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BYUH student who ended her running career because of rare genetic disorder says she would tell her younger self to stop being so hard on herself

portrait photo of young woman wearing burnt orange blouse and smiling while seated on a bench on BYUH campus
Manda Nielson sought support from counseling services after encouragement from a professor who had gone through a similar situation.

Manda Nielson said as a serious high school athlete, she had a goal of going to the Olympics. However, when she moved to Saudi Arabia in high school, her love for running grew unhealthy because she became so focused on winning and progressing she lost focus on the healthy part: Enjoying it.

“I started running more and it ended up becoming a negative thing in my life where it was so consuming. … It became unhealthy and affected my eating, my sleeping and my mental health because I was so consumed in it,” explained Nielson, who is a senior from Alpine, Utah, majoring in exercise and sports science.

In her junior year, she said she was running so much she noticed her body slowing down. “It was one race in particular where I was running and all of a sudden my legs felt super numb. I was so sick and I bawled after the race because I didn’t hit a goal time,” she said.

She said she and her family were trying to figure out what was wrong and visited multiple physicians to determine the cause of her legs becoming numb. “They ended up finding it was a rare genetic disorder where the blood flow was cut off to my legs,” she said.

The condition, called popliteal artery entrapment syndrome, required surgery, Nielson explained. “I would have to end my running career so I could have these surgeries before I went off to college. The plan was to walk on with another team eventually, but that surgery was what was needed so I would be able to walk and run again,” she continued.

She explained she endured mental health difficulties, many of which were about finding herself and who she is if she is not an athlete. She said if she could, she would tell her freshman self to stop being so hard on herself and stop focusing on her failures and doubts. Instead, she added she would focus on seeing herself in the same way she looks at others: With compassion.

When she hit low times, she said it was the environment at BYUH and the people she met who helped her overcome them. “[People] are all predisposed to challenges [they] face. For some people, it is addiction. For others, it’s losing loved ones. For some people, it’s battles of mental health,” she explained. “It can affect anyone. I am definitely one who was affected by it. A lot of that came from the fact I was an athlete who always strives to be better and to do my best.”

She added her professor, Kate McLellan, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Sciences from California, encouraged her to go to therapy at BYUH Counseling Services. McLellan explained she thinks some members of the Church believe if they have enough faith and are reading the scriptures, praying and being obedient, trials won’t happen.

“That’s not 100 percent true. … You can’t pray away mental health struggles, but a lot of times [people] think [they] can. [They’re] like, ‘Oh, it’s just because I’m weak. If I pray harder about this, it’ll be better,’” explained McLellan. “That’s not how it works. We’re not supposed to be able to handle everything. That’s why God gave us therapists.”

Finding healing in counseling

Nielson said her three older siblings were all good swimmers and athletes and “focused on eating well, getting enough sleep, and balancing work, life and their extracurricular activities.” When she was 3 years old, she said she was thrown into the world of swimming and was competitively involved in it until she was 17.

It was not until she did more sports, such as cross country, that she said she fell in love with the human body, learning about nutrition, taking care of the body and educating others about how to do the same. She added this led her to like the idea of eating healthy and being an active person.

Nielson said transitioning from high school to college was nerve-racking because of the different changes that occurred and “the idea of a new chapter of life,” including dealing with mental difficulties and deciding what path to take in life.

She said when she first came to BYUH in Fall Semester of 2018, she was an undecided major, so she started taking exercise science classes and “absolutely fell in love.”

landscape shot of young woman running on the field by the tennis courts on BYUH campus
Manda Nielson had a goal of running in the Olympics as a serious high school athlete.

However, she said she was still unsure about what her career plans were, so she planned to transfer to a different school. But after going to the Laie Hawaii Temple, she said she felt BYUH was where she needed to be and decided to stay.

As Nielson continued studying at BYUH, she said she came to realize she needed to further address her difficulties. “I noticed I was definitely struggling and things were really hard. … [Professor McLellan] recommended I go see a counselor at the counseling center. [It’s] free for all students and on campus. So, I was like, ‘Whatever it can’t hurt.’”

Nielson added McLellan helped her find success and was a mentor for her. “She was one who I could always talk to [and] I could always go to her office. She started to help me see my potential ... and let me just talk when I needed to. A lot of how I grew was because of her and her influence on me.” Nielson addd she has since been working as McLellan’s teaching assistant for the past year and a half.

It was at BYUH Counseling Services where she said she met multiple therapists who helped her with her struggles. They were able to work through them with her and were there for her, she added.

Nielson said the special spirit on campus also helped her in the healing process. “[I am] so close to the temple and around people, such as the professors, who are so focused on Jesus Christ.”

She added she had a close friend who helped her recognize the Atonement of Jesus Christ was there not only for sins, but also as a way to find peace. “Knowing that gave me the peace I was going to get through it and I was going to love the process of finding out who I am and learning to come to terms with everything,” she explained.

Lifted by God and her Laie family

As a runner and bodybuilder, McLellan said she was injured many times and was able to recognized Nielson was going through a similar situation. “I knew what helped me was getting therapy and having someone else to talk to.”

McLellan said she also suggested Nielson go to the temple to receive her endowment. She said she noticed Nielson changed completely after she did so. “[Manda] is so much happier, so much lighter. … Not all the problems are resolved, not all the questions are answered, but she knows where to go to find true peace and true clarity,” McLellan explained.

Kate Blackburn is one of Nielson’s best friends and a senior from Las Vegas, Nevada, majoring in exercise and sports science with an emphasis in biomedical science. She said for Nielson, finding an eternal perspective, feeling the love of God inside the temple and beginning to rely more on Christ helped her in the healing process.
“Even though her immediate family was not there [at the temple], she had her Laie family there for her. I know still to this day, and every day, she relies on the Lord,” Blackburn said.

Nielson said she advises all students “to be present. … in everything [they] do.” She continued, “Don’t always focus on getting through the next test [or] getting through midterms. Be present right now.” She said students would benefit from asking their selves how they are feeling, who they are connecting with and what they can do to be better.

Nielson also advised students to have fun in their educational journey by going out of their comfort zone and getting to know others to build their support system. “Life is for [people] to find joy,” she added. •

For more on Manda's journey, visit the Ke Alaka'i instagram page.