How Justin Olsen fought back from an emergency appendectomy

Justin Olsen was able to return to competition last week after having an emergency appendectomy in South Korea on Feb. 5 ahead of the Winter Olympics. Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Less than 72 hours after surgery, the look in Justin Olsen's eyes -- far more than the pushups he was effortlessly cranking out -- simply revealed there was no way an emergency appendectomy was going to keep him from competing in the Winter Olympics.

He hadn't always been so confident. In the hours after the procedure here on Feb. 5, he couldn't sleep. His back, shoulders and, of course, abdomen were sore.

"I felt pretty bad," he said. "I wasn't optimistic."

And yet, there he was Sunday night, 13 days post-surgery, his hospital admissions bracelet still dangling from his right wrist, maneuvering an 850-pound bobsled 85 mph along 4,500 feet of rock-hard ice. Watching him, you would have never known what had happened almost two weeks earlier; you would have never known how painful it was the first time he tried to jog after surgery, and never would have understood why he needed his girlfriend -- a Canadian skeleton racer -- to pull him out of his funk.

After two of the four two-man bobsled runs Sunday night, Olsen and his teammate, Evan Weinstock, are 12th overall and 0.82 seconds behind the top German sled heading into Monday's final third and fourth runs. But far more important than where they stood in the standings was the fact that the team was even here.

To those around him, Olsen is a certifiable tough guy. "I don't cry too often," he said. He is a former high school and college football player who joined the New York Army National Guard in 2011 and has since raced as a member of the U.S. Army's World Class Athlete Program, so there isn't a lot that stands in his way.

But one night seven years ago in France, he woke up sweating profusely, his abdomen stinging with unbearable pain. He walked up and down the floor of his team hotel, knocking on doors in search of help. Eventually he went to the hospital. They told him he was fine and everything went back to normal. Then, last year in Whistler, British Columbia, the same thing happened again. He passed out from the pain and woke up in the bathroom. Eventually, the discomfort again subsided. He went about his life.

This time, the pain came three days after Olsen and his teammates arrived in Korea for the Games. He had just undergone a massage when he felt that same vicious pain. He texted his physical therapist asking if the massage could have caused it, but was told it was unlikely. So he got on an exercise bike, trying to work the pain away. Instead, every time his right leg rose with the bike pedal, the pain shot through his side. He grabbed an exercise ball, thinking maybe he could do some soft tissue work. It backfired.

"That was probably the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "It didn't feel good. I just keeled over like a fish that had been out of water too long."

Weinstock suggested Olsen see someone. The next thing Olsen knew, he was headed to a hospital in nearby Gangneung for surgery. He would be the first athlete admitted around the Games. On the way, he texted Weinstock.

"He said, 'Hey man, I'm going to be out a few days. I'm getting surgery,'" Weinstock recalled. "What can you say? I just told him to text me afterward."

"Stuff never happens when you want it to happen. Yeah, I was upset that I had to have surgery, but it could have been worse." Justin Olsen

Carlo Valdes, who rides in Olsen's four-man sled, was in his Olympic village room with the rest of his teammates when coaches delivered the news. They said Olsen was doubtful for the two-man race, but hopefully would be able to compete in the four-man. Valdes was stunned. After the 2017 death of teammate Steven Holcomb, the greatest driver in American bobsled history, he wondered what else could go wrong.

"I thought, I've worked so hard for the past three years, four years; to have this moment equate to nothing would devastate me," Valdes said. "And with Steve gone and Justin not able to compete, it was like, 'Can we just catch a break please?'"

Olsen's Olympic story wasn't entirely unique. Eight years earlier in Vancouver, Latvia's Janis Minins also had an emergency appendectomy after his appendix ruptured. He was unable to compete in the two-man race and tried to compete in the four-man but was unable. Eventually, he had to withdraw.

Olsen was far luckier. His appendix didn't rupture and doctors were able to remove it laparoscopically without cutting into his abdominal wall. "I was nervous about it," he said. "But they did a really good job. Zero normal stitches. The translation was, 'We gave you stitches that melt away.' We had a little laugh out of that one."

Still, when he came out of his anesthesia, Olsen was in pain. He hadn't slept the night before surgery, and couldn't sleep the night after. Finally, at some point Tuesday morning, he fell asleep. He woke up to his girlfriend, Canadian skeleton racer Mirela Rahneva, walking into his hospital room. After some time, she asked whether he wanted her to read to him. He agreed.

"Some of the stuff was about your headspace and your mindset and being thankful for the things that are happening and just staying focused," Olsen said. "And it just put things in perspective. It connected. I felt at ease. At peace. And that's when I got my confidence back that this was going to be possible."

Shortly thereafter, Olsen was up and walking. He would stay in the hospital for one more night, then transfer to a local apartment where he could be closely monitored. The next day, his doctors said he could start to jog. Initially, it didn't go well.

"It was just, 'Ugh,'" he said. "The pressure on my cuts and everything. It didn't feel very good. But it was like, 'Well, he said I could run some, so I'm going to try and run.'"

He also wanted to work on his core, so he started doing pushups. His confidence soared. That's when he pulled out his phone and shot video, to show himself and the world he was going to be all right.

"I was just itching to do something active," he said. "Once I got some pushups in and did some sweating -- not from being under the covers but from doing some actual work -- that released a whole bunch of endorphins and I felt a lot better."

So, too, did his teammates when they saw the video.

"I was shocked, honestly," Valdes said. "I was pumped up that he was working out. Then it was like, 'You better not reopen those sutures!'"

Added Weinstock: "That's who he is. He's a strong guy. Nothing is going to stop him. As soon as the doctors gave him a little bit of wiggle room, he was going to knock the door down."

After missing four unofficial training runs, Olsen returned to the ice for the first time Friday. He didn't push in his first run, to first see how his body would handle the G-force, as well as the violent, aggressive nature of a bobsled riding down the track. He didn't feel a thing. So in the second run, he pushed. He said he felt completely normal.

On Sunday, Olsen and Weinstock had the fifth- and seventh-fastest push times in the field. "Someone said at the start line that they replaced by stomach with an accelerator," he said.

Olsen will compete in the third and fourth runs of the two-man bobsled Monday and then the four-man bobsled later this week. Doctors told him that now he is past the eight-day mark, there is nothing he needs to worry about in terms of his surgery. He said he's occasionally still sore, but more when he stands up and stretches than during the hunched over movements in bobsled. After Pyeongchang, he said the plans are to watch movies and do nothing, followed by a vacation. "On the beach," he said. "Somewhere warm."

Olsen said he'd be lying if he said he hadn't once asked himself, "Why now?" But he realized, thanks to both his girlfriend and his mother, it could have been far worse. What if his appendix had ruptured on an airplane? What if it had happened the night before competition? Was what happened to him ideal? Of course not, but you deal with it and move on. That's why he's kept his hospital bracelet on throughout the Games -- as a reminder of what could have happened.

"Everybody can relate to facing adversity," he said. "Stuff never happens when you want it to happen. Yeah, I was upset that I had to have surgery, but it could have been worse. What I've learned ... most of the time the 'why' is irrelevant. It's something we have to deal with. You just try to turn the situation into a positive, and I'm just happy that I can compete."