Being an athlete is like a full-time job, it requires all the strength, discipline, and focus that you can exert. There are some born with the genetics, others are developed from raw talent, and some take their time to reach their full potential. For many athletes, it becomes their identity, and it can be difficult to imagine that it will one day end. For McKenna Olson, the story that she thought she would write was one that you would see in a Hollywood movie script: Being born of talent, finding her passion, and finding her path to greatness, “I grew up in a family with my dad who was top in the state of Arizona for cross country, and eventually went on to run cross country for West Point,” she said. “My mom ran marathons all the time while I was growing up, no matter where we lived at the time with the Army.” Starting at only six years old, Olson began running in races and she eventually sparked a love with the sport when she was in middle school.
From there, Olson just skyrocketed towards a trajectory that was seemingly on par with a destiny she was to be born with, “I loved running from the get-go, and I really wanted to pursue it further,” she explained. “I wanted to be like my dad and run in college, I had high goals for myself and I even ran in the junior Olympics in Reno with my track club my freshman year.” As a high school sophomore, her growth was still moving along well and things were great…..until they weren’t. In her sophomore year, something very odd happened to Olson that would change her life forever, “I thought something was wrong with my legs or my feet. We went to so many doctors and focused on my legs mainly, but they always told me to just take Advil and ice.” Then it happened: She collapsed at practice one day and couldn’t move her legs at all. Olson and her family went searching for answers. Why did this happen?
According to Olson, no one was able to solve it for so long, “After months and months of getting blood tests, labs, MRIs, and visiting over 10 doctors, I was told there was nothing wrong with me,” she said. “As persistent as my mother is, she continued to find new doctors who might be able to help her daughter who could barely even walk without pain at this point.” Eventually it led them to OHSU in Portland where some of the top surgeons on the planet work. They did their magic and the Olson family faith paid off, there was a diagnosis: An extremely rare arachnoid cyst on McKenna’s spine. The timing and seriousness were at the forefront of reality for Olson, “If we had been even a month later, I would have been paralyzed,” she explained. “My surgeon proceeded to tell me that the surgery was risky because the cyst was so rare, and that my odds were very small.” The Olson family had two options: Do surgery and hope that it was successful or have her lose all function from her neck down. Either way, Olson’s running career was finished.
For Olson, this was the death of who she was as a person, the identity that she had always known and been known for, “The one thing that made me happy in the world was right then and there taken away from me,” she said. “I was so destroyed because I had put my whole identity into being a runner and an athlete. I cried for months, and I shut myself off from the world.” After her Mom convinced her to have the surgery and it was successful, any normal task became a massive hurdle for Olson to do, “I couldn’t even carry my own backpack at school when I got out of the hospital, and everything normal like walking up stairs or even bending down hurt like crazy,” she explained. “I was so hurt and upset that God would take away something I loved so much, something that really gave me happiness.” As fate would have it, God had a plan and would soon reunite her with her passion, but she had to go through an identity rebirth first.
It started in the summer when she went to a camp like many teenagers do, when the conversation shifted to identity, “I found my identity in Christ and in my faith, and I realized being an athlete and a runner was not my identity,” she recalled. “It took me a long time to realize this, and I still struggle with it 2 years after the surgery, but ultimately, I’m happy again and I’m so blessed to be here.” In the past winter, Olson visited children in Kenya and learned the true meaning of what it means to live life and be a child of Christ, “I hung out with kids who had nothing but were so happy,” she said. “They helped me realize that a little thing like running isn’t my life and doesn’t define who I am. Since this surgery, I am so much more positive & excited about everything in life. I realized nothing is certain and you never know when something will end.” Yes, Olson is also running again and finished as a four-year member of track and cross country. However, she now competes with a different mindset, “When I run, it may not be fast and I may not run anywhere close to my old PRs, but I am just so happy to be alive and to do what I love even if it’s not the same.”
Using her faith in God and her newfound identity, Olson will be graduating as valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA this year from St. Paul High School, she was the president of two clubs, and a varsity cross country and track athlete for four years. She won’t compete collegiately like she hoped, but Olson says that this went beyond anything that sports can do alone, “This journey has not been easy in any way, but it has taught me so much about myself,” she explained. “My identity is not found in running and I didn’t need it to be happy. I learned so much about my perspective on life and about myself from this obstacle.” As for advice she would have to her fellow athletes, she echoed a very strong sentiment, “For athletes who go through something like this or anything that may ruin their sports careers, just know your identity is NOT as an athlete,” she said. “You are talented and unique in so many other ways. Focus on other things that make you happy, whether that be through your faith, friends, family, or whatever. Everything gets better and everything happens for a reason!”