DECORAH, Iowa -- Luther college distance runner Johanna Olson of Wadena, who twice recovered from a brain tumor to return to intercollegiate competition and earn All-American honors, has won the Honda Inspiration Award.
The award is presented annually to the collegiate female athlete who has overcome great physical adversity to contribute to the recognizable success of her team.
Olson, a junior, will be presented her award at the Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year Banquet June 12 at Orlando, Fla.
Olson closed out the 1999 cross-country season by adding another chapter to her remarkable comeback story. At the NCAA Division III national championships, she achieved her dream of competing in a national meet and earned All-American honors for the first time, placing 23rd in a field of 213 runners, with a personal-best time of 17:32. Her time was the second-fastest ever recorded by a Luther runner in a 5-kilometer championship, behind former Honda Award winner Turena Johnson's 17:11 in 1996.
Olson's performance led the Norse to a third-place finish in the regional meet to qualify the team for the national meet for only the fourth time in school history.
Earlier in the season, Olson won the individual crown at the Iowa Conference Championships and was named league MVP, helping lead the Norse to the team title. She also captured first place at the St. Mary's Invitational.
That Olson was competing in races at all -- let alone winning them -- is nothing less than amazing, given the events that took place near the end of her freshman season in 1997.
Suffering from severe, chronic headaches that left her bedridden for five days, Olson was sent to the Mayo Clinic for further tests. An MRI confirmed that her headaches were being caused by a primary tumor of the brain. On Nov. 18, Olson underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic to remove the tumor.
Despite having no guarantee that the tumor had been permanently eradicated, Olson continually assured her teammates and friends that she would soon return to the Norse lineup.
Six weeks after the surgery, Olson proved her assurances correct. She ended the track and field season by finishing in the top five in the 5,000-meter run at the outdoor track and field conference championships.
Following a summer of training and a mid-summer checkup in which she was issued a clean bill of health, Olson opened the 1998 cross-country season with a third-place finish in the St. Mary's Invitational.
Two weeks into the season, however, a routine checkup revealed the tumor had returned and was growing at a rapid rate. This time, Olson underwent intensive radiation treatments five days each week for six weeks. Though the treatments left her so exhausted she often slept for 12-hour periods, she continued to attend classes, run for fun, and cheer on her teammates.
In early February, four months after being told the tumor had returned, Olson learned the radiation had been successful and that she could resume competition.
Two weeks into the 1999 indoor track and field season, Olson won the 3,000-meter run at the Luther Invitational. At the Iowa Conference Indoor Championships, she anchored the distance medley relay, which placed second and established a school record. At the Iowa Conference Outdoor Championships, Olson was second in the 3,000-meter run and earned all-conference honors.
More than two years after her initial diagnosis, Olson's future looks bright. Her doctors are optimistic that the tumor is gone forever. She continues to maintain a full load of classes, while maintaining a 3.63 grade-point average as a health/physical education major.
Olson will enroll for a fifth year at Luther, in order to enjoy four full years of athletic eligibility in cross country. Perhaps she will add to her accomplishments in an astonishing career.
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