ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Britten Olinger used to enjoy the simple routines in his life — track practice at Montreat College, activities with his wife and 11-month-old daughter and playtime with the family’s three dogs.
But on a recent Monday, the 31-year-old coach skilled at pushing his runners to dig a little deeper for that next burst of energy found himself dealing with his own tests of strength and wishes for enough independence to support his family.
“That’s the hard part for me,” he mouthed between two deep breaths as he sat in a wheelchair surrounded by medical equipment. “I’ve always provided for them.”
Olinger is paralyzed from the chest down, the result of a horrific Feb. 27 car crash in downtown Black Mountain that has rallied community support for him and his family.
A GoFundMe page has raised more than $112,000 to help cover Olinger’s medical expenses. Friends and strangers have hosted fundraisers and prayer vigils.
Athletes from a rival track team at University of South Carolina Upstate sent a box of cards to let Olinger know they were thinking about him. A Black Mountain architect offered to remodel the Olingers’ home so it is accessible for him when he returns.
For now, life for Olinger and his wife, Sam, revolves around treatment, therapy and surgeries at Sheperd Medical Center, which specializes in research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injuries.
As the Atlanta skyline glistened behind outside the center last week, a brace circled and supported his neck and a tube the size of a garden hose pushed down his throat to help him breathe.
He was due for surgery to his vocal cords the following day, but for now relied on his wife to relay the words he mouthed as she wiped his arm clean following the removal of a cast earlier that Monday morning.
“He’s been praying daily to have the patience and realize it is a day-by-day rehab,” Sam Olinger said. “What we say are big accomplishments — and they are big — are small compared to what he used to be able to do.”
Sam Olinger had to guess what her husband was saying at points during interviews done over five hours and in between checks from doctors and nurses, but she worked with him until what he wanted to say was clear.
“This is hard to cope with,” he mouthed. “But it’s getting better than it was.”
Olinger, head coach of the Montreat College men’s and women’s track and field teams, was driving home from practice the evening of the crash. The trip should have taken less than 10 minutes.
But as he moved along State Street, which has a speed limit of 20 mph, just before 7 p.m. another driver, traveling at what police estimated was 120 mph, struck the back of Olinger’s Mazda sedan.
The collision rammed his car into three others. His vehicle spun around and parts of his car along with his possessions flew through a hardware store’s windows.
Kyle Donte Carney, 30, of Winston-Salem, later was charged with speeding, reckless driving to endanger and driving left of center in connection with the accident, according to the Black Mountain Police Department.
Carney also was injured in the crash and was sent to hospital that night with non-life threatening injuries. Three other cars were involved in the collision. Those drivers and passengers were treated and released from the scene.
That night, Sam Olinger last heard from her husband at 6:30 p.m. when he sent her a text saying he would be home early. She decided to keep their daughter, Kolbie, up as she waited.
But by 7:45 p.m. he still hadn’t returned home — and hadn’t responded to more than a dozen texts.
“I had a gut feeling that something’s not right,” she said.
Then, at 8:06, her phone rang. It was an Asheville number.
“I knew I was going to the hospital,” she said. “I just didn’t know why.”
When she was told her husband had been in a horrible accident everything stopped, Sam Olinger recalled.
Britten Olinger had suffered cardiac arrest and was in and out of consciousness when he was transported to Mission Hospital. There was concern he might not live through the night due a collapsed lung, Sam Olinger said.
Doctors said her husband’s spinal cord at the C7/T1 spinal segment, located at the bottom of his neck, was severed and he would never walk again. He had also suffered a broken left arm, injuries to his left shoulder, small fractures in his lower back, a major concussion and some other minor injuries.
“It was the worst nightmare I could imagine,” she said as she sat in a chair with her legs crossed next to her husband inside his hospital room.
“It was like I was falling asleep and never going to wake up,” she said as loud sniffles could be heard from her husband. He has no memory of the accident or the entire week leading up to it, she said.
She turned to him and placed her arm on his. “We’re here and you made it,” she told him.
“Take some deep breaths. Think of our puppies and Kolbie,” she said with a smile.
He shook his head and mouthed, “I’m fine.”
His wife stood up to find a tissue and wiped her husband’s nose.
Her husband will expect that no one feel sorry for him, Sam Olinger said. He doesn’t allow pictures that show the front of his face, not because of damage from the accident, but because the tubes and neck brace might cause sympathy.
Living to run
Olinger showed that strength and independence with his running, family members said.
When he joined the track and field team at Patrick Henry High School in Glade Spring, Virginia, he had no idea he would fall in love the sport, or that he would make a career of it.
