldn’t stop it. Last July, when Laviai was getting the COVID-19 vaccine and her arm was tingling for longer than it should have been, she asked Lina if she thought it could be MS. Her sister said it probably wasn’t, but tests showed a tiny lesion, a sign of MS. Soon after, she received an early diagnosis for the condition.

“We caught it at a very early stage, so I think Lina’s MS is very different,” Laviai said. “Last year I just had what I would call a dead arm.

“That was because I was able to identify it early and start treatment early [that I have such few symptoms].”

Breaking the news was a very personal experience for Lina, who competed again at the Commonwealth Games this week despite not making the final as she continues to recover from her recent relapse. She said she hasn’t fully processed what it means for her or others with the condition, many of whom have sent her messages calling her an “inspiration” or a “warrior.”

Lina intends to reach out to everyone, knowing how much effort it takes to reach them. The messages only confirmed to the world what Laviai has known all along.

“I saw all the comments she got and nodded my head,” Laviai said. “I know all that more. She is an incredible woman, the strongest person I know.”

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