University of Minnesota thrower Shay Nielsen was set to finish her senior season with the Gophers as part of an incredibly strong group of athletes with big goals for the coming season.
“This is the best team I’ve ever been on,” she said. “I get goosebumps when I think of how good we are and how good we could have been.”
Nielsen first saw the COVID-19 updates on Twitter before her throws coach called her from a NCAA meet in New Mexico.
“He basically said we have to come home and they canceled the season,” said Nielsen. “He just apologized a lot and kind of validated my feelings of being hurt by it. We have had an open line of communication about it since.”
The teams were scheduled to have in-person meetings but those plans changed quickly.
“It’s been up in the air and through emails and phone calls. It’s been hard because I haven’t had a conversation in person about it,” she said. “I’m still wrapping my head around it and processing it. It doesn’t really feel real. It’s been really hard to process. It’s not something I would have ever imagined happening. You can’t even grieve with our teammates because you can’t even be with your teammates. It feels like it was just ripped out from under you.”
Nielsen was in her fifth season with the Gophers after reshirting as a freshman. She was coming off a season-best shot put mark of 15.37m (50-05.25) and a ninth place finish at the Big Ten Indoors Championship in 2019. Nielsen was part of a deep group of Gopher throwers ready to put it all together in 2020.
“The last three years leading up to this season we’ve talked about this is our year and we’re going to win an outdoor or indoor Big 10 championship and this is how I’m going to close out my senior year,” she said. “Ever since I was a freshman, I’ve had this idea in my head that I’m going to work my butt off so we can win a Big 10 championship my senior year. It was going to be my closing chapter. It feels like a lost opportunity of a dream we’ve dreamt of our whole careers.”
Nielsen recorded plenty of individual accolades at Minnesota placing 16th in shot put at the 2018 Outdoor Big Ten Championship. She threw a personal best 15.91m (52-02.50) to place ninth at that year’s indoor Big Ten Championship and ended the season ranked eighth among all-time Gophers.
She had multiple throws her redshirt freshman year that were top 10 all-time marks in the program but all that success was superseded by her team-first mentality.
“As much as it’s an individual sport, the team is always something I’ve put in my mind as our goal as a whole,” she said. “What are we going to do as a whole to get to that goal? We’ve always been about a we thing instead of an I thing.”
Being a part of championship teams were definite career highlights for the former Laker three-sport standout.
“Winning Indoor Big 10 championships, that was the first Big 10 team I was a part of and I don’t remember feeling so much joy in a certain moment,” she said. “Being there and actually winning it, getting to put on the shirt and the hat, it was a surreal moment I think in all of my athletic career.”
Nielsen got off to a strong start during her redshirt freshman year. She placed fourth at the Big 10 meet and was ranked nationally. That success came as somewhat of a shock.
“In throwing and the Big 10, I’ve always been an underdog,” she said. “It kind of caught me by surprise. I wasn’t really expecting it and I came into it really free. I don’t think I would have placed fourth if I wouldn’t have had the support of teammates and coaches.”
Missing a final run in the conference and NCAAs and the culmination of her plans, athletically, have not come easy, something Nielsen has begun adjusting to positively with her personal beliefs.
“In general, my faith has gotten a lot stronger in college,” she said. “I’ve been involved in a lot of Bible studies. That’s been my rock during the last week and throughout my career with highs and lows. I look at my freshman and sophomore years to now and I’ve turned into a completely different person. Most of that comes from my faith and track being aligned.”
That combination is not taking the sting out of missing her senior season, but both Nielsen’s faith and her sport have formed how she is dealing with the disappointment.
“Track has taught me I could sit here and feel like I got ripped off or it’s not fair, but it’s taught me to take it as what it is and cherish it, learn and grow from it for your next season,” she said. “That’s something I’m taking for my career and my next chapter.”
Academics have been in line with the success Nielsen possesses in the field and she was a multiple award winner each season garnering U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association All-Academic awards, Big Ten Distinguished Scholar awards, and Academic All-Big Ten.
Nielsen has already earned a bachelor’s degree in special education and is currently finishing a two-year master’s degree in Leadership in Education. She is completing her Master’s in just one year currently taking 17 grad school credits.
The absence of track and field in her life has created an unusual surplus of free time, something Nielsen has been well short of in her time at Minnesota.
“I do not remember the last time I took a nap and now I’m like...what do I do?” she said. Now I feel like I don’t know what to do with my life. I always was like I can’t wait to have free time.”
Much of that search is the difficult task of finding a replacement for Division I competition. It’s not easy.
“I just haven’t found that thing that’s going to fulfill me for the time being,” she said. “It’s so new to me but it’s hard to navigate it alone.”
Nielsen finished her Gopher career a two-time NCAA West Prelim qualifier in shot put. She ranks 10th indoors and is tied for eighth outdoors among all-time Gophers.