Laviai Nielsen (Geography, 2018) is a Team GB runner who was born in 1996 and grew up in Leytonstone, east London, with her twin sister Lina (also an elite athlete). Laviai competes in the 400 metres and 4 x 400m. She was part of Team GB’s 4 x 400 metres relay team at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Laviai was on the King’s Sport Performance Programme, which also supported her 2020 Games teammates King’s History graduate Dina Asher-Smith and King’s Psychology graduate Imani-Lara Lansiquot as they studied and trained. King’s is one of the first institutions to be recognised by the Sport England-backed Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme Dual Career Accreditation Scheme, which allows elite student-athletes to perform to the highest level possible in education while simultaneously achieving success in their sporting pursuits.
Laviai began running in primary school, starting out as a middle-distance runner and competing at county cross country championships. In 2012, she was a volunteer at the London 2012 Olympics, carrying heptathlon gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill’s bag at the Olympic Stadium. This encouraged her to pursue the sport more seriously. She began training for the shorter distances after she was persuaded to become a sprinter. Laviai found her stride in the 400 metres, claiming two gold medals at the 2015 European Junior Championships in Sweden in the 400 metres and the 4 x 400 metres relay, and finishing the season ranked number two in the UK.
As a key part of Great Britain’s relay squad, Laviai has taken home multiple medals from the World Athletics Championships, including a silver medal in 2017 and a bronze medal in 2022; as well as two silver medals and a bronze from the European Athletics Championships, both indoors and outdoors. She became a double British champion when successfully defending her 400 metres title at the 2020 British Athletics Championships in a time of 51.72 seconds. Along with her teammates, Laviai came third in the 4 x 400 metres at the World Athletics Relays in May 2021.
Laviai explains how King’s provided a springboard for her athletic career, ‘As well as accomplishing many of my goals on the athletics track, studying at King’s remains one of my proudest achievements. Education is always an important and enjoyable part of my life, and a degree is something I have always dreamed of achieving. I couldn’t have chosen a better institution to help me achieve two of my life goals. I was part of the King’s Sport Performance Programme, that supported me at what was the beginning of my sporting career. I also represented King’s at the British University Championships, in which I took home one gold medal and two silver medals across my three years in university.
Reflecting on how her time at King’s influenced her journey and outlook, Laviai says, ‘I loved the freedom and versatility that my Geography degree allowed. I was able to combine two of my passions – sport and geography – in my dissertation. I studied the impact mega-sporting events, such as the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, have on development in the cities that host them. It opened my eyes to the powerful world of sport, and its impact, both the good and ugly, on the world around us.’
Away from the track, Laviai is committed to helping others follow in her footsteps, and she has been enrolled as an athlete ambassador for Right To Play – the world’s leading sport-for-development charity, which seeks to empower vulnerable children around the world to overcome the effects of war, poverty and disease through the power of play. Laviai says that being an athlete has shown her how important sport and play are for education and achieving personal goals. She says, ‘Having finished my degree in Geography, which took a focus on international development, I further understand that development is a multidirectional venture. I haven’t stopped learning about the world we live in, and more importantly, the world I’m closely surrounded by. I hope to continue some work in the future involving the power of sport, and how amazing it can be for development. We are excited to see what impact, however small or big, we can have on this important cause.’