Johanna Olson
Johanna Olson

The Luther College community has lost a beloved and talented member of the Norse family.

Johanna "Joha" Olson, a 2001 graduate of Luther, passed away Thursday, Jan. 3, in hospice care in Bend, Ore., following a long battle with a brain tumor.

As of press time no funeral arrangements had been announced.

Olson was a legendary cross country and track star for Luther. Her accomplishments as an NCAA Division III cross country and track runner included two national championships, three-time Iowa Conference MVP, three-time all-regional performer including two individual region titles, multiple school records, several time conference champion, seven-time All-American, three-time academic All-American and an NCAA Post Graduate Scholar.

One of only six runners in Luther cross country history to earn all-conference honors four times, Olson's legacy grew during the 2000-01 cross country and track campaigns. During the 2000 cross country season, she never lost a race and helped lead Luther to a third place finish at the 2000 NCAA III National Championships, while capturing her first individual title. Later that same academic year, she again achieved the ultimate in collegiate athletics by anchoring the distance medley relay to an Indoor National Track and Field Title. That foursome of Siri Thompson, Jaimie Rasmussen, Jenerah Tekippe and Olson posted a time of 11:55.81 that remains the school record.

What makes this story even more compelling is the reoccurring battle with a brain tumor Olson overcame during her time at Luther College and what eventually ended her life.

In 2011, Olson was inducted into the Luther College Ahtletic Hall of Fame. She was presented her award by Betsy Emerson, Head Women's Cross Country Coach from 1989-2005.

"Johanna was first diagnosed with a brain tumor in the fall of her freshman year one week after finishing second at the IIAC championships and leading her team to a title. Instantly, her life changed. She was admitted to the hospital and underwent surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Only one month elapsed before Johanna began to run again, starting her journey back to being one of the conference's best female runners. During her battle with cancer we all learned a great deal about the person Johanna was beyond her incredible running ability. We learned that she was as fierce and tough and determined as an individual could be. We learned that in spite of this incredible setback to her running, this young woman could be positive and uplifting and an inspiration to all of us," Emerson said during her speech.

"After missing her sophomore cross country season due to a re-growth of the tumor and daily radiation treatments at the Mayo Clinic, Johanna began one of the most notable comebacks to running ever achieved by a collegiate athlete. In her second full season as a cross country runner, Johanna led her team to another conference championship and ended her season as an All-American leading her team to a 15th place finish at the National Championships. In the spring of that academic year, Johanna was given the prestigious Honda Inspiration Award. In her third season of running cross country for the Norse, Johanna never... lost...a... race... and finished her storybook season by winning the NCAA Division III cross country national title on the third anniversary of her brain surgery.

"Upon graduation from Luther with a degree in health education, Johanna continued to train and race as an elite runner in road races and marathons. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in October 2003 by placing third among the American runners at the Twin Cities Marathon in a time of 2:43.27, well below the qualifying time of 2:48.00. As one of the youngest American runners in the field, Johanna, placed 44th overall among America's best runners at the Olympic Trials in St. Louis in April 2004. As a graduate student in exercise science at Oregon State University, she continued to train and qualified for the Olympic Trials again in 2008. She earned her master's degree that same year."