"Just like in life, I will keep moving one foot in front of the other and trust it will take me where I need to go ... Johanna Olson, Luther College, 2001.
It was a beautiful, crisp autumn morning in Northeast Iowa (2000), and my assignment was to cover the annual Luther College All-American cross-country meet.
Although it was a Saturday, and I had plenty of other options on how to spend my time, I was actually looking forward to shooting a few photographs of some of the best high school and small-college harriers in the region. I've always loved watching young men and women compete in just about any sport, but cross-country athletes have earned my utmost respect for their determination, commitment, endurance and the ability to run through pain when their entire body is screaming "stop."
My admiration of cross country began with my participation in high school and was reinforced when my oldest son, David, decided to run for the Vikings and legendary Coach Darryl Landas.
Throughout his career running over the hills and dales of various area venues, I saw up-close and personal what David had to put himself through to become a valuable member of the team. At 6-3 and 185 pounds, he was anything but the prototypical harrier - generally considered too tall and too "sturdy" - David used his impressive stride to cover ground and he certainly didn't lack that unique, never-quit spirit that all cross country competitors seem to possess.
That fondness for the demanding sport had me rather excited to be part of the All-American, but I must admit the thing that really tripped my trigger was the opportunity to see Luther's remarkable Johanna Olson. I'll never, ever forget it.
Throughout my lifetime as a true sports fanatic, I've had the opportunity to watch some truly great ones --- you know what I'm talking about -- the special athletes who set themselves apart from the also-rans and seem to have a certain quality that drives them relentlessly toward success and ultimate victory. And Johanna Olson, a senior from Wadena, Minn., had earned a reputation as a "special" one.
Everyone seemed to be holding their breath in anticipation of what was about to happen as the starter's pistol signaled the beginning of the women's collegiate race. It was over before they reached the first turn. Charging instantly to the head of the pack, within seconds she had separated herself from the field. It quickly became evident it wasn't a matter of "if she would win," it was "by how much."
I had positioned myself near the Luther pond down on the athletic fields next to the Regents Center and was waiting for "Joha" to run by so I could get the quintessential photo of arguably the greatest runner in Norse history. I prayed I wouldn't blow it.
With her blond hair shining in the sun, the diminutive one with the heart and soul of a giant rapidly approached my vantage point and the shutter began to sing as I held it down for one picture after another. But as she passed in a blur, I'll never forget the look she had in her eyes. It gave me chills. I can still recall the feeling some 12 years later.
Johanna wasn't looking around at the fans. She wasn't staring at the ground. She wasn't distracted by anything around her. Instead her eyes were focused on the course that stretched endlessly ahead and, with it, her destiny. It was as if she could see her future before her and she wasn't about to be denied that promise of tomorrow. And if she could just keep running, keep striving, tomorrow would most assuredly come.
Olson went on to claim the All-American title by a ridiculous margin and left those in attendance awestruck. Johanna won every cross-country race she entered that season, including the NCAA Division III national championship. For good measure, she led Luther to the NCAA indoor title in the distance medley relay in the spring of 2001.
During her illustrious career at Luther, she won six conference crowns and totaled seven All-American honors. She also qualified for the Olympic Trials marathon in both 2004 and 2008.
But what makes her life and achievements even more remarkable was the fact she did it while battling a brain tumor discovered during her freshman year that wouldn't go away. She won the NCAA D-III cross-country race on the third anniversary of her first of three brain surgeries, and throughout the past 15 years endured countless rounds of chemotherapy.
Through it all, however, she remained the charming, positive, enthusiastic person that drew people to her. She never gave up and she never quit running. As she put it, "Running is my center. If I can run, then I always know things are going to be okay. Through all the hardships that I have had, running is that one thing that has kept me going."
Johanna finally reached the end of her Earthly race Jan. 3 when she died peacefully in Bend, Oregon, surrounded by her loved ones. But even though her time here is over, I would bet just about everything I own she is running with God in the spirit world.
I could see that great vision in those eyes on that fateful Saturday morning in 2000, and it's reassuring to know she's finally at peace. Free of pain. Free of chemo. Free of surgeries.
Free to run ... forever.