Vail’s Olson heading to Transplant Games |

Vail’s Olson heading to Transplant Games

Lori Pounder
Summit Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Eric Drummond

VAIL ” As Jerry Olson plunges in a group of tight trees, weaving flawlessly through the powder, he’s the picture of health.

“Anytime you’re out making turns, it’s a good time,” he says with a bright smile minutes later, his telemark skis dangling off the chairlift.

For the last few months, he’s been out at Vail Resort getting as much practice in as possible and testing a fast new set of Fisher RC4 skis with donated Bomber Bindings. He wants to be prepared to represent his home on Team USA when he competes this month at the 2008 Winter World Transplant Games in Finland. And while there, Olson, 36, is looking forward to meeting competitors from across the world who share a connection ” all have had organ transplants.

Eleven years ago, Olson’s liver quickly failed. If he hadn’t gotten a transplant in the amount of time he did, he wouldn’t have survived.

He grew up in Rockford, Ill. and loved taking ski trips.

In 1996, Olson graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor’s degree in biology. But then, as he entered his first semester of graduate school, his health began to deteriorate and he had to drop out part way through the year.

Five years before, his aunt had a liver transplant so he knew the symptoms, and when he was a senior in high school he became sick with abdominal problems. However, he wasn’t expecting his liver to fail so quickly.

Within a month’s time, he lost 50 pounds and his skin turned yellow. He had Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, and not more than a week after being admitted to University Hospital in Denver, he was given a new liver.

“The big thing was that there was a liver available,” said Olson while riding a lift back up to hit the trees again. “If someone hadn’t filled out their donor card, I wouldn’t be here at all. I’d be dead.”

Shortly after leaving the hospital, Olson moved to Summit County to work at Keystone Ski Resort. Just a season after his surgery, he was hitting the slopes. And after a couple years, he moved over to work in the maintenance department at Breckenridge Ski Resort. He had a few other jobs in the five years he spent in Summit, as well as had a plowing service throughout the time.

Now, he lives in Vail and works in the sales department of Sonnenalp Resort of Vail.

Getting to the World Winter Transplant Games

The way everything worked out for Olson to go to Finland seems almost fated. He heard about the transplant games through a woman on MySpace who had had a liver transplant 23 years ago and the idea piqued his interest. However, as he looked into how much it would cost, he didn’t think he could make it happen.

Then, Christmas rolled around and his luck changed. At his holiday work party, he was one of the two people who won plane tickets to Europe.

He looked up the winter transplant games and started sending messages to people to find out how he could get in. He missed the deadline, but his persistence paid off and they let him in as a late entry.

Team USA, which is organized and managed by the national Kidney Foundation, sent a coach out to ski with him, and right away she knew he’d be a great asset to the team. He’ll be competing against Alpine skiers in the giant slalom and super giant slalom.

Olson will fly out from Denver March 23 to attend the games throughout that week.

To get ready for the games with the hopes of bringing home a medal, Olson is learning how to race. With his history of tree skiing, translating that to a course likely won’t be too hard for him. However, this month is the first time he’ll be out learning the technique because he was sick most of February.

Since the transplant, Olson has to take medicine that reduces his immune system so his body won’t reject the organ. As a result, getting a cold can knock him out for three weeks.

“It’s a tough balance because you’re taking poison to live,” said Olson who tried to go off the medication in the summer, but wasn’t able to successfully.

Still, he also wants people to know that “there’s life afterwards.”

“The possibilities are there for someone to live a healthy life, a happy life,” he said. “To continue living is a good thing. I don’t think anyone should give up.”

And he also wants to raise awareness about the importance of being an organ donor and how it can save someone’s life.

“I’ve lived an extra 11 years and it’s because someone filled out a card at the DMV,” he said.

Additionally, Olson enjoys volunteer work and one of the groups he’s worked with is an organization that brings teenagers and young adults with cancer to Colorado. “Helping people in all states of challenges, it really does a lot for me. … We’re all in this together,” he said.

Lory Pounder can be reached at (970) 668-4628, or at

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