Q&A with Glenn Olson: Still kicking while dealing with Parkinson’s

Joe Avento • Mar 29, 2020 at 10:00 AM

Glenn Olson remembers the date clearly.

It was Aug. 3, 2013, and the doctor gave him the news: He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

It hit him like a kick to the head.

Olson had spent his life training at and teaching martial arts. For anybody, this wouldn’t be good news. For Olson, it could have been devastating.

Instead, he’s attacked his affliction like an opponent on the mat.

It’s been more than six years since he got the fateful diagnosis, but Olson is still doing what he loves — teaching at the family-run Olson’s Martial Arts Academy in downtown Johnson City.

With wife Amanda, son Keith and daughter Katie all playing important roles in the business, the Olson family has taught thousands of kids since they opened 23 years ago.

During a recent interview, Olson touched on the challenges of living with Parkinson’s while continuing to do what he loves with the people he loves.

Q: How have you been able to continue to train and teach martial arts?

A: “Exercise is huge. When I get warmed up, I feel as good as I did 10 years ago. In my environment, I’m pretty comfortable teaching class. And the meds I’m taking help.”

Q: What were the first signs?

A: “I actually had a slight tremor in my right hand and arm. Then I noticed certain things. I couldn’t tap my right foot 10 times in a steady pattern and with my left foot it was easy to do that.

“The day I was diagnosed, I had a cub graduation that afternoon. I had to go stand in front of 30 cubs and 50 parents and hold it all together during that time.”

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges?

A: “If you’re a little bit stressed and try to do something that requires fine motor skill, it gets tough. Playing the guitar is a great example. If I get frustrated or I’m a little bit off in my medication, I’ll have to set down the guitar because my tremor is hard to control.”

Q: What is day-to-day life like with Parkinson’s?

A: “It’s kind of like living on a teeter-totter. Something that gets you stressed in one way or another sets off my tremors, when I get mad or stressed out or if somebody cuts me off in traffic.

“It can be a very distracting disease. If my tremor’s active, people are going to stare. That increases your stress level and that makes your tremor worse. When you think of Parkinson’s, people are somewhat familiar with it. They think the worst, but there are so many things doctors can do now.”

Q: Your school is a family-run business with every member having a role. How much have you enjoyed that aspect of it through the years?

A: “Oh my gosh, its been great. It’s been awesome. We all get along great. We know our roles and our responsibilities. Katie runs the front. She’s an awesome multitasker. Keith teaches taekwondo. Mandy runs the show, trains the instructors and teaches the leadership program. My role is exactly what I love to do the most — to teach and to motivate the kids to reach their goals.

“There are a lot of days where we go through the whole day teaching and not see each other. We have three classrooms and we stay busy.”

Q: Keith has another career as a professional MMA fighter. Do you ever get nervous watching him fight?

A: “I have to sit on my arm and it’ll still shake a little bit. That’s tough watching your kid get in the ring like that. Anything can happen in there. But that’s what he loves about it. He loves testing himself and working on his game.

“I’m proud of him. He was such a mild kid growing up. He’s chosen his path and we support him 100%.”

Q: Do you have any instances where you can tell you’re able to function better that you did in the past?

A: “I’ve never been a terrific basketball player, but I was in the Wellness Center and went down to shoot hoops. The first shot, airball. The second one was another airball. Then the third, I overcompensated and it went way over the rim. The control of my right arm had declined. Dribbling was a little bit harder as well.

“I bought a basketball hoop for the house and installed it. My shot’s back and my ball handling is as good as ever, not that it was that good to begin with.”

Q: What have you learned along the way that has helped you?

A: “They say with Parkinson’s use it or lose it. And that’s true. The term neuroplasticity is used a lot. It’s where your brain figures out what you’re known to do in the past. Your brain finds a way to do it. I’ve always done martial arts. Even with Parkinson’s you can improve.”

Q: What are your hobbies when your not training or teaching?

A: Playing the guitar and photography. When I was diagnosed, I thought I wouldn’t be able to play the guitar anymore. I couldn’t do it. But now I can and I’ve even picked up a few more guitars.

“I have my own photography website (glennolsonphotography.com) and that’s been huge. Parkinson’s is known for giving you issues with your sleep. Sleeping can be a problem for me. When I can’t sleep and get up early, often I throw my camera into the truck and go catch the sunrise.”

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