A memorable close encounter of the Olympic kind

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on August 12, 2019. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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“I’m looking for the Garden of the Gods. Can you point me in the right direction?”

She’d pushed her stroller-bound kid a bit off course, into Old Colorado City, clearly off track for a rendezvous with the red rocks. She’d flagged me down on my morning run, and realizing I didn’t know the name of the correct cross-street entrance, and as I was headed her way, I offered to run her there. It was a chance encounter with what turned out to be an Olympian, and it fast became a little lesson about life’s precarious balance between success and struggle.

We ran off, and I noticed the kick in her step seemed unfazed by the weight of the push-stroller—this clearly wasn’t your average jogger. We chit-chatted in step with our feet, short bursts of conversation broken up by brief pauses for breathing. We revealed we’re both from Minnesota (her accent’s a little thicker than mine), around the same age, with families, a common love of the mountains and the local lack of mosquitos. She mentioned she and her family are here for the big mountain bike race in Leadville this coming weekend. I told her I’m in the military.

When we’d gotten to our turnoff, and my underwhelming performance as a tour guide was over, she replied to my work comment by saying, “I’m Carrie, by the way. I ran in the Olympics awhile back and I’d really like to thank you for your service.”

Later that day, I did what we do nowadays, I looked her up online. Her full name is Carrie Tollefson and she competed in the 2004 Olympic Games in the 1500 meter run. That’s the success part.

Here’s the struggle: Go a little farther back in time and you find that she’s from this tiny town of 1,600 people—not exactly a hotbed of top track athletes—and later while competing in college, doctors discovered a bone tumor in her heel. And when they examined it more closely, they found it was larger than they thought. Not long after, they detected a “hot spot” in the tumor and decided it was time to operate. She received a transplant and after a difficult recovery found her way six years later to the Olympic Games in Athens.

What does an Olympian do when the career is over? Some, of course, simply take a seat. Physically, after years of tough training and difficult daily doses of hard work, you can see why they might. The relative decline in performance, going from world-class to “normal,” would be rough. Stack on top of that the emotional loss of a career that’s at the core of an identity brings an old phrase to mind—that “great athletes die twice,” once in life and once in career. It’s surprising that any of them keep after it when it’s over.

But not Carrie Tollefson. Maybe she had me fooled, but she seemed just as happy on a jog at half the speed of a workout from her Olympic days. Moreover, it turns out she’s here in Colorado for her husband’s 100-mile mountain bike ride in Leadville in support of the Chris Klug Foundation—another former Olympian and transplant-recipient, who’s organization advocates for organ and tissue donation on behalf of the roughly 113,000 Americans waiting for an organ transplant.

She’s seen the upside of success and the downside of struggle, and found a way to keep going. To put one foot in front of the other.

After she’d thanked me for my crude navigation services, and pivoted toward the road into the Garden, her shoulders dipped, she lowered her center of gravity, and directed that coiled energy into pushing the stroller uphill.

It wasn’t hard to spot the metaphor. We’re all pushing some kind of stroller uphill, everyday—some are lighter, some are heavier, some roads smoother, some roads rougher—and the biggest difference is whether we can find a way to smile and make the best of it when it gets hard.

Meeting her put a new spin on what it means to “Carrie”-on. It’ll all come our way in the race of life, the good, the bad, the ugly, and we just need to keep moving forward.

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