Rio, Brazil, August 2016. The Olympic 200 metres semi-final. Ella Nelson, from Sydney by way of Phoenix, Arizona, little-known outside of the wider Nelson and athletics family, lunges at the line.
The clock stops sooner than she has ever halted it before in a half-lap race. She is exultant for, oh, a couple of minutes. During a TV interview she learns the cruel truth that she has missed the final … by one hundredth of a second. Her finest race on the biggest stage has left her short of being the first n woman since Mel Gainsford-Taylor and Cathy Freeman to make an Olympic track final by how much? Just 0.01s.
That amount of time in her race is, she has been reliably informed since, about the width of a dollar coin, or as a female teammate reportedly later kindly offered, about the difference of a padded bra. That didn’t make it any easier.
Regardless of the result, Nelson went from anonymous to eponymous in a race. She came to symbolise a new n team at that Games, the face of the next generation.
The disappointment of missing out has now dulled and the satisfaction of her achievement has replaced it.
“Rio was insane, it was crazy. It was the most amazing thing,” Nelson said in London ahead of the world athletics championships.
“I had the most fun there, even though I was so close to something so great there. It is a really good memory to look back on that I will cherish it for the rest of my life.
“I actually do [still watch the race], I have a motivational folder in my phone and it has got some races from when I was 15, obviously Rio, and some good ones from this year and even in the motivational ones I have chucked in the bad ones because you need to learn from those bad ones.”
On that basis Nelson has been doing some learning this year. Her Rio performance has not parlayed immediately into stronger and better performances. As head coach Craig Hilliard said, sometimes athletes peak then plateau or fall away and then rise again. The question of whether they rise again, or how far they rise, is up to them.
Nelson and her coach have a similar take on success and development saying it is not linear but winding, more roller-coaster than escalator.
“It has been an interesting year so far. It’s been tough, I’m not going to lie, but every year is different, that’s what everyone keeps telling me,” she said.
“Unfortunately I started the year with a sesamoid stress reaction so I was in a boot for eight weeks right after Rio. I just felt there was this never-ending injury cycle but it has ended, I’m injury free but just dealing with some other stuff [which she preferred not to expand on].
“I’ve spoken to quite a lot of athletes and well-known Olympians and they all say the year following is really difficult, sometimes sub-consciously, sometimes consciously … things have been tough.”
At nationals she ran a 23.91s, well down on the PB 22.5 she ran in Rio, and was beaten across the line by PNG-born Toea Wisil. She followed with some decent runs in the Caribbean but then had flat performances in Europe in the Diamond League.
“I wouldn’t say it was a shock [at nationals] but each race presents certain challenges and for me there was a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes and off track that looking back have played a bigger part than I initially realised,” she said.
“Regardless you only have to run well at one major championships and that is only once a year, whether it is the Olympics, the world championships or the Commonwealth Games, they are the big ones you really try to focus on.
“Obviously it’s nice to run well in every race but at the same time it can be unrealistic, not every race is going to be perfect.”
Of some comfort to her heading into London is that she also tore her hamstring twice last year before Rio and still found her best performance on the day it mattered most. She hopes for the same in London.
“Everyone keeps reminding me that I’m going to have a really long career and that every year is going to be different, sometimes you will be injury-riddled for a whole year, some years will be tough and you might not be racing as well but as I said earlier and I will continue to say until after world champs, you only have to run fast once.”
After returning to Phoenix with her training group and working on some very specific improvements she feels she is ready.
“I don’t want to say I’m back because I never went anywhere … I am around … I only have to run fast once and that’s at the worlds.”