Fearless Olivia Quigley wins gold at World Games

LOS ANGELES -- Olivia Quigley walked toward the starting line full of uncertainty. She hadn't felt well -- so bad, in fact, that she nearly chose to sit out Thursday's 100-meter sprint final at Special Olympics World Games. Fatigue tested her will.

But Olivia, relentlessly positive, would not relent.

She walked to a water cooler, dipped her hands deep within the frigid vat and splashed her face with ice water. She shook out her arms. Time to change the world.

"She yelled, 'Whoa, that's cold!'" said her coach, Deb Moore-Gruenloh. "It was the most energy I'd seen from her all day. When we were warming up at track, she looked exhausted. I didn't think there was any way she'd make it."

But for Olivia, sitting meant quitting, and she didn't attend Special Olympics World Games to watch -- she came to win. For her, a gold medal would be a platform to inspire other women battling breast cancer all over the world. It would be a message that screamed fortitude and perseverance; a message that exemplified the courage women like her display every day. Despite fatigue and depression and pain and worry, she knew every one of those women who saw that medal draped around her neck would be motivated to be fearless, to overcome.

And Olivia, fearless, did overcome in grand fashion.

"I was very nervous for her," said Olivia's mother, Judy. "Her coaches said she was very tired."

Chemotherapy has stolen some of Olivia's energy. Since her diagnosis in February, she has endured exhaustive sessions to shrink the massive tumors in her breasts. She postponed chemotherapy in order to leave Wisconsin and venture to L.A. to participate in the World Games. Her coaches said it "would have killed her" to miss it.

In the days leading up to the 100-meter prelim earlier in the week, Olivia had doubts. She said she was still in great pain and completely exhausted. The buzzed hair she did have started falling out.

"She came out of the shower and had hair in her hand, and said to me, 'I'm losing my hair,'" Moore-Gruenloh said. "She didn't know what to do. It was really hard for me, but I didn't want to show her I was afraid."

Olivia doesn't mention cancer much, so when she does discuss her emotions, her coaches, Moore-Gruenloh and Bonnie Kahn, try to suppress theirs. It was most difficult that evening, as Olivia described how hard it was for her to feel so sick so often and manage the pain. She called her father and explained that she didn't want to face chemotherapy any longer. She hung up the phone and sat down beside Kahn.

"She said, 'Coach Bonnie, I really don't want to do chemo anymore,'" Kahn said. "'I just don't want to do it. My port burns so bad, and it really hurts. But my doctor told me if I don't do chemo, I could die.'"

Coach Bonnie struggled for the right words.

"I held her hand and said, 'You need the chemo,'" Kahn said. "'However sad that is, or how much it hurts, the doctor is telling you the truth. We want you to stick around awhile.'"

Olivia was frustrated by her effort during preliminary time trials. She had run in the 18-second bracket, which was much slower than she was accustomed to performing.

"She was so disappointed in herself," Kahn said. "I looked at her and said, 'It doesn't matter to us, Olivia. It's amazing that you're here doing this.' She had some doubt. I needed to remind her that she's a miracle."

Kahn then noted that this is when I entered the narrative.

Olivia and I met on July 22. She stole my heart within minutes. We sat together on an aluminum bench and discussed her drive beyond autism and her battle with Stage 4 breast cancer. I was floored. Humbled. Amazed. Honored. Inspired.

In this life, you meet people with money. You meet people without. You meet kind people and rude people. You meet beautiful people and conceited people and those with no self-esteem. You meet selfless people and selfish people. Small town or big city. Driven or lazy.

But you don't see true innate grace very often. And when you see it, you know it. You feel it. You're taken by it. And Olivia has it.

"Then I said to her, 'You're a star in Marty's world, Olivia -- you have given him a lot of inspiration,'" Kahn continued. "She was surprised. She said, 'I do?' And I told her, 'Yes, Olivia. He has told us that every day since he met you.'"

Olivia found strength at the starting line. Her mother and coaches had an inkling. Both noticed a look in Olivia's eye, a transformation of sorts, and then, a slight grin. This was the moment for which Olivia spent years training. It was a defining moment, and she was convinced she could further impact the world; she had already impacted it just be being here.

When she returns home Aug. 7, she will resume chemotherapy treatment and eventually have an MRI to determine whether or not the tumors shrunk enough to undergo surgery. After surgery, she faces a full year of radiation.

But as she waited for the starting gun to fire, none of this mattered to her. All that mattered were the 100 meters before her.

The gun fired. Olivia soared.

"She exploded," Kahn said. "It was wonderful."

"I couldn't breathe," Judy added. "The whole race, I couldn't breathe."

Judy and Dan Quigley have long been told not to build high expectations for their daughter. They adopted Olivia from China when she was 3 years old and said healthcare providers throughout her life have said she would never live alone or hold a job.

Now 24, Olivia has her own apartment and works full time at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.

The Quigleys are proud of Olivia, always. But watching her sprint down the lane at Loker Track Stadium -- 100 meters in 16.80 seconds to win the gold medal -- brought additional emotion.

"It's so fulfilling to see the look on her face when she knows she's doing her best," Dan said. "It was amazing to watch. You could see how happy she was."

Judy was quite surprised -- Olivia is fast. But her mother was unsure her stamina would allow for a gold-medal effort. As she explained this, Judy stopped.

This moment was a microcosm of Olivia's life: Say I can't. And I will.

"The bigger the occasion, the better she does," Dan said. "There is no hesitation for her. She is calm. We learn from that."

We should all learn from Olivia. I certainly have.

"She's showing everyone the power of staying positive," Moore-Gruenloh said. "She's telling everybody she's a strong person. She's going to persevere. She's going to give everything she has.

"She told me, 'I'm going to win this medal for all women with breast cancer. I need to do that.' And so many people have now come up to her that have had breast cancer. When they see her, and she is portraying that positive attitude and not giving up, it changes people."

It has now impacted millions. She was profiled on SportsCenter and in USA Today.

When Olivia and I met that first time, she request just one thing: tell the world how positive she is, and that those with cancer can achieve beyond what they believe to be their limit.

That message has indeed been delivered.