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College women’s basketball: UMD’s Brooke Olson keeps her father’s memory alive with her approach to life

Senior forward will go down as one of the greatest players, and people, to come through the Bulldogs’ program, thanks to lessons learned from her father, and his battle with brain cancer.

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Brooke Olson, second from right, poses for a picture in Houghton, Michigan, in front of the Portage Lake Lift Bridge with her father Forrest, younger sister Brynn and mother Darla. Forrest Olson, a beloved figure in the Copper Country basketball community, died of brain cancer in 2007, but a part of his legacy lives on with Brooke, one of the best players in the history of the Minnesota Duluth women's basketball program.
Contributed / Olson Family
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DULUTH — It was the summer of 2003 and future Minnesota Duluth basketball star Brooke Olson and her family were visiting her aunt and uncle in St. Cloud when her father, Forrest Olson, suffered a seizure while helping his nephew with a computer video game.

Forrest was rushed to the hospital for tests which revealed he had a rare malignant brain cancer, anaplastic astrocytoma. He immediately had surgery to remove the tumor and began treatment, but the grade 3 tumors can grow quickly and spread to nearby tissue. They’re hard to remove because their tentacle-like “fingers” grow into nearby brain tissue, according to WebMD.

That’s hard to explain to an adult. Imagine explaining that to a 3-year-old, especially when that’s her dad.

“I don’t think you ever really explain it. It’s just how they reacted,” Brooke Olson said. “My dad never allowed us to feel sorry or feel bad. It was always, ‘We’re going to fight this.’ And obviously, he wasn’t going to do it alone. He had my mom by his side, and me, and my sister, Brynn. And our friends and family were just incredible.

“There was an army there to support us, and I really don’t think we would have been able to get through it the way we did without it. Everyone was fighting with us. So I don’t think it was a matter of explaining anything to me.”

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The fight, as Brooke referred to it, and the chemotherapy and everything that comes with it, became “the new normal.”

Forrest Olson, of Hancock, Michigan, just across the Keweenaw Waterway from Houghton, passed away four years later, on Aug. 16, 2007. He was 33. Brooke was 7. Brynn was 3.

Women's college basketball players in yellow uniforms play against a team in red uniforms in a college gymnasium
Minnesota Duluth forward Brooke Olson (24) fights for a rebound against Mariah McKeever (1) of Minnesota State-Moorhead on Friday, Feb. 4 at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“Would I have imagined my life very differently with my dad? Yes,” said Brooke, a three-time All-American with the Bulldogs. “But also, he’s taught me so much while not even being here, so I’m just really grateful for the seven years I had with him, and I’m really grateful for the last 15, with the support we have from friends and family. It’s just unbelievable. I’m just really really grateful for everything in my life right now.”

Suddenly a single mom, Darla (Innes) Olson, a Michigan Tech Athletics Hall of Famer, took the girls and moved to Forrest’s hometown of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, knowing there would be a strong family structure there, including Forrest’s parents, Rod and Carol, to help support her.

But it went beyond that.

“I wanted to be in a community to help me raise the girls, but ultimately, I wanted my kids to know who their father was,” Darla Olson said. “Rod and Carol did a great job of supporting my kids and being there for them but also sharing memories so they’d know who he was.”

It worked.

“I remember being out in Rice Lake,” Brooke Olson said. “People would just come up to me and say, ‘I know who you are, you’re Forrest’s daughter. I just want to say that he was just an amazing man.’

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“He was so lovable, people just gravitated to him. He was thoughtful, and he allowed people to know they were loved by him. He was always there, so dependable, so loyal and just a stand-up guy.”

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Minot State's Mollie Wilson (30) attempts to block a successful shot by Minnesota Duluth's Brooke Olson (24) in the second half of a January 2021 game at Romano Gym.
Tyler Schank / File / Duluth News Tribune

From Duluth to Houghton

Forrest Olson was born in Duluth Feb. 24, 1974, and spent his early childhood in Two Harbors. His father was part of the first graduating class from the University of Minnesota's Duluth medical school. The family moved to Rice Lake in 1980 and Rod worked for more than 30 years as a family medicine and emergency room physician.

Forrest Olson graduated from Rice Lake High School in 1992 and was a 6-foot-6 basketball forward at Wisconsin-Oshkosh from 1992 to 1996.

Darla Innes, meanwhile, had grown up in Saxon, Wisconsin, graduating from nearby Hurley. The 6-foot forward played college basketball at Michigan Tech from 1988-93, helping the program to its first three NCAA Division II tournaments, finishing third in 1993. She later coached the Huskies for five seasons.

In 1997 they met through a mutual friend named Bucky. Forrest ended up playing at a basketball tournament and Darla came back home to the Hurley area to hang out. Darla was an assistant coach at Nebraska-Omaha at the time.

“Bucky called and said, ‘Hey, there’s another tournament next weekend. Do you want to drive from Omaha to come up and play?’” Darla recalled. “I said, ‘Not really, but is Forrest going to be there?’ And he’s like, ‘Actually, he asked me the same question?’”

