Sept. 4, 2009
NORMAN, Okla. - Oklahoma freshman gymnast Brie Olson paces wall to wall of OU’s preseason practice facility towards the conclusion of Thursday’s voluntary training session, not yet ready to leave but not exactly sure what to do next.
“Do you want to see my dance series,” the inquisitive gymnast asks OU head coach K.J. Kindler, performing her beam mount before the fourth-year coach even has a chance to answer.
The St. Cloud, Minn., native has battled a cold that has kept her out of the gym the last couple of days and Olson refuses to let a minor bout with sickness keep her away from even a minute of further training with her Sooner teammates.
It’s a mentality that was rooted early on in Olson’s life, witnessing the much bigger battle of her younger brother Hunter, diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy at the age of two. The degenerative muscle and organ disease prevents the body's cells from turning nutrition into energy and interferes with the function of entire organs.
“When he was about 18 months, my mom noticed that he wasn’t smiling nearly as much as he used to and wasn’t moving around his crib as much either,” said Olson. “Looking back, it seems like it took forever to diagnose. We went from doctor to doctor and finally found a clinic in Cleveland that specializes in mitochondrial diseases.”
Hunter’s entire body seemed to be shutting down. The disease was causing motor control issues, muscle weakness and gastrointestinal problems. The grim diagnosis from Hunter’s team of doctors was two years.
“It was hard growing up with him because you never knew what was right around the corner,” reminisces Olson. “The doctors always said ‘Oh, he won’t live past this age,’ or ‘he won’t ever be able to walk or talk’, so we never knew what was going to come next.”
Always a fighter, Hunter outlasted their two-year prognosis by four years … then four more. Another two years has since passed, as Hunter has grown into one of Brie’s biggest gymnastics fans. Yet, it’s his sister, four years his elder, that understands she is the much larger beneficiary of their sibling relationship.
“He has taught everyone something, including me” said Olson. “He has proven that nothing in life comes easy, but regardless of your abilities, if you’re always fighting then you always have a chance.”
A symbol of hope, courage and possibilities, it’s easy to see the impact Hunter’s battle has had on Brie.
“He certainly means a lot to me and is definitely someone I look up to. He could have given up at any time, but he hasn't. Every day of his life is a fight, yet there he is battling. Even if it hurts, he is going through it without a complaint."
The 5-2 freshman has mirrored her brother's tenacity through gymnastics, earning looks by many of the top programs including Alabama, UCLA and Utah, before ultimately deciding on the Sooners.
"I told my parents on our drive home from my trip to OU that I had found my new home," said Olson. "They were always my first choice."
Hunter's trials and tribulations have even put Brie’s 6 a.m. conditioning classes with her OU teammates in perspective.
“I’ll roll out of bed every day thinking that it’s the end of the world, but in reality, he’s gone through things much worse than anything I’ll ever imagine. So my complaints end pretty quick.”
About Mitochondrial Disease:
Mitochondrial diseases result from failures of the mitochondria, specialized compartments present in every cell of the body except red blood cells. Mitochondria are responsible for creating more than 90% of the energy needed by the body to sustain life and support growth. When they fail, less and less energy is generated within the cell. Cell injury and even cell death follow. If this process is repeated throughout the body, whole systems begin to fail, and the life of the person in whom this is happening is severely compromised. The disease primarily affects children, but adult onset is becoming more and more common.
Diseases of the mitochondria appear to cause the most damage to cells of the brain, heart, liver, skeletal muscles, kidney and the endocrine and respiratory systems.
Depending on which cells are affected, symptoms may include loss of motor control, muscle weakness and pain, gastro-intestinal disorders and swallowing difficulties, poor growth, cardiac disease, liver disease, diabetes, respiratory complications, seizures, visual/hearing problems, lactic acidosis, developmental delays and susceptibility to infection.
Every 30 minutes a child is born who will develop a mitochondrial disease by age 10.
At least 1 in 200 individuals in the general public have a mitochondrial DNA mutation that may lead to disease.
Mitochondrial disease is a relatively newly diagnosed disease – first recognized in an adult in the 1960s and in the 1980s for pediatric onset cases. It is greatly under diagnosed and the true prevalence is difficult to determine.
The United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation was founded in 1996 through a merger of several smaller foundations established by those who lost loved ones to the disease. Starting as a volunteer organization based in the basement of a home, the UMDF has grown into a nationally recognized organization.
The UMDF is represented by countless volunteers who operate more than 60 local chapters, groups and ambassador programs and offers support to all sufferers of mitochondrial disorders regardless of diagnosis, suspected or confirmed
Since 1996, the UMDF has provided more than $6 million in grants to support research that may lead to less invasive diagnoses, better treatments, and ultimately a cure.