My husband, Dan, and I got married in our mid-30s and wanted a family. We heard about an adoption program in China and decided to apply. One day, in the fall of 1992, we got a wonderful picture of Olivia. That was it. I got that picture and she was my child.
I can still remember clear as day the first time I met Olivia at the orphanage in China. She was this 3-year-old little child, and it was all wonderment to her because it was the first time she’d seen Westerners.
When we officially adopted Olivia in 1994 and brought her home to Wisconsin, she seemed to pick up English quickly, however we later learned she didn’t understand the language as well as we thought. Then in preschool and kindergarten, we started to see a lack of social development and received the diagnosis that Olivia had autism.
Her biggest challenge came at school. As kids continued to move on socially, Olivia lagged behind because she has a difficult time processing language. People can be talking to her and be on the fourth or fifth sentence and she’s still processing the first sentence. For any kid, when they feel like they’re not fitting in and feeling left out, it can become very frustrating.
We kept working with Olivia and did everything we could to help her grasp the world around her. In the midst of those frustrating times, one of Olivia’s saving graces, something that has always brought people together around her, is that she is one of the most kind-hearted people you’ll ever meet. She’s got an incredible heart, a beautiful smile and is extremely thoughtful. She can tap into if you’re feeling bad or if you’re hurt, and she reaches out. If you’re trying to help her, she appreciates it.
Something important to my husband and I was making sure Olivia understood we had expectations for her and that she should have expectations for herself. We also wanted her to know that she could do whatever she wanted and should follow her interests and likes. We were going to explore every opportunity we could for her and she just had to try her best.
We even moved to a new community before Olivia started high school, so she could go to a school that had a stronger program for young adults with intellectual development disabilities.
For Olivia, she has always been the happiest when she is moving and physically active. Back in high school, she ran cross-country and track for Milwaukee Lutheran. Today, she does taekwondo, works out twice a week with her trainer and participates in both summer and winter Special Olympics.
Not only that, she holds a full-time job at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin where she prepares and delivers meals to patients and family members. She even has a beloved Springer Spaniel named Oliver. Yup, it’s Olivia and Oliver. They make quite a pair.
In her life, Olivia has overcome many challenges. One more was put in her way this past February when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. As a mother, I was in shock and, for two months, lived in a complete fog.
But in Olivia’s mind, she had no preconceived notions about cancer. While some people might have felt scared and worried, she knew she had a routine and cancer couldn’t interrupt it. She had to work with her trainer, go to Special Olympics track practices and do her taekwondo. In fact, throughout her chemotherapy, she continued working full-time. (Olivia jokes that she has a little battery pack on her back and she just keeps her going and going.)
So we encouraged that. For Olivia’s and the family’s sake, we decided it was another thing in life and we were going to deal with it as positively as we could. We weren’t going to focus on the limitations of it. We would leave it up to Olivia to tell us when she was tired and needed to take a break.
Before Olivia’s cancer diagnosis, she had qualified for Special Olympics World Games in track, and the first thing she told every one of those doctors was, “I’m going to the World Games.” She was adamant that she wouldn’t do the cancer treatment if they didn’t work around her World Games schedule.
I didn’t try to talk her out of it either. I thought, “Good for her.”
A week before we left for the World Games in July, Olivia had a round of chemotherapy. She was really tired, just about all of her hair had fallen out and, when we got to Los Angeles, I wasn’t sure she would be able to compete, let alone reach her goal of winning a medal.
She would tell me every once in a while, “Mom, I’m not sure I can do this.” I told her that by just being there she had already accomplished so much and it was up to her what she wanted to do. She said she wanted to run.
In practice, she wasn’t doing particularly well, and one day we took her to the beach to have a quiet, relaxing day. She loves the water and had a great time playing in the waves, and it seemed to spark something in her.
On the day of her 100-meter final, I could see it in her face. I saw a look in her eye and knew she was going to win. And sure enough, she crossed that finish line first and won a gold medal. She said after the race that, when that gun went off, she bolted as if her pants were on fire.
She didn’t stop there, either. Olivia would win a second gold medal in the 400-meter relay and silver in the 200 meters.
What I’m most proud of is how gracious she was in winning. She thanked people in her life, recognized her team, coaches, the Special Olympics volunteers, her trainer and doctors. Not only that, she dedicated her medals to women who were also fighting breast cancer. To me, that was more of a win than any gold medal.
Olivia has told people that I’m her hero. Well, the truth is, she’s mine. She is the most courageous person I’ve ever met. She has worked so hard to make her life the best it can be.
And she’s not done by a long shot. She’s already working toward her next goal of competing in snowshoeing at the Special Olympics World Games in Austria in 2017.
Of course, in my book, she’s already a winner.
The IMPACT25 is espnW’s annual list of the 25 athletes and influencers who have made the greatest impact for women in sports. Explore the 2015 list at espnW.com/IMPACT25.