Being injured, going through what I did losing my dad, I really contemplated retiring. —Madison Olsen
Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, covering the 2018 Winter Games. This is the 10th in a series of articles profiling Utahns competing in the Olympics.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — At the time, Madison Olsen assumed they were the kind of moments that might quickly fade into the periphery of a well-lived life.
But when cancer abruptly stole her father, those moments — sitting together on a beach in Mexico or putting together puzzles in Houston — became among the most significant experiences of her young life.
Those everyday activities, easily overlooked, became the tender mercies granted to the 22-year-old aerial skier before she had to learn to live life without her father.
“It was pretty brutal,” she said of losing her dad, Thomas Olsen, in August 2016. “I struggled a lot with it.”
Thomas Olsen was diagnosed with melanoma just before she suffered a series of injuries and surgeries that sidelined her for most of two seasons, from 2014-16.
The challenge of trying to reclaim her career after injury turned out to offer her the ability to spend time with her dad that traveling the world as a World Cup athlete wouldn’t have allowed.
“I broke my foot in the summer of 2014, and so I got to spend a lot of down time with him, which I was really grateful for,” said Olsen, who will compete in her first Olympic Games Thursday night, when aerial skiers try to qualify for Friday’s final. “That injury took quite a while to recover from. The summer of 2016, I had to get another surgery, about two weeks before his passing.”
Among the most cherished memories are a winter vacation in Mexico when they went kite surfing, a Father’s Day bike ride, and staying with her dad and, as Olsen prefers to call her, bonus mom, Emily Olsen.
“That whole experience was really bonding for our entire family,” Emily said of their time in Houston when her husband sought treatment and Madison was recovering from surgery. “I can’t even picture what it would have been like for her not to have that. His passing happened so quickly. We didn’t have that warning of one to two years, so we had to soak up the moments more. Small things like sitting on the porch, doing a puzzle, just everyday things that mean more in the moment.”
Madison said that even though her dad was fighting melanoma for several years, she felt she’d have more time.
“We never really saw it coming until the week before,” she said. “Up until about that last day, he was managing to make jokes.”
When asked to describe her dad, she doesn’t hesitate and she can’t hold back a burst of laughter.
“He was amazing to say the least,” she said. “He was one of the strongest people I know. He was always super involved.”
He’d advise her to “get mean” and have the “eye of the tiger,” she said, laughing. “That was our issue. I would always say, ‘Dad, I’m not mean.’”
The injury-forced time off was frustrating, and then it was a godsend.
“Being injured, going through what I did losing my dad, I really contemplated retiring,” she said. “I took some time off, and I had two separate meetings with my coaches.”
One of those coaches she met with is four-time Olympic aerial skier Emily Cook, who lost her mother when she was a toddler.
“We discussed what I needed to do to make the Olympic team,” she said. “And I decided to go full throttle and go for it. He would have been happy with whatever I chose, I think. He knew I was working through all of my foot injuries.”
Ironically, it was watching her father fight for his life, watching him struggle for every single second, that inspired the Park City native to fight for her dream of becoming an Olympian.
“I definitely felt a little bit more inclined to push through,” Madison said. “He showed me the true meaning of strength through this. I wanted to try and follow his lead and push through too.”
Madison's mother, Jody Pavich, said some of her daughter’s strength comes from Thomas Olsen.
“Tom was a great dad,” said Pavich, who shares two children with him. “I think it’s a lot of why Madi and Gator are great people. They had an amazing dad influence. The timing of the injury was impeccable. Nobody wants to get hurt, but it forced her to slow down, take that time and be with her dad and not feel guilty about taking time.”
Madison said it was her father’s history as a mogul skier that drew her to the sport. She transitioned to aerials shortly after beginning her training.
“I was just really drawn to the aerial aspect of moguls,” she said. “I just wanted to go and do bigger and cooler tricks.”
Pavich was at Sundance when her daughter learned she’d made the U.S. Olympic team.
“I wanted to be with her that day, but she wasn’t feeling very good,” Pavich said. “I had a friend in town, and we were going to some Sundance movies. I was actually in a movie when she texted me. I had to leave, cry for a second, and then call my mom and dad.”
Madison said there was no shortage of emotion when she got the call.
“I was at my mom’s house when Todd Ossian called me and said, ‘Congrats, you’re on the team,’” Madison said. “I just started crying I told my parents, and they couldn’t have been more excited. They were so happy. They’ve been so awesome through my whole career supporting me and believing in me. There were a lot of tears.”
Pavich said all four of Madison's parents suspected this was a possibility for her long before it was a reality.
“She gave us hope really early on that this was more than a childhood thing,” Pavich said. “Madison is a natural athlete, and she always showed a lot of promise with the sport. Once she was accepted on the U.S. team, then you know they have potential. It’s not an easy sport to just throw your kid into.”
Pavich said it’s still a bit surreal for all of them, even as they planned their trip to South Korea — the entire clan.
“It will be nerve-wracking and amazing,” Pavich said. “It’s her dream, but we get to ride the dream, and that’s amazing.”
As Madison pondered the realities of being an Olympian, she thought of her dad.
“It just filled me with more tears,” she said pausing, “and we had more hugs and more excitement.”
It isn’t just Madison who feels the acute absence of her father. It is also the large contingent of family members who will see her flip and twist through the South Korean sky who feel the same longing.
“That’s the bittersweet part of this,” said Lisa Olsen of supporting the little girl she’s loved since she was 6. “He would have been so overjoyed for her. I think of all of us, he wanted her to see her dreams come true, to see her in the Olympics. (Thomas) had a few goals before he passed away. He wanted to teach his kids to ride a bike, see Gator graduate high school and see Madi in the Olympics. He got three out of four. The common (sentiment) is that her dad is smiling down on her now.”