Honoring my dear golden friend, Olivia Quigley

Olivia Quigley gave a heartfelt speech after winning the espnW Pegasus Award.

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I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine. Political correctness says I'm not supposed to call her special, but that's what she is to me. Special. Her name is Olivia. She's a runner and she's a fighter and she's a champion at both.

Olivia ran like the wind, past the prejudice and doubt that accompanies autism for so many and with a fundamental perspective as vibrant as the New York skyline she so loved. Her spirit nourished all within her garden. All the while, she fought cancer and uncertainty without yield, by example, without complaint.

That was Olivia's fightin' style: graceful.

In the past 18 months she redefined bravery for me and for millions of people across the globe.

It's difficult to articulate spiritual depth, passion and compassion. The measurability and impact of those emotions is subjective. No two people react precisely the same way by a single action. But when we are all moved emotionally to some degree, and when we all recognize that emotion to be deeper than we can define, it is unique and rare.

And it is an awakening. It is a unifying force.

That was the joy with which Olivia infused all whom she met -- and scores she would never meet -- since July 2015. Olivia had autism, but autism didn't define her. Not for me, anyway. She'd long been told by healthcare providers she'd never live alone or hold a job. Neither she, nor her parents, Judy and Dan, would suffer those fools.

Olivia achieved both, by the way.

Joy, compassion, boundless love and indomitable will are the traits that comprise Olivia's legacy. She lived those traits. And she taught us to live them, too.

Olivia Quigley, 25, died in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 2016. The breast cancer she'd so tirelessly battled spread and finally took her body.

Her soul and the lessons it provided are eternal. Few individuals display their souls while they're here. Olivia had that rare gift. She was a human unifying force. And she shared that gift with me.

I met her in the University of California Riverside track stadium on a hot July day last summer. She was sitting on an aluminum bench, stretching her legs. She was bald and seated alone, and I was intrigued. So I walked over and sat with her and asked why she was over there all by herself.

She explained that she was exhausted. Perplexed, I asked why. And how. Practice for the Special Olympics World Games had only just begun.

She said one word: chemotherapy. Time stopped. She'd battled Stage IV breast cancer for months, but she wouldn't be denied the opportunity to run at the World Games. Nothing short of death would deny her that. So she quit chemo and got on a plane from Wisconsin to Los Angeles.

Courtesy of Special Olympics

Olivia Quigley, pictured between her parents, Judy and Dan, never let autism define her.

That's where our friendship began. During the week that followed that chance meeting she won two gold medals. On her shoulders she carried years of emotion from her peers with every stride, though she didn't know it. She gave a voice and a face to what those with intellectual disabilities can do.

When she reached the finish line each time she nearly crumbled in exhaustion, the smile on her face masking years of frustration at being told, "can't." Olivia didn't believe in can't, and I adore her for that. I always will. Above that, I adore her for her treatment of others.

Her intentions were always genuine. Her perspective was always just and sweet. Olivia knew no judgment of others. She was not superficial. We did not small talk or feel each other out or search for reasons why the conversation mattered.

It just mattered. We can all learn a lot from that.

There's a George Strait song entitled "I Saw God Today." Its premise is a musical reminder of how much wonder there is all around us, all the time, provided we're open-hearted and open-minded enough to recognize it and accept it and appreciate it.

There's an adage about beauty in simplicity, and gracious is it accurate and powerful. Olivia's mother, Judy, shared that concept with me about her daughter: Olivia's perspective was so simple, and therefore, in a fractured world, so profound.

Olivia is the consummate example of the Special Olympics' power and impact. Judy once told me there were times when Olivia was very frustrated in life, and that her experience at World Games helped quell that. It infused her with self-confidence. And in turn it enabled the Quigleys to speak as adults. That's the power of sports. That's when sports matter. Sports helped improve a familial dynamic.

Grace is omnipresent, but it demands awareness. Maybe it's a smile from a stranger that improves your mood. Maybe it's a guy letting you into traffic that offers the precious moments needed to arrive on time. Maybe it's help changing a tire or watching the kids while you run out for an errand or forgiveness for stupid mistakes.

Maybe it's a simple hello. All of that is grace. And it's God.

Judy sent me a note Tuesday morning regarding Olivia's passing. She wanted me to know that Olivia considered me a good friend, and that she'd created a brief last will. Within that will, there were instructions to send her 100-meter gold medal to me.

I weep every time I think about her considering that.

Olivia was completely devoid of preconceived notion or political gain or self-absorption. She was a spitfire. Genuinely. And when I sat down on that bench that day, I saw God.

And I'll take that with me for all my days.

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