NORMAN — Hunter Olson dwarfs his older sister, Brie. He's a foot taller. He's a few dozen pounds heavier.
He's a giant to her.
It's not just because of his stature.
The Oklahoma gymnast draws inspiration and strength from her brother, who has mitochondrial myopathy. The genetic disease is every bit as bad as it sounds, eating at cells and causing body systems to fail. Doctors said Hunter wouldn't make it to his fourth birthday.
He will celebrate his 16th birthday later this year.
Hunter is Brie's hero.
“It's hard, but every day's a miracle,” she said. “Every day he wakes up, he's in pain. He just pushes through the day.”
With championship hopes on the line this weekend in Norman, Olson will draw from a well as deep as any gymnast at the NCAA regional. She will compete on vault, bars and floor, and while her skill and her tenacity has made her one of the best gymnasts on one of the best teams in the country, her brother has helped her reach this point, too.
“He's never given up,” she said. “He's taught me so much.”
Hunter was only a year old when his parents noticed a problem. He wasn't looking at people anymore. He wasn't smiling like he had been. He wasn't making progress like most babies his age should.
He was going backward.
Rob and Clare Olson took their son from one doctor to another trying to figure out the problem. After nearly a year, Hunter was diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy. It was a particularly severe strain of the disease that attacks the mitochondria, the energy factories inside most cells.
Doctors gave a grim prognosis — Hunter would probably only live two more years.
The Olsons weren't willing to accept those terms. They traveled from their Minnesota home to see specialists as far away as California. They experimented with different treatments. They looked for any sliver of hope.
“They were pretty much living at the hospital,” Brie said.
Hunter had dozens of surgeries and too many close calls to remember. His organs were weak because the disease zapped his body of the energy that it needed to develop and grow.
Every day was a struggle.
Still is. Hunter requires constant care from one of the 15 nurses who rotate shifts through the day and the night. He has three tubes in his chest, one to his heart, one to his stomach and one to his bowels. He spends about 10 hours a day hooked up to machines that are medicating him.
He has endured around 60 surgeries, too, including a total reconstruction of his legs from the knees down last year. Before that, he had been walking on the insides of his feet.
Even at that, it was another prognosis that Hunter proved wrong.
“They said he would never walk or talk or crawl,” Brie said. “He's walking.”
His verbal skills are limited — he says “Mama” or “Dada” but not much else — but his sister is quick to point out his intelligence.
“You tell him, ‘Oh, were going to go outside,' and he'll start walking to the door,” she said. “He'll communicate through pictures. We have a wall of pictures.
“He's learned a lot, and people don't see that.”
But she does.
Olson takes great pride in her brother's accomplishments. Great strength, too. Gymnastics, after all, is a sport that takes a toll on her every day. Joints throb. Muscles ache. Soaks in the cold tub are the norm.
Little gals in pretty boxes? Sure, but gymnasts have to be tough as nails, too.
“She looks at Hunter, and it inspires her every day to be the best she can be,” Olson's teammate and good friend Melanie Root said. “I can see the impact. She's never down.”
Sooner coach K.J. Kinder said, “I think watching all the things he can't do makes her appreciate the things she can do. I think she looks at things differently.”
All of the Olsons do. Rob and Clare have found a way to attend all of Brie's college meets, a string they'll continue Saturday at regionals. They believe it's important to be there.
“Obviously,” Kinder said, “they know that time and life is precious.”
A couple months ago at Nebraska, Hunter got to come along. He screamed the entire meet.
“He likes to scream when he's happy,” his sister said.
Hunter appreciates the simple things. Banging on pots and pans. Taking showers that last an hour or two. Playing with toy trucks that make noise. Watching videos and movies.
“He's starting to get into ‘High School Musical,'” Brie said. “They think it's because the blond girl looks a lot like me.”
She smiled, but then her eyes grew moist, a sign of just how tough it's been for her to be away from her brother.
Safe to say it's been difficult for him, too. When the Olson kids communicate on Skype and the Internet miraculously beams each of them live video of the other, he grabs at the computer screen, wanting to touch her, trying to figure out where she is.
The truth is, he is always with her.
“There's not a day I don't think about him and how he's helped me,” Olson said. “Outside of the gym or in the gym, when I'm having a bad day, I try to think about, ‘Oh, he's having twice as hard of a day. I've got to keep pushing.'
“He's taught me to never give up.”
WHAT IS MITOCHONDRIAL DISEASE?
Mitochondrial diseases result from failing mitochondria, which are specialized compartments in every cell in the body except red blood cells. Mitochondria create almost all of the body's energy, supporting growth and sustaining life.
When the mitochondria fail, cells are injured and can die, and if enough cells fail, body systems can start shutting down.
At least one in 200 people have a DNA mutation that can cause a mitochondrial disease.
For more information, go to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation's website at www.umdf.org.
NCAA WOMEN'S GYMNASTICS REGIONAL
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lloyd Noble Center
What: Oklahoma is hosting the six-team regional, which also includes Utah, Washington, New Hampshire, Missouri and North Carolina. The top two teams and top two all-around individuals not on an advancing team will go to the NCAA championships on April 15-17 in Cleveland.
Tickets: $8 youth, $12 adults