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Athlete Spotlight – Johanna Olson

Johanna Olson simply needed a goal. She needed something to look forward to. Without it, the next 12 months were going to be as excruciating as anything she had seen in her 15-year battle with a devastating and recurrent brain tumor.
Her escape had always been running. The serenity she found in the thousands of miles she has run in a career that has included two Olympic Trials Marathon appearances and an NCAA Division III cross country title has become her safe haven.
So when faced with yet another overwhelming obstacle – this time a 12-month bout with chemotherapy – Olson needed a long-term reward to become her focus, and she turned to a familiar activity.
A current resident of Bend, Ore., Olson picked up the phone and called her mother in her hometown of Wadena, Minn.
“I knew I needed a goal,” Olson said. “I called and asked my mom if I could get an entry into the Twin Cities Marathon would she do it with me. Thinking it wouldn’t happen she said she would. I was able to get an entry and I called her back and she was like, ‘what?’ Then she said my Dad wanted to do it too.”
Preparing for the Twin Cities Marathon, which will be held Sunday in Minneapolis, Minn., became her focal point and method to cope with the rigorous treatments she would have to overcome. And knowing everything she had been through, friends and family members came from everywhere to show their support. Sunday she will be surrounded by dozens of family and friends in a true testament that she was never in this battle alone.
Symptoms first began in 1997 when Olson, who was a freshman at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, began seeing spots and developed terrible migraines. Within a week she was diagnosed with grade II glioma and underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor with the news that the tumor would almost certainly reappear. Over the next 15 years Olson endured a constant struggle with the tumor that has included three brain surgeries and multiple treatments of chemotherapy and radiation. But the one constant the entire time was running.
“Running is my center,” Olson said. “If I can run, then I always know things are going to be okay. Through all the hardships that I have had running is that one thing that has kept me going.”
However, her approach Sunday will be different than what it was in the early part of her career. She is adopting the method of “ralking,” which is a combination of running and walking the 26.2-mile race. Her goal is to run the race around 12-minute-mile pace, which would equal a marathon just over five hours. It is a night and day approach from her time as an elite athlete.
Olson was a standout beginning in high school competing for Wadena-Deer Creek (Minn.). She was a six-time state qualifier and three times finished runner-up at the state high school cross country meet. At Luther College she showed true perseverance winning six conference titles and grabbing seven All-American honors while battling with her disease. She won the 2000 NCAA Division III Cross Country championship on the three-year anniversary of her first brain surgery. She holds a career marathon best of 2:43:27.
She qualified for the Olympic Trials Marathon in both 2004 and 2008. Due to her talent and success, Olson received much attention. The same holds true today, but the focus has shifted.
“It’s so weird where life takes you,” Olson said. “I used to do a lot of this in college and I am used to talking to the media. But in all honesty this race is going to take me twice as long as it used to.”
Olson will be competing Sunday towards the back of the pack. She says she will be running alongside people who are there for an entirely different reason.
However, the expectation of herself will be the same Sunday as it has always been for Olson.
“It’s about my parents and how they raised us,” she said. “You do your best and whatever that is it doesn’t matter how you finish. I’m going to be running with the back of the pack with some people that have never done a marathon. I am going to be ecstatic to cross the finish line.”
Fans can read more about Olson’s journey on her website at
Olson’s Timeline to the Twin Cities Marathon
Spring 1997 – Finishes her career at Wadena-Deer Creek (Minn.) where she qualified for the state cross country meet six times and picked up three runner-up finishes and helps her team to a state title her senior year. She makes plans to attend Luther College.
Fall 1997 – One week after finishing runner-up at the conference cross country meet for Luther College, Olson begins seeing spots and develops painful migraines. One week later undergoes treatment and surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for a grade II glioma. She was given the information it was a slow-growing brain tumor and that is would almost certainly return.
December 1997 – Olson returns to Luther to finish her first semester and begins preparation for the spring track season.
Fall 1998 – Olson takes a medical hardship from running as her tumor resurfaces and she begins radiation treatment, which includes five sessions a week for six weeks.
Spring 2000 – On the third anniversary of her brain surgery, Olson wins the 2000 NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships. Over her collegiate career, she won six conference championships and earned seven All-American honors.
Spring 2001 – Olson graduates from Luther College with a degree in health education and minors in physical education and biology.
Fall 2003 – In her first race at the distance, Olson runs her personal best at the Twin Cities Marathon in 2:43:27
Winter 2004 – Placed 45th at the Olympic Trials Marathon
Winter 2008 – Finished 46th at the Olympic Trials Marathon
Summer 2009 – Olson is forced to have surgery once again as the brain tumor comes back and moves back to Minnesota. Undergoing chemotherapy, she works fulltime at Starbucks and is a volunteer track coach at Hamline University.
Fall 2011 – Olson’s tumor returns for a third time and has to undergo surgery. She is met with visual impairment and daily rounds of chemotherapy. She was also inducted into the Luther College Hall of Fame
Spring 2012 – Discontinues chemotherapy treatment and becomes so weak that running two miles is a struggle.
Summer 2012 – The tumor resurfaced once again causing symptoms that forced her to quit working.
October 7, 2012 – Surrounded by a dozen family and friend, Olson approaches the Twin Cities Marathon among 12,000 runners less than 13 months following her third surgery.

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