Olivia Quigley: 'I'm not missing this opportunity'

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- The Southern California sun grows hotter as it climbs toward a mid-July noon, and the UC Riverside track stadium is abuzz with movement. Special Olympics USA is three hours into its first track and field practice for the 2015 World Games, and Olivia Quigley is exhausted.

She sits quietly at the far end of an aluminum bench, staring blankly downward toward the spongy orange running surface, stretching her legs.

Olivia is a sprinter. This is fitting. She outran prejudice and predisposition. She outran fear and pain and doubt. In doing so, she taught others how to outrun them, too.

Funny thing is, she has never run from anything. But she needs rest. Her mental push is intact, as indomitable and courageous as ever. She is elegant in speech and confident in cadence. Olivia has autism. When she speaks, her eyes chase yours, as if to make certain you process the words with her.

I wonder why she is sitting alone.

"I'm just so tired," she said.



In February, Olivia was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. She is 24 years old. Chemotherapy is often stronger than her stamina these days, but it cannot compete with her spirit.

"One thing that kept her going is her incredibly kind heart and compassion," her mother, Judy, said. "She has the most determination of anyone I've ever met. She's had some setbacks in life. She's never let it hold her back. She just refuses to quit."

Olivia was born in China before being adopted by Judy and Dan Quigley at 3 years old. Her parents didn't know she had an intellectual disability until several months after they returned to Elm Grove, Wisconsin. For years, doctors told the Quigleys not to set high expectations that Olivia would ever live alone or hold a job.

The doctors were wrong.

"It's ridiculous and it's not acceptable -- not for Olivia, and not for Dan and I," Judy said. "We set expectations. Olivia had them, too. And away she went."

Judy and Dan wouldn't accept pessimism. They enrolled Olivia in Project Search, a workplace immersion program that combines classroom instruction, career exploration and hands-on training through worksite rotations. She received hands-on work experience, and now has a full-time job at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin as a room service attendant.

She is a high brown belt in taekwondo and trains every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. She runs with a personal trainer once a week and sprints quickly. Her Special Olympics USA coaches all note how fast she is. She is also an advocate and public speaker.

"We're really proud of her. Because, through all this cancer, she's continued to work. She's very proud of that. That's so much courage. She's one of the most courageous women I've ever met. I don't have the courage she does." Judy Quigley on her daughter, Olivia

"If we had allowed people to keep her in a group home setting or work in a sheltered workshop, there is no way she would be the woman she is today," Judy said. "She is learning every day to be a little more self-sufficient and manage herself."

On July 25, Olivia marched into Los Angeles Coliseum alongside her teammates during the opening ceremony for the 2015 Special Olympics World Games. That is triumph. It is not the mission.

The mission, she said, is to win a medal. For her, a medal is a platform, and she has another chance in Tuesday's relay race.

"I want to win a medal. I don't care if it's gold, silver or bronze," she said. "I want to be able to go back home and say, 'Look what I accomplished, and I did it with cancer.'"

Chemo makes Olivia very sick, but the chemo saved her life. The dichotomy troubles her as much as it inspires her.

"If I didn't have chemotherapy, I wouldn't be standing here today," she said.

It all started with tremendous pain. That is notable, Olivia said, because she has a lofty pain tolerance. Her breasts were swollen, bruised. She didn't discuss it with her mother, didn't want to bother her with it. But one day she couldn't tolerate it any longer.

"She called me on the phone and said, 'I'm in so much pain. I feel like everything is burning up inside me,'" Judy said. "That started the process right away. It felt like everything was burning inside her."

An ultrasound was performed, which revealed massive, cancerous tumors in Olivia's breasts. The tumors were so large, Olivia said, that doctors prescribed six months of chemo treatments to shrink them. Those treatments are currently on hold so she can compete in the World Games.

"She's been going through intensive chemotherapy," Judy said. "Her doctors, surgeon, oncologist, all of them, Olivia told them, 'You cannot interfere with the World Games. I have a chance to medal, and you cannot interfere with that.' She told them all and they all listened.

"She made it clear, 'I'm not missing this opportunity.'"

When Olivia arrives home on Aug. 6, she will have a MRI to determine if the tumors have shrunk enough to have surgery. Once she does have surgery, a year of radiation awaits.

"I wish I didn't have cancer, but I hate complaining," Olivia said. "I'm a very positive person. My message to other ladies with breast cancer is to get off the couch. It doesn't help anything to sit there feeling sorry for yourself. You will get through it."

Olivia said Special Olympics has given her purpose, confidence, family.

With that, she stands up from the aluminum bench and walks toward the starting blocks. She leans down and nestles into position, looks up at the track before her and takes the next steps in her journey.

"It is amazing what she has overcome," Judy said. "Her life will always be full of challenges, but how she manages those peaks and valleys -- you can't change your genetics, but you can learn how to manage it. She's worked really hard at that.

"We're really proud of her. Because, through all this cancer, she's continued to work. She's very proud of that. That's so much courage. She's one of the most courageous women I've ever met. I don't have the courage she does. She wants people to see -- you never give up."

As practice concludes, the track and field group gathers around for a speech. Olivia approaches, with one request:

"Can you please tell people how positive I am?" she said. "I'm a really positive person, and I want people to know that."

We know, Olivia. We all know.