DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — A hospital ID bracelet remains on Justin Olsen’s right wrist. It is the jewelry of his medical drama, a reminder of why he should cherish his third trip to the Olympics.
On Sunday night, Olsen, 30, was back in the bobsled, competing. Thirteen days earlier, he was in a Gangneung hospital bed recovering from a laparoscopic appendectomy. It’s evidence of the miracle of modern medical procedures and the determination of a Texas-tough pilot who refused to abandon his team.
“All things considered, I feel really good,” said Olsen, a San Antonio native.
Don’t expect Olsen to lament the terrible timing. He is grateful, actually, for resolution after seven years of recurring stomach problems. The pain surfaced in 2011, when Olsen awoke in the middle of the night in France, drenched in sweat, his stomach throbbing. He started crying, and as the 6-foot-2, 235-pound athlete said, “I’m not a big crying guy.” At 3 a.m., he wandered the hotel hallways, knocking on doors, declaring, “We’ve got to do something. Something’s bad.” At a French hospital, doctors told him he would be okay.
“All right,” he said. “You said I was all right. Here we go.”
Olsen kept pushing, and his body kept fighting back at random times. A year ago, at Whistler ski resort in British Columbia, he writhed in pain on a bathroom floor. Finally, as he trained in PyeongChang this month, his stomach bothered him again, and the diagnosis was clear: acute appendicitis.
“There’s no hard feelings, parting ways with my appendix,” Olsen said. “None at all. That thing’s been giving me trouble for seven years now.”
As he recovered from emergency surgery, his girlfriend, Canadian skeleton athlete Mirela Rahneva, read to him, mostly self-help excerpts. While his body healed, Olsen worked on his mind, too. After surgery, he was tired, sore and expressing doubts that he could compete in less than two weeks. But he would find his perspective soon.
Mostly, he thought about his teammates. He drives both the two-man and four-man sled, the latter of which is Team USA’s strongest event. He needed to be there for his teammates. They’re still healing emotionally after the May death of pilot and team anchor Steven Holcomb, a legendary American performer who led the team’s first-place triumph at the 2010 Vancouver Games, ending a 62-year U.S. gold medal drought in the four-man bobsled competition. Olsen was part of that golden group, and now he’s the pilot. He needs to honor his friend. He needs to drive.
This Olympic journey began with the two-man competition. After the first two runs Sunday, Olsen and Evan Weinstock sit in 12th place, which is best among the three U.S. entries. To win a medal in this event, they’ll have to be better during the finals Monday.
Olsen feels some soreness, but for the most part, he’s fine. He’s just rusty. A few days after the surgery, he started running again on a treadmill. He felt the pain in his side. But he wasn’t discouraged. He did push-ups instead. He gradually built himself toward sliding again, and on Thursday, he was back at practice. Three days later, he was competing against the best in the world again — no appendix, no hard feelings, no excuses.
“I’m just happy that I can compete, and I’m not sitting in the sled and Evan’s pushing me,” Olsen said. “He’s worked really hard. He’s sacrificed a lot. I really admire the pusher that he is. He said it’s funny how things work out. We linked up two, three years ago, and I told him, ‘Hey, man. If you want to make it, just trust me. There are going to be some bumps along the way, but just stick with me, and we’ll be all right. We’ll do some things.’ And here we are at the Olympic Games together. He’s probably one of my closet friends on the team. And I wouldn’t change that for anything.”
Olsen isn’t the first Olympian to show such toughness. In 1960, swimmer Jeff Farrell famously competed in the U.S. Olympic trials six days after an appendectomy. He made the team and went on to win two relay gold medals in Rome. In 2010, Latvian bobsledder Janis Minins suffered a ruptured appendix and needed emergency surgery. Because of the severity of his case, he couldn’t compete in the two-man race. He attempted the four-man, but the pain was too much, and he was forced to withdraw. Olsen and Minins have exchanged text messages throughout Olsen’s recovery.
“We compared stories a little bit,” Olsen said. “I don’t have as big a scar as he did.”
When the Olympics are over, Olsen plans to go on vacation somewhere warm, and relax. He’s looking forward to doing nothing for one of the few times in his active life. However, over the next week, he will ignore the pain and push his body, not to prove how tough he is, but to lead his team and represent his country and explore, finally, how it feels to live without a pesky appendix lurking and limiting him.
“Everybody can relate to facing adversity,” he said. “Stuff never happens when you want it to happen. Yeah, I was upset that I had to have surgery, but it could have been worse. I think the initial question when stuff happens is you always ask why. But what I’ve learned . . . is most of the time the ‘why’ is irrelevant. I’m just so pleased with how the surgeons handled my stomach and took care of me. I think they did some magic stuff.”
When Olsen returned, a friend noticed his powerful push at the start and joked, “They replaced your appendix with an accelerator.”
Olsen laughed. He wasn’t gone long, but it was good to be back.
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