Match made in hoops heaven. They married two years later, Aug. 21, 1999.

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“I think he had a great sense of humor. I found him really funny,” Darla Olson said. “I enjoyed him. I think he had one of the biggest hearts of anyone I ever met. He was a very gentle soul and kind, and he was a tremendous coach. He loved the game as much as I do.”

Forrest was an assistant coach for the men’s basketball team at Michigan Tech. He later taught social studies at Hancock Central High School, where he also served as athletic director and coached the Bulldogs girls basketball team.

A short time after finding out she was pregnant with Brynn, Darla Olson resigned as head coach at Michigan Tech, which became effective Aug. 1. The very next day, Forrest had his seizure. Darla was three months pregnant.

“It’s just God’s timing,” Brooke Olson said.

It takes a family — and friends

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Forrest Olson and his daughter Brooke pose for a picture after a youth soccer game in Hancock, Michigan. Forrest, a beloved coach and athletic director in the Copper Country, died of brain cancer when Brooke was still a young child, but his legacy lives on in his two daughters. Brooke is one of the greatest women's basketball players in Minnesota Duluth history, while Brynn (not pictured) is joining the team as a freshman.
Contributed / Olson Family

While Forrest didn’t need to know a prognosis, Darla wanted to know. She was told Forrest had three years to live.

Anaplastic astrocytoma is rare, very rare, with an incident rate of 0.44 per 100,000, with less than 5,000 people in the U.S. estimated to have it, according to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center.

It was at this time that Darla, while still being a good husband and mother, took a step back in terms of her relationship with her daughters, allowing them to be daddy’s girls.

Time was precious. They didn’t waste it.

“Looking back, I want to say that my mom knew that my dad wasn’t going to be in our lives for long,” Brooke Olson said. “So I think she allowed us to build a strong relationship with him really early on in those good years because she knew she was going to have us for the rest of her life. That just really allowed us to learn from him, to love him and be loved by him, even for that short time.”

Forrest Olson responded well to the chemotherapy and radiation. He had three really good years and then one bad one.

Forrest went to a followup appointment and tests revealed the cancer had spread. He had to have a second surgery and there were complications leaving him with partial paralysis of his left side.

Forrest had a power chair. He could walk with a cane but it took a lot of effort and he couldn’t go far without assistance. He did physical therapy but never regained full mobility.

“The two things my dad taught me were one, suck it up,” Brooke Olson said, allowing herself to laugh, “and then the second was live for today. Never take anything life gives you for granted. Live in the moment, live in the present, and be grateful. Go through life with grace and be able to adapt when needed and be there for the people that love you, that support you, that need you.”

Forrest certainly had plenty of faith, and support.

The summer Forrest went into hospice, 14 people lived right next to each other in Hancock to support him and the family. Darla’s parents lived in the spare bedroom downstairs, her sister and brother-in-law lived in a camper in the driveway and Forrest’s family leased the place next door.

“They were there 24/7,” Darla Olson said. “Everybody was there, and we were able to take care of him. That’s kind of how the whole four years was.”

To Rice Lake and back to Duluth

By the time of Forrest’s passing, her parents had already moved to the St. Cloud area, so Rice Lake seemed like a good midway point from Houghton/Hancock.

“It was a wonderful community, and that’s where we would have ended up calling home forever, but I really felt it was important for my kids to be closer to immediate family,” Darla Olson said. “That’s just where my heart took me.”

Darla Olson raised Brooke and Brynn as a single mother before eventually remarrying. The girls were really into sports, with Brooke playing basketball, volleyball and soccer and Brynn competing in basketball, volleyball and track.

“My mom was a single mom and that’s one of the first times I’ve ever said that out loud,” Brooke Olson said. “I’ve never considered myself from a single-parent family because I know I have a dad who loved me and still loves me.”

Darla Olson teaches math at Rice Lake High School and is in her seventh season as the Warriors’ girls basketball coach.

Brooke, a 6-foot-2 forward, got plenty of NCAA Division I basketball interest coming out of Rice Lake in 2018, and Darla just told her to weigh the pros and cons of choosing the D-I route vs. D-II. Clearly, choosing to stay close to home, and being heavily involved in Brynn’s life, was one of her priorities.

Brooke chose to attend Minnesota Duluth and had an instant impact, making the NSIC All-Freshman Team her first season followed by three conference player of the year honors. More importantly to her, the Bulldogs finished at or near the top of the NSIC standings while making the NCAA Division II playoffs in four straight seasons with her arrival.

Minnesota Duluth’s Brooke Olson (24) pushes the ball up the floor
Minnesota Duluth’s Brooke Olson (24) pushes the ball up the floor during the Bulldogs’ game with St. Scholastica at UMD on Tuesday evening, Nov. 2, 2021.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

This season the senior is averaging 19 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game for the Bulldogs (3-1), who play games in the Upper Peninsula this weekend at Northern Michigan on Friday and Michigan Tech on Saturday. Olson is fourth in career scoring at UMD with 1,773 points and is on pace to finish second all-time, behind only the great Dina Kangas, who had 2,810 from 1987 to ’91.

