Nicholas Olson, 21, had uncommon courage

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 14, 2010 - 8:37 PM

He was a mischievous brother, homecoming king and contributor to research about Friedreich's ataxia.

Nicholas Olson crammed more impressive achievements, good deeds and mischievous fun into his short life than many people manage across multiple decades.

Olson, who in his 21 years was a goodwill ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, a health research participant, an Eagle Scout, homecoming king at Pine City High School and a beloved son, brother and friend, died Thursday at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul of complications related to Friedreich's ataxia, a degenerative neuromuscular disease whose effects he fought his whole life.

His mother, Cindy Olson, of Pine City, said that despite his health problems, which intensified as he grew into young adulthood, Nicholas was "a bright spirit," an intelligent, personable and engaged young man "who cared more about other people than he did about himself."

Mike Blishak, vice president of community relations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, headquartered in Tucson, Ariz., worked with Olson and his sister, Aubrey, when they served as traveling co-ambassadors for the organization in 1998-99. "I'll never forget his great sense of humor and infectious smile," Blishak said. The association, which raises money for research, has posted a tribute to Nicholas at

Friedreich's ataxia was diagnosed in Nicholas and his sister, who is now 23, in 1995, Cindy Olson said. The disease, which progressively disables muscles, forced Nicholas to use a back brace, then a walker and by fourth grade, a wheelchair, aids he "hated and defied until he got an electric wheelchair -- then he had power," his mother said.

But the disease had no effect on his "very social" personality, she said. "He loved his friends, loved girls, was a big talker with a huge smile, and on the go constantly." In short, he was the perfect ambassador for the MDA, delighting in the socializing and travel that accompanied the role, Blishak said.

As he grew, the challenges intensified. At age 14, he was hit by a car, suffering broken bones and a brain injury. At the same time, the Friedreich's ataxia was attacking his vision, hearing and speech.

Yet he continued to travel with his family, including to Europe; regale his friends and tease his sisters; attend Pine City High School, where in 2007 he was elected homecoming king, and earn Eagle Scout honors by building a handicapped-accessible ramp at a pavilion at Pine City's Robinson Park, his mother said.

As locomotion and speech became more difficult, he spent more time watching CNN, especially for any news about Barack Obama, whom he admired, his mother said. "He loved current events and would talk so excitedly about them, even though he had a hard time speaking," she said. He also served as a Friedreich's ataxia research subject for the National Institutes of Health.

In addition to his parents, Cindy and Bruce, and sister Aubrey, he is survived by another sister, Brittney, and by his grandparents, John and Joyce Olson and Carol Rodberg. Services will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, 825 Golf Av. SW., Pine City.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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