Gustavus Track Star Exemplifies the Student-AthleteBirgen Nelson '23 looks to put an exclamation point on her extraordinary career
Posted on March 10th, 2023 by

Birgen Nelson clears her final hurdle at the 2022 Division III NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Success in college requires determination, consistency, resiliency—and help. As Birgen Nelson ’23 heads into her final indoor track meet before moving on to the next athletic and academic levels, she’s embraced and personified all these qualities and positioned herself for a promising future. 

This weekend, Nelson and fellow All-American Annika Poe ’23 (shot put), will be in Birmingham, Alabama for the NCAA Division III Indoor National Championships. Nelson aims to equal or top her national record time in the 60-meter hurdles and add to her multiple All-America honors. Between those past and potential achievements, her Academic All-America awards, her dozen or so school records, and other recognitions too numerous to list, it’s little wonder Gustavus Sports Information Director CJ Siewert calls Nelson one of the greatest athletes ever at Gustavus.

On top of that, she’s also a political science and classical languages double major (and environmental studies minor), Student Senate co-president, the recipient of numerous academic and co-curricular honors, and a fixture on the Dean’s List.

Birgen with her coach Aaron Lund at Gustavus Night at the Twins in 2022, where she threw out the first pitch.

That Nelson would compile so many impressive achievements wasn’t inevitable. At Edina High School, she was a competitive cheerleader, but her plans to continue the sport in college were derailed by multiple concussions and a shoulder injury. The setbacks were compounded by serious illness, and challenges to her mental health. “I was really stressed all the time,” she said. “My school had a weird atmosphere where if you weren’t taking seven AP classes and getting all A’s in them, it made you feel worthless.” The issues caused her to miss about 100 days of classes. “I almost didn’t graduate. I had injuries and got really sick, and I was also depressed and just stopped going to school,” she said. “I’d been high achieving and then suddenly just couldn’t do it anymore. That’s when [people around me] said, ‘Hey, you gotta [address this].’ So, it was good they helped me see that.”

Nelson entered a program through the school that required her to take a year’s worth of classes in a single semester to make up the lost time. Once back on track, she began to consider colleges. Gustavus quickly emerged, partly because of her father’s encouragement—his aunt is an alum and he’d visited campus frequently as a child—and partly because of the opportunities Nelson would have here.

“I’ve been able to get everything out of Gustavus that I thought I could, and even more…[than] I would have gotten at a big university. If I had gone somewhere else, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” 

Her first few semesters at Gustavus weren’t a smooth ride, either. She considered transferring because of personality conflicts with a couple of older track teammates. “But I said, ‘I can’t let them ruin my experience and force me to change,’” she said. “And I really liked the track coaches, and I still love them. As I got more involved, things got really, really good.”

She’s hit her stride. Her student government work has included helping write the College’s student protest policy, working on the Arboretum renaming efforts, helping bring more anti-racism awareness to the entire community, and testifying before state lawmakers on behalf of the Minnesota State Grant, which helps students from low- and moderate-income families afford the college of their choice.               

One of Nelson’s advisors, Political Science Professor Mimi Gerstbauer, notes that accomplishing everything Nelson has, even at a school the size of Gustavus, remains rare. “She really knows how to manage her time and plan,” Gerstbauer said. “Being Student Senate co-president here while also being an athlete is highly unusual.”    

Dean of Students Megan Ruble, who’s gotten to know Nelson and her Senate co-president, Delaney Bluhm ’23, as their adviser, isn’t surprised Nelson found a way to work through her early angst and obstacles. “It’s rare to have a student who’s very successful and very involved but is still so laid back,” Ruble said. “She’s a careful decision-maker and a good thinker, and man, she’s resilient.”

Nelson, who was granted eligibility from the NCAA for three extra track seasons (two indoor, one outdoor) after COVID-related cancellations, will graduate in May. Then, she heads to Duke University to run with the Division I Blue Devils while working toward her Master’s degree in public policy. Her future career path might include everything from professional track and field competing and coaching to politics or law school—or all of the above. Those who know her best are eager to see what’s next. “Duke and their Durham campus had that small-community feel to it and the academic major she was most passionate about, and she found a team and a coaching staff that honestly is a lot like ours,” said Gustavus Track and Field head coach Aaron Lund. “Birgen’s intrinsic motivation is just at an elite level, and there are a lot of different roads she could take.”

As her undergraduate years near the finish line, Nelson chalks up much of her success to Gustavus itself. “I’ve been able to get everything out of Gustavus that I thought I could, and even more,” she said. “I’ve received a ton of help from the Career Center, along with all these other things that this school offers that I don’t think I would have gotten at a big university. If I had gone somewhere else, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” 

—Update: Birgen won her event at the 2023 Division III Indoor Track and Field National Championships on March 10-11 with a record time of 8.39 seconds, meaning she now holds the top five times in the Division III 60-meter hurdles. To view the race and event results, visit these links:

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


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