A Special Graduation for One Gustavus AthleteHeather Olinger '23 used grit, positivity, and community support to come back from a devastating hockey injury.
Posted on May 22nd, 2023 by

Heather Olinger '23 with friends Kira Krolak and Erin Schneewind.

When the Gustavus Class of 2023 walks the stage this week at Commencement, one senior will be uniquely grateful to join her friends and classmates on Graduation Day.

Heather Olinger ’23 has had a final semester unlike any other. It began in January when the Gustie women’s hockey player took a hit against St. Ben’s that fractured two of her vertebrae. Olinger getting run into the boards “was the loudest sound I’ve ever heard in a hockey rink,” said Troy Banse, the Head Athletic Trainer who was onsite with three student athletic trainers. “Her scream told us something was wrong, so we hustled out there,” to assess the situation and make sure she didn’t lose any movement in her extremities or suffer any more damage.

He said Olinger’s poise in the moment set the tone for the rest of her recovery. “Her staying calm helped me stay calm,” Banse said. “We waited about 10 minutes for [emergency medical services] to arrive. Because she was quietly listening and following our directions, that kept her from causing herself any more harm. It allowed us to put her on the board and get her ready to leave the arena, which helped her have the best possible outcome.”

As devastating as the injury was, its timing could have been worse. It happened during J-term, and Olinger wasn’t taking a J-term class this year. As she began her physical rehabilitation following spinal fusion surgery, the Gustavus community kicked into gear. “From the moment it happened, Troy and the other athletic trainers who were there, and my teammates and coaches were all super supportive, literally from the start, right on the ice,” she said. The support ranged from many hospital visits to holding multiple fundraisers to help the Olinger family with medical costs. “They were always there to support me throughout the hospital stay, making sure that I was okay,” she said. “I’ve gotten cards from each of the sports teams, from the Chaplain, from basically anyone you could think of. It’s been absolutely amazing.”

This includes professors and administrative staff who helped keep her on track to graduate on time. “[The timing of the injury] actually helped because I was able to have those couple weeks of recovery and figure out how my spring semester was going to work,” said Olinger, who’s a Biology and pre-Physician’s Assistant (PA) major. “Luckily, I was only taking three classes in spring semester, so my course load was a little lighter. All my professors have been super accommodating by helping me figure out when I could attend lectures online, and I was able to stay up to date with everything.”

Spinal surgery means a difficult recovery under the best of circumstances, and Olinger’s first month or so out of the hospital were the most challenging. She couldn’t sit and study for very long because of pain and exhaustion, and she initially experienced “brain fog” from her medications. “It was pretty rough at first,” she said. “For good a good chunk of spring semester it was difficult to balance everything with the way I was feeling.”

The injury, of course, happened during the Gusties’ magical run to the NCAA title, the first Division III women’s hockey championship won by a school outside the Northeast, which meant Olinger had to quickly adapt from being a key member of the team to its number-one fan. She said the loss of having any control over the team’s fate was her toughest adjustment as a competitor—particularly in the wake of last season’s heartbreaking national runner-up finish. “When you’re in the stands, it’s almost more nerve wracking because you can’t do anything other than sit there,” she said. “But I was honestly just so thankful to be able to be [at the final weekend] and be with the team that entire time. Seeing them score that last goal in the championship game will be one of my favorite memories for the rest of my life.”

Banse said Olinger recorded an inspirational personal message for her teammates that they watched prior to the triple-overtime championship win, opting to put it on video instead of sharing her words in the locker room. “I don’t think she could have gotten through it in the locker room, so she presented the video to them and even I was crying, listening to what she had to say,” Banse recalled. “The emotion she had and how much she wanted her teammates to succeed was there for them with that speech. To have a common rallying cry around her like that I think helped push the team even further.” A hint of that shared emotion washed over the entire Gustavus community as Olinger joined her teammates to receive her championship trophy. “My wife and family were watching at home, and she said there wasn’t a dry eye in our house when Heather walked across the ice to get her trophy,” Banse said.

As Olinger continues her physical therapy, she knows her hockey days are over but is optimistic about maintaining an active lifestyle. (She’s already come back from multiple knee injuries that didn’t curb her athleticism.) She’s getting her strength and range of motion back and managing her pain, feeling “about as normal as could be right now” and working toward a 100 percent recovery. After graduation, a job awaits at an area dermatology clinic, and Olinger plans to begin applying to graduate PA programs next year, the only part of her intended path that has encountered a notable delay. “I was originally going to apply to PA school this year, but with all that’s happened, it just didn’t seem particularly feasible,” she said. “I spoke with Heidi [Meyer ’98, Chair of the Nursing Department] about what I should do, and she was extremely helpful and supportive and has given me a bunch of resources. Just like with every single person I’ve come into contact with, at Gustavus or through the hockey team, everyone has been really, really amazing.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


Comments are closed.