But he went onto run at the University of Virginia College at Wise and has spent the last 10 years coaching.
“To say that my brother loves to run is an understatement,” said Nancy Quesenberry, who is three years younger than Olinger. “He has studied the art of running, he has mastered the technique, and he has supported numerous athletes in his coaching career.”
When her brother first joined the high school track team, he fell in love immediately, Quesenberry said.
From there, his love for running transformed into a love for coaching and motivating others.
He began coaching in college as an assistant and then served as a coach at Patrick Henry and at Abingdon High School for three years before making the jump to coaching at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
He spent five years at EMU as the assistant cross country/track & field coach and was promoted to head coach for the 2015-16 season.
But last summer, Jason Lewkowicz, director of Montreat College’s track and field/cross country program, who had coached Olinger in college and coached with him at EMU, asked if he wanted to join him once again at the small Christian college nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I never thought about leaving EMU,” Olinger said. “But when we visited the campus we got a gut feeling that I should go. The fit seemed right. I knew I could coach and love God at the same time.”
Since June, Olinger has recruited 16 athletes, with 10 more committed to running at the college, according to Adam Caress, director of communications at Montreat College.
At a meet in Winston-Salem Feb. 17-18, the team set eight school records.
The men’s team also moved up two spots and ranks third in the South Division III, and the women’s team moved up six spots and is ranked fourth in the South, according to the U.S. Track and Field/Cross Country Coaches Association.
“I learned that track was my job, but it became more than that,” he quietly and slowly said as he sat outside the Sheperd Center, watching his daughter chew on a rubber giraffe in the grass. Kolbie brings out his voice and helps him smile, Sam Olinger said.
“It’s about reaching people,” he said. “Running is more than a sport. I used to teach that instead of coaching jumps and sprints.”
Even though Olinger will never be able to run again, he hopes to continue inspiring people.
“This accident fortunately has taught me that I have more to offer than just coaching,” he said, slowly. “Before I was a 31-year-old white guy living life without any issues. Now I’m about to be 32 and this accident has basically paralyzed me. I get to tell people there’s more to life. I can be more motivating.”
Long road ahead
The road ahead will be long and the Olingers, married for three years, don’t know exactly what to expect.
That first night at Mission Hospital had been frantic, but by 2 a.m. the next morning, a tube was successfully inserted in Olinger’s chest, and he slowly started to get better. The next day he was living hour-to-hour instead of minute-to-minute, his wife said.
On the Wednesday after the accident, Olinger underwent emergency surgery in his hospital room since he wasn’t stable enough to be transported to an operating room.
The surgery was to take two hours, but the doctor called with good news after 40 minutes to say the surgery went well and had been completed early.
By Friday, he was on the road to recovery, and he underwent spinal surgery the following week. After the surgery, doctors once again gave good news.
“They were able to realign his spine, and 10 days out he sat up in bed,” Sam Olinger said. “From there, everything went quicker.”
He has also regained feeling in his shoulder blades and has slowly started to recover some feeling in his arms, Sam Olinger said.
“About a week ago his (left shoulder) muscle was twitching and it has progressively gotten much better within a week,” she said. “It’s been a slow progress, but he has come further than we thought.”
The road ahead will be the ultimate waiting game, she said.
“There is so much research going on now, that I tell him that for a time for this to happen from here on out it is amazing, because of where science and medical research is at,” she said. “You don’t know what is going to happen in the future…(we) don’t know the end prognosis of what his life is going to be like and what is going to still be paralyzed versus what sensation will come back. It’s amazing to know that we don’t know what is going to happen.
“We’ve had plenty of miracles so far that I don’t put it past eventually getting another miracle down the road,” Olinger said.
But all that truly matters is that her husband and father of their daughter lived through that first night, she said.
“It does not affect me one bit that he is in a wheelchair,” she said. “We have a new normal. He gets to stay around. I am so thankful I get to watch him heal instead of identifying a body and having to explain to our daughter why she has to grow up without a father.”
Sam Olinger said she knows things won’t be easier.
“There will be boundaries and hurdles to get over, but I’m so happy he gets to come home and whatever happens next will just be a different journey now,” she said. “I say that he’s my living miracle.”
As Olinger looks toward the future, he said he knows he has work to do.
“Before the accident I was Mr. Positive,” he said. But when he found out he is paralyzed, he could not stop crying, he said.
Then he simply willed himself to stop crying and to make the best of it, he said.
“Now, in the mornings I sit in my bed and think that no matter what, (God) uses me to be an instrument to show him more,” he said. “Now, I have a different perspective on life and family.”
Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com