(OSV News) — Matt Olson is on a new path and it’s one he never expected. The 26-year-old native of Isanti, Minnesota, said he’s not letting a life-altering injury affect his future as community support carries him through challenging times and his trust in God helps him forge a new perspective on life.
In February 2016, a junior hockey game left Olson, 20 years old at the time, paralyzed from the chest down. Olson was chasing a breakaway player on the opposing team and as Olson circled the net, he lost his edge and crashed into the boards headfirst at full speed.
“I knew right away something was wrong,” Olson said. The thought of paralysis crossed his mind when he noticed he couldn’t feel anything. He tried getting up and couldn’t.
That night, Olson — who was raised Lutheran and is a 2014 graduate of Totino-Grace Catholic High School in Fridley, Minnesota — prayed.
“I just kind of said in my head to God, ‘I know you have a plan and it’s kind of a crazy plan, I think, but I know you gave me this challenge and plan for a reason, and you knew that I’ll be able to handle it.'”
It was a long road to recovery for Olson, who spent 199 days at three locations during his rehabilitation. He dealt with pneumonia and fevers and was placed on a ventilator.
“I couldn’t communicate verbally or eat anything or drink anything for quite a while, so that was definitely very challenging,” said Olson, who remains confined to a wheelchair.
More hard work followed with acute rehabilitation and inpatient care as Olson worked to regain strength and as much movement as possible. Olson said he focused “on trying to get better at something each day” and worked on building a positive mindset.
A new house adapted to his needs, including for wheelchair access, was built on the same property on which his family’s former house sat, Olson said. He lives there now with his parents.
In an interview with The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Olson said his experience has been “a whirlwind and life-changing.” Support from family and his community helped, including the Totino-Grace community rallying around him, he said.
Craig Junker, a parishioner of St. Odilia in Shoreview, Minnesota, has been the president of Totino-Grace for the past nine years after having spent five years as a school superintendent in Lake City.
Reflecting on Olson’s time at Totino-Grace, Junker said, “Matt was a great leader at our school. He was just one of those kids that always wanted to be on the ice, always wanted to be skating. He just loved his teammates; he loved his pals. He loved coming to school, loved playing sports.”
A former hockey player himself, Junker said learning of Olson’s injury was “numbing.” But the Totino-Grace community responded “just the way you would think a Catholic school community would,” Junker said. “We immediately had people that wanted to reach out. ‘How is he doing?’ ‘How are his parents?’ ‘What does he need?'”
The Totino-Grace community held a fundraiser for Olson and his family to assist with medical expenses. Junker said students, their families, Olson’s former teammates and former National Hockey League players attended the event.
“It’s one of those things where once you’re an Eagle, you’re always an Eagle,” Junker said, referencing the Totino-Grace mascot. “Catholic schools don’t say goodbye to kids when they graduate. They want to know them. They want to cheer them on.”
Junker has a photo of Olson in his Totino-Grace hockey uniform in his office and said he prays medical advancements can help Olson, and that he continues to persevere.
“I don’t know how you can get through something like that without having a faith life,” Junker told The Catholic Spirit. “And maybe you get angry at God sometimes. But maybe God can handle that, and maybe it makes you stronger in the end.”
“I don’t know how you can get through that without somehow having faith that there’s a reason behind it.” Junker added, “(Olson’s) got a life to live and now he’s got to live it the best he can and with so much courage and self-determination. I’m just amazed.”
When former North Stars hockey player Doug Johnson learned of Olson’s injury, he helped organize fundraising benefits for Olson. Johnson had a contact with the Minnesota Vikings and reached out on Olson’s behalf. In 2019, Olson went to the Vikings’ practice facility for a tour.
It was there Olson met quarterback Kirk Cousins. The two talked about Olson’s experience. Cousins commended Olson on his hard work and positive attitude, while Olson told Cousins he admired him as a football player and as a philanthropist. The two talked about faith and how they enjoy the outdoors.
The conversation inspired and stayed with Cousins, who in December gave Olson an all-terrain wheelchair, which has special features including an electric tilt mechanism and wide treads that can cross uneven terrain.
“Perspective is so important, and seeing somebody like Matt gives you perspective,” Cousins told Vikings staff reporter Lindsey Young in a report published on the Vikings’ website. “It allows you to be very grateful for what you have and what God’s given you.” Cousins added, “It’s truly more blessed to give than to receive, so it’s fun to hopefully bless him, his family and his future.”
Olson, who said he feels “fortunate to call (Cousins) a good friend of the family” said he was completely shocked and had no idea about the chair before receiving it.
Olson toured the Action Manufacturing facility in Marshall, Minnesota, where the chair is being built, and provided feedback on the type of chair controls that would suit his needs. He’s awaiting the finished design.
“I’m super excited about it, it’ll give me a lot more independence and going off-roading more,” he said. For Olson, who enjoys hunting, that is ideal. “Now I’ll be able to go farther and enjoy the outdoors, which I really love.”
Olson said his parents, Doug and Sue Olson, share in his gratitude for the gift. “They felt blessed that someone like Kirk Cousins was willing to take time for me and help give me more opportunities.”
Junker, too, was pleased to learn about Cousins’ gift to Olson. “The more I find out about (Cousins), the more I realize that there’s a big picture about him that wants to make a difference and use resources to make a difference in other people’s lives,” Junker said. “That (all-terrain wheelchair) from him and the Vikings is changing Matt’s life and helping him be better, giving him opportunity.”
Though Olson’s vision of excelling at hockey changed “in a split second,” he said he sees new opportunities. He graduated from Anoka-Ramsey Community College in the fall with an associate degree in environmental science and plans to transfer to St. Cloud State University in the fall of 2023 to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
After that, he’s interested in working in the environmental sciences field. He hopes the new all-terrain chair will better equip him for fieldwork.
With his focus on the future, Olson said his family’s encouragement helps him keep a positive attitude.
“If I’m frustrated or something and they can see it, they’ll just say, ‘You can still do things, you know, and it might look different, it might take longer, you might have to go a different way about it than what you really want to do.'”
He also continues to rely on his faith, as he did that first night after the accident in 2016, calling it “the driving force” behind his positive mindset.
“I wasn’t going to let this situation ruin the rest of my life,” Olson said. “I have a long life to live and a lot to look forward to, so I’m not going to let my accident, what happened, and my disability hold me back from the things I do.”