If you work out at 24 Hour Fitness Highlands Ranch Sport in Littleton, Colorado, chances are you’ve been greeted by John Olson at the front desk or have seen him working out around the club. Or maybe you’ve seen him at one of his weekly sessions training for his next mountain climb with his personal trainer, Ryan.

John is an all-around athlete. He’s been skiing since he was a young kid, and he took two gold medals in the Special Olympics for cross-country skiing. (John is autistic and was diagnosed with epilepsy when he was 5 years old.) John has skied down the same runs that are part of the World Cup, including Beaver Creek’s Talons Challenge. “You do 27,000 feet of vertical skiing down the toughest blacks [black diamond runs], double blacks, in one day, and he did it,” says Tom Olson, John’s father. And currently, John also competes in Special Olympics track and field (shot put, mile run and 400-meter run).

But perhaps his greatest physical accomplishment: John has summited 29 peaks more than 14,000 feet in elevation, despite the higher risk of seizure during strenuous activity.

The first peak

“John has always had a thing for the outdoors,” says Tom, who climbs with John. (They just returned from a canyoning trip in Utah in April.) “John had major brain surgery back when he was 13, and shortly after that, we read an article about a climber who took the first blind climber to the top of Mount Everest, and John said, ‘Would you mind contacting this climber and see if he would climb with me or at least do a hike with me?’”

Sure enough, the climber agreed, and John went to Vail, Colorado, to climb with him. Their first climb was Grays Peak and Torreys Peak—John did two in one day.

To this day, that climber is still John’s climbing mentor. “They’ve formed a bond—kind of like a bond like John has with Ryan, his trainer—they’re like big brothers to John,” Tom says.

Training to climb

Ryan, who has been training John for the last few years, uses the StairMaster, weights and the treadmill to prepare John for climbing. As a climb gets closer, they stop lifting to make sure John doesn’t pull a muscle or get injured.

“Ryan actually makes working out fun for John,” Tom says. “I never see John without a smile on his face when he’s working out with Ryan. The general manager, Jenni, and the entire 24 Hour Fitness staff are also very supportive of John.”

Climbing for a cause

“It’s just a lot of fun,” John says about climbing. “You get to see the wildlife. It’s really phenomenal to see the tundra and all the neat stuff that’s in there.” His favorite climb? “Mount Elbert,” John says without hesitation. And perhaps for good reason.

“John has a special climb called the Colorado Climbers for Epilepsy,” Tom says. The climb, now in its eighth year (on July 26), happens to be on Mount Elbert, the tallest peak in Colorado at 14,439 feet. “We open it to anyone, even families. We’ve had a couple of others who have epilepsy who’ve joined the climb. Some people are a little nervous about doing that if they have epilepsy because they’re afraid they might have a seizure climbing,” Tom explains.

But despite the risk, John’s mission for climbing is clear: “To help [bring] awareness to epilepsy. To spread awareness to kids and adults with epilepsy and show that they don’t have to be afraid.” At the peak of each climb, John offers cards to people on the mountain that say, “Keep climbing your personal mountain”—his advice to anyone with a dream that seems insurmountable—with facts about epilepsy on the back.

John also spends time visiting Children’s Hospital of Denver as an ambassador for LivaNova, the company that manufactured the implant that helps to regulate his seizures, where he visits kids living with epilepsy. He encourages kids to never give up on their dreams and shares his story.

So what’s next on the books for John, who’s summited Mount Whitney and Mount St. Helens? A few warm-up climbs (14ers) before the epilepsy climb in July.

“Climbing and conquering mountains makes me feel great,” John says. “Fitness has changed my life because I’m a healthy young man.”

Photo credit: Tom Olson