Wilma Nielsen Trains Her Body and Mind to Race into Bradley History

As an elite track and field athlete, Wilma Nielsen puts her body through rigorous endurance training for months. But her emphasis on mental preparation has also grown in importance, especially leading up to a big race.

“The night before, if I start thinking about the race, I’m going to dream about it,” the economics major said. “And that stresses me out. So, I try to relax and stay calm.”

After an indoor track season saw her reach the highest echelon of collegiate running this past winter, Nielsen finds herself feeling fewer nerves, even as she competes in higher profile races 

The redshirt sophomore and native of Gothenburg, Sweden, made history in March by finishing seventh in the 800 meter race at the NCAA Indoor Championships. The finish earned her All-American honors, the first for a Bradley student-athlete in a decade and the first track and field All-American since 1998.

Nielsen came to Bradley as a package deal with her twin sister, Julie, a civil engineering major. Many American schools recruited the sisters, but Bradley head coach and Scotland native Darren Gauson impressed them the most.

“It was a no-brainer for me, “ Gauson said. “Their athletic potential immediately stuck out to me, and I was confident I could develop them into champions.”

She called becoming an All-American at Bradley a dream, one that started to materialize into a real possibility in February as she set school records and dominated the Missouri Valley Conference competition.

At the NCAA Championship meet, she achieved that goal in dramatic fashion. Nielsen needed to record a good time in her preliminary heat to qualify for the finals. In retrospect, her heat ended up being the faster one, but it also ran first.

“I was in the first heat, so I needed to watch the second one (to see if I qualified),” Nielsen said. “I was so nervous. I was just happy I was in a fast heat.”

Her quiet trepidation led to jubilation after she realized she qualified for the finals. Nielsen’s seventh place finish in the final heat cemented her status as a first team All-American.

That’s not the only accolade she piled up during the indoor season. With a time of 2:38.95 in the 1,000 meter race at a Columbia University meet, Nielsen now has the second fastest time in that event in NCAA indoor history and fell less than a second shy of setting an all-time record for a Swedish runner.

Though Nielsen expressed disappointment in missing a record-breaking time by a fractional amount, she registered a new sense of confidence that her intense physical and mental preparation had paid off in a sustainable way.

“It wasn’t just one extremely good race,” Nielsen said. “That’s just my level now.”

It also supplied a heavy dose of motivation for the upcoming summer, where she aspires to international triumph. She’ll race in the Under-23 European Championship in July, where she earned the bronze medal two years ago. A productive showing at that meet may lead to a berth in the World Track and Field Championships in Budapest this August. 

“I foresee more All-American medals in her future and more representation of her home country Sweden on a global stage,” Gauson said. “And, hopefully, an Olympic Games appearance or two. ”Even though Nielsen represents Sweden on the international level, she knows Bradley played a pivotal role in whatever success she experiences this summer.

“I couldn’t do it alone because my teammates are helping me in training every day to get to this level,” she said. “The team is a second family for me.”


— Thomas Bruch

Portrait image of Wilma Nielsen

Women runners in a race