“I wish I could coach Brooke forever,” UMD coach Mandy Pearson said. “She’s such a unique talent because she finds a way to get better every single year. It’s just so much fun to coach her because her focus is just on helping the team win.”

Olson’s scoring average peaked at 21.9 points per game her third year and has been close to 20 the last two seasons. The Bulldogs had plenty of talent around her, but you couldn’t say if she played on another team, she’d do this and this and this … if you wanted her to score 25, she could score 30, but that’s not the way she plays.

Olson gets double- and triple-teamed every game but resists the temptation to force shots, shooting more 50% from the field in each of the past three seasons.

“I was joking with her the other day, ‘Are you going to put 70 up?’” Pearson said. “And she goes, ‘Oh, no, I’d never shoot that much.’ She’s been incredible to coach and incredible to watch. I’m just lucky to watch her play in every practice and play in every game.”

Pearson said Olson is mature beyond her years, something she even noticed when she was recruiting her. Pearson joked that taller people can often come across as older and more mature, even if that’s not the case, but with Olson, there was more to it than that.

“Anytime anybody goes through some trauma in their life, they have to grow up faster,” Pearson said. “Anytime somebody goes through that, their development is broken up in some way, shape or form, but I think with Brooke, with the way that her mom handled things, and her support system, she found a way to push through something I can’t imagine going through at her age. She had to have great support and a strong faith.”

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UMD forward Brooke Olson shoots the ball against Bemidji State during the 2020-21 season at Romano Gymnasium in Duluth. (File / News Tribune)
FORUM COMMUNICATIONS

Maesyn Thiesen is the other fifth-year player on UMD’s roster. They’ve been roommates all five years, becoming friends for life. Thiesen said Olson plays the same way she lives, enjoying an assist just as much as a basket.

“Brooke is just somebody who always puts others before herself, no matter if it’s on the floor or off the floor,” Thiesen said. “She’s amazing.

“Every once in a while she will talk about her dad, and obviously it’s something that is sad. She didn’t have him growing up, but she also looks at it in a positive light, cherishing the time she did have with him. All you ever hear are the good things about him and how he really helped instill her passion for the game. That’s so cool she is able to kind of keep his legacy alive.”

One of those ways in keeping that legacy alive, while raising breast cancer awareness, is the annual Forrest Run 5K held each September. The 11th annual Forrest Run 5K Sept. 17 at UW-Eau Claire at Barron County in Rice Lake raised more than $10,000 for research institutions and local families affected by the disease.

Brooke Olson said she is enjoying this year the most in her five seasons at UMD. After three seasons of having the same starting five, expectations and pressure were high. This year there are three new starters and Olson said it’s been fun figuring out how to play together. One of the players providing that boost of fresh energy has been Brynn, a 6-foot freshman forward on the team. The sisters never got to play with each other in high school, as Brynn was in eighth grade when Brooke was a senior.

Brynn Olson could wind up getting redshirted, but no matter.

“Just having her every day at practice is such a blessing,” Brooke Olson said. “It’s great having this experience and we’re having fun with it. This doesn’t happen normally, and I’m not taking it for granted. I’m excited to see what it brings us, the success that we have. I’m just savoring my final year here, and Brynn being here is just a bonus.”

Thanksgiving was a little different in the Olson family this year. A lot different. With the girls playing basketball in the Upper Peninsula, Darla planned on visiting old friends in Houghton while the sisters would be with their “basketball family.” That would be the first time they didn’t have Thanksgiving dinner together.

“There are sacrifices behind the scenes people don’t realize,” Darla Olson said.

Despite coaching her high school team, Darla only missed about eight of Brooke’s college games last season.

“Maybe I’ll bring them a leftover plate. I’ll think of something,” Darla Olson said. “They will be surrounded by people who care about them.”

And that is ultimately what matters.

The family recently endured some similar grief as Rod Olson passed away Nov. 4 at age 75 from another type of brain cancer. Some of that same pain came right back again, but Brooke applied the same lessons learned from the death of her father to that of her grandfather.

Cherish the time you have with your parents or grandparents. You’re not going to have them forever, that’s life, but cherish their memory, live the way they taught you and enjoy the people they left behind.

“It was very difficult losing my dad, but just to have the family we have, my mom and my sister, it’s given us a type of relationship we wouldn’t have had otherwise, a different family dynamic,” Brooke Olson said. “Yes, we are missing a piece of our family with my dad passing away, but I’ve seen the good that it’s brought us, and just how close that we are.

“There’s always a silver lining in everything, so I’m just grateful that I have the relationship that I have with my mom and my sister. I think it’s a really special thing, and I never take that for granted.”

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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