DECORAH, Iowa (AP) -- What struck Johanna Olson was how fast it happened, how quickly her life changed.
One day she's a bright, chatty college freshman, a key runner on a conference championship cross-country team that was looking forward to a regional meet and a chance to qualify for nationals.
A week later, she's propped up in a hospital bed with 23 staples closing the left side of her scalp, where doctors cut into her brain to remove a thumb-sized tumor.
Things like that just don't happen to healthy 18-year-olds, especially those who can run 10 miles as easily as most people cross the street. A month later, she was running again, free of complications.
Or so she thought.
Olson was told after surgery she probably wouldn't have any more problems for 10 years. It turned out to be 10 months.
Two weeks into her sophomore season at Luther College, doctors discovered the tumor was growing again. She began radiation therapy, making the three-hour round trip to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., five days a week for six weeks.
Give up running? Olson would sooner give up breathing.
''My parents run, my sister ran, it's just been a part of my life, a big part of my life,'' Olson said. ''I never even questioned giving it up.''
Last fall, a year after her final radiation treatment, Olson ran so well that she won the Iowa Conference cross-country championship, led Luther to the team title and was named the league's MVP. Not long after that, she became an All-American by finishing 23rd at the NCAA Division III national meet.
Her comeback was complete.
''For the whole team, it gave us a good perspective on things,'' teammate Jane McDermott said. ''It's really easy to get so wrapped up in competing that you forget about everything else. It was like God slapped us in the face and let us know there are more important things.''
Olson's effort was noticed. On Monday, she'll be in Orlando, Fla., to receive the Honda Inspiration Award, given annually by the automaker to a female college athlete who has come back from physical adversity to help her team.
Olson was not blessed with a classic runner's physique. Distance runners tend to be lean and long-limbed. Olson is 5-foot-3 and compact.
She succeeds with strength and determination, traits that showed even when she was a youngster in Wadena, Minn., 150 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
Her mother, Jane Bagstad, recalls Olson doing pull-ups on the monkey bars when she was in the first grade and later bragging how she could cross those bars faster than anyone in her class.
She ran her first 5,000-meter race -- about 3 miles -- in the third grade.
''I beat this boy and he's like, 'Little girls like you shouldn't be running this race,''' Olson said.
Was that before or after the race?
''It was during -- when I passed him,'' she answered with an impish grin.
Coached by her father, Terry Olson, at Wadena-Deer Creek High School, Olson three times finished as the state runner-up in cross country. Colleges large and small recruited her and she narrowed her choices to Alabama of the tradition-rich Southeastern Conference and Luther, a school of 2,550 tucked in among the folds of the limestone bluffs in northeast Iowa.
Olson, whose sister, Marney, already was at Luther, liked the school's emphasis on academics and felt comfortable with coach Betsy Emerson. She enjoyed immediate success in cross country, finishing second in the Iowa Conference meet and leading Luther to the team title.
Then, five days before the NCAA regional meet, Olson saw little bright spots as she walked to lunch. An hour later, she couldn't see well enough to take notes in class. Then the headaches began.
''I had my bag out and was packing to run and I couldn't even see,'' she said. ''I was like, 'I don't care. I'm running in this meet.'''
The next day, the team left without Olson, who went to the hospital in Decorah. After a CAT scan, doctors said she had better get to the Mayo Clinic, where specialists removed the tumor.
''It all happened pretty fast,'' Olson said. ''I didn't have time to worry about it very much. My mom did, though.''
One month after surgery, Olson ran again. It was Dec. 18, 1997.
''I only ran 10 minutes. That's all I really could do,'' she said. ''Afterwards, my legs were shaking and I could hardly walk up the stairs.''
Her legs came back quickly, however, and by February, she was competing again.
The 1998 cross-country season was going to be a good one. But then Olson got the bad news: The tumor was growing again and she needed radiation.
Her school rallied behind her. Teammates, wrestlers, women's basketball players and others took turns driving her to Mayo for treatment.
''That's one of the special qualities that our school has, a really good sense of community,'' Emerson said.
Those trips aren't necessary now. The tumor shrank and Olson suffered no ill effects from the radiation except for a patch of hair falling out, leaving her with a temporary pink spot. It grew back curly, she noted, laughing and pointing to a swirl on the left side of her head.
Olson followed her All-America cross-country season by finishing second in the 5,000 at the Iowa Conference meet this spring. She still has another season of track and two more for cross country. After that, who knows? She could teach or maybe go to grad school.
''Or just run,'' she said. ''That would be nice.''
After what Olson has gone through, it certainly would.
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