Senna Ohlsson understands how enviable her position is.
Faced with an uncertain future caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Loyola Maryland track and field star opted to take advantage of her dual citizenship status and fly to Sweden to resume her career there.
Ohlsson can appreciate how fortunate she is since many athletic conferences canceled or suspended fall sports at universities and colleges due to concerns related to COVID-19
“Some of the best athletes in America are not getting that chance because so many things are just shut down,” she said Wednesday via FaceTime from her apartment in Gothenburg, a town on the western coast of Sweden. “Of course we can’t all run off to Sweden just because they’re open as a country, but it was an opportunity that was there and has been there for a really long time for me, and I’m thankful that the pieces fell into place.”
On Saturday, Ohlsson — who won the last three Patriot League titles in the 800-meter run (2019 indoor, 2019 outdoor and 2020 indoor) — will compete in the Swedish Athletics championship in Uppsala, which is about an hour north of Stockholm, the nation’s capital on the eastern coast. The 20-year-old Pennsylvania resident is seeded fourth in the 800 and will attempt to qualify for the event’s final on Sunday.
At the Sollentuna Grand Prix, a World Athletics Continental Tour bronze meet, on Monday, Ohlsson placed fifth with a time of 2 minutes, 6.88 seconds. That time is almost a half-second better than her collegiate personal record of 2:07.07 set when she captured the Eastern College Athletic Conference title in March. It’s almost two seconds faster than her outdoor time of 2:08.69 from 2019, which is the third-best time in school history.
Ohlsson, who will be a senior when the fall semester at Loyola begins Aug. 31, said she is simply centering her efforts on performing solidly.
“The ultimate goal would be to make the final and just run a really good race,” she said. “I’m OK with doing that knowing that I’ve checked that box off. But if I had to have a stretch goal, it would be great to snag a spot on that podium.”
Ohlsson’s journey to Sweden can be traced to her father Birger, who was born and raised in Sweden and represented his native country as a middle- and long-distance runner. In the fall of 2016, then 16-year-old Senna Ohlsson spent seven months at a high school in Selaön, an island off Sweden.
When her summer job as a head female counselor and director of a nature program at a camp in the Adirondack Mountains was canceled during the second week of June, Ohlsson accepted an invitation from coach Per Skoog to train with his team in Gothenburg.
Greyhounds track and field coach Amy Horst said she quickly got on board with Ohlsson’s decision.
“My advice to her was, from an athlete’s perspective and development, absolutely. Go for it and learn from it,” Horst said. “She’s got bigger opportunities coming up on a more national scale, and one of the things I know is that competing in the Patriot League is a challenge, but it’s nothing like competing at an NCAA championship or a World junior championship. … She’s able to take on these challenges, and Senna is someone who thrives on challenges. She is someone who likes action.”
Ohlsson is the first to admit that her conditioning was lacking, and the difficulty of her first three weeks in Sweden was punctuated by her Swedish coach informing her that she might not be able to compete if she didn’t improve. But Ohlsson said she drew motivation from her teammates and even competitors such as Esther Guerrero of Spain, the 2018 Ibero-American Championships winner who won the 800 at Monday’s Sollentuna Grand Prix in a career-best 2:00.56.
“The only thing I can say is that it’s been really inspiring,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of success at the collegiate level in my league specifically and on the East Coast. But to take that to the next level and see women who have been training seven or eight years professionally just to get to where they’re at, they’re incredibly inspiring, and I’m running heats with them.”
Unlike the United States, Sweden has not been as restrictive regarding the coronavirus. Many businesses have remained open (even as some have limitations on capacity), elementary and middle schools and daycare centers are operating as usual, and masks are worn sparingly.
Just being able to train on a track with teammates has helped Ohlsson re-assess her previous approach to competing.
“I have been guilty of getting very nervous before my races to the point where there have been times when I would almost wish that I was out of competing because I was so nervous and so anxious. It felt like it turned racing into a negative,” she said. “Then when you have that completely taken away and you’re living for three or four months on the idea that I don’t know when my next race will be or if I will ever get that again, it was hard. … So when I started figuring out that I was going to be racing this summer, I really tried to sit down and see it only as an opportunity and not this high pressure to meet certain expectations that I think I may have turned competitions into in the past.”
As her coach, Horst would be thrilled to see Ohlsson convert her training into a medal on Sunday. But her underlying objective is to see Ohlsson seize on a greater level of assertiveness.
“She’s so resilient, and I know that, and I want her to understand that,” she said. “I want her to feel strong. … Too often I think people are restrictive in life because they limit themselves before they ever get anywhere. So I want her to have that confidence and that flexibility and that fun to adapt.”
Ohlsson is still adjusting to the Swedish language after speaking English while growing up. She characterized her command as “conversational.”
“I would never say fluent or comfortable,” she said. “I can get across. I think I sell myself short sometimes because I will tell people, ‘No, I don’t speak Swedish.’ But then I’m in a situation where I have to use my Swedish, and people are like, ‘What are you talking about? Your Swedish is fine.’”