WHEN CAROLYN OLSON fell this summer and fractured her ankle in two places, she didn’t slow down at all. At age 82, she got a knee scooter so as not to miss a minute of coaching her Special Olympics swimming team at the Four Corners Invitational, in Farmington.
The Carlsbad resident was back on her feet by the time those competitions took place and on hand to celebrate the results. “We had four swimmers who took fourth place in the relay,” she says. “Each swimmer took first or second place in their individual events.” That’s pretty much been the track record for Olson and her athletes over the past 50 years.
A lifelong swimmer, Olson grew up in Cut Bank, Montana, and worked as a lifeguard in high school. When she and her husband, Ole, moved to Carlsbad in 1963, Olson volunteered to lead swimming and lifesaving classes for the American Red Cross. She dove right in when the director asked her to help set up adaptive aquatic classes for people with physical and emotional challenges. “Water has such a soothing value for those who are intellectually and physically disabled,” she says.
Since Special Olympics New Mexico began in 1970, Olson has coached swimming, bowling, and bocce; traveled with teams to national and international competitions; and served as the southeastern area director for nearly 200 athletes. “I love what I do,” she says. “It gives me great joy. I’m very proud of all the athletes.”
Last year, Olson’s swim team competed in the Special Olympics USA Games 2022, in Orlando. She was thrilled when her swimming team took home five individual gold medals and one silver medal, and a bronze in the 100-yard relay. “I cry a lot during the opening and closing ceremonies,” she says. “You can see what Special Olympics are all about—to compete, to join others, to be part of a bigger group.”
Last year, Olson received the inaugural Eunice Kennedy Shriver Legacy Award, named for the founder of the Special Olympics. “It blew me away,” she says, praising the work of Special Olympics New Mexico executive director Randy Mascorella and director of sports Chris Page. “You don’t get those awards on your own.”
The award was Mascorella’s idea. “That’s the highest way we could ever honor Carolyn,” she says. “Her level of commitment is what you see from Eunice Shriver. There’s this wonderful light that shines through her, and she’s just one of the best that we have. She’s got a lot of wisdom.”
In addition to the hours Olson has devoted to her athletes, she still finds time to play a major role in her community. Olson started acting in the Carlsbad Community Theatre in the early 1970s; she directed this summer’s musical, The Pied Piper, and is a member of the board. She’s also the treasurer of Southeastern New Mexico Historical Society and the president of the Church Council at St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church, where she was the organist for 50 years.
“My three children say, ‘Mom, you’ve got to slow down,’ ” she says. “But I’ve been doing some of these things so long, it’s just second nature. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.”
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