Athlete shines in state Special Olympics

John Olson excels in cross-country skiing

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John Olson has climbed 31 of Colorado's 14ers and tackled technical rock climbs across the country. He spends most of his winter weekends in the mountains skiing.

Olson is also diagnosed with autism and medication-resistant epilepsy. Thanks to great mentors and medical treatment, his disabilities don't get in the way of his pursuits. On March 2 and 3, Olson won three gold medals in cross-country skiing at the Special Olympics State Winter Games at Copper Mountain.

“I'm an overcomer,” Olson, 31, said, sitting in a Highlands Ranch coffee shop next to his father. “I can finish anything.”

Olson, a graduate of Cherokee Trail High School in Aurora, started cross-country skiing two years ago. He didn't know anyone who participated in the sport but had seen Special Olympics competitions at Copper. He decided to try a practice and fell in love.

“It makes me be a better person,” Olson said, adding that he feels relaxed on the mountain.

Through the sport, Olson has not only developed strong relationships with his coaches, but also with individuals with similar or more challenging disabilities, his father, Tom Olson, explained. His teammates support and understand one another.

“It's an outlet for a lot of kids,” Tom Olson said. “They are happy.”

Leading up to the state winter games, Olson practiced twice a week in the mountains and trained with the Cherry Creek Nordic team.

When he's not skiing, Olson leads a campaign called Colorado Climb for Epilepsy Awareness. He hikes for or with young children with epilepsy.

Part of what allows Olson to ski, hike and climb is LivaNova's Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS) therapy system. After unsuccessful brain surgery to treat his epilepsy, Olson visited an epileptologist at UCHealth, who recommended the therapy.

A small, disk-shaped device, surgically placed in his chest, sends mild pulses through the vagus nerve to areas of the brain that are associated with seizures, according to LivaNova, a medical device company. The device is said to decrease the number and severity of seizures.

It's worked for Olson. Prior to the VNS therapy system, he was having four to five seizures a month. Now he has one about every six weeks.

“For his activities, it's really helped,” Tom Olson said. “It helps control seizures — it builds confidence.”

Olson's next goal: compete in the 2021 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Sweden.

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