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Montreat coach Olinger working his way back from horrific crash

It's been nearly three months since Britten Olinger was seriously injured in a crash in Black Mountain. (Photo credit: Nancy Quesenberry)

It's been nearly three months since a high-speed crash involving several vehicles in downtown Black Mountain almost took the life of a local college track coach.

In the hours after the wreck, Britten Olinger's family feared he would be completely paralyzed. But after just weeks of rehab at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Olinger is already moving one arm and setting up workouts for his track athletes at Montreat College.

Part of Olinger's extensive recovery program includes tricep extensions with his right arm using light weights. The coach, who used to be able to use large dumbbells for many reps, now struggles to do just 10 with light or no weight. He said his athletic background has helped motivate him, though.

“I'm almost getting a taste of my own medicine, because how I used to motivate and coach my athletes is the same way Shepherd does every patient,” Olinger said.

'Lucky Britten'

The coach, who was hit on his way home from track practice by a driver police said was going more than 100 mph over the speed limit, has been reluctant to share his workouts. Olinger said he didn’t want anyone to pity him because of his feeding tubes, neck brace and wheelchair.

“I don't want anyone feeling bad for me,” Olinger insisted. “I knew it wasn't that way, but I didn't want someone looking at me and saying 'Poor Britten.' It's not 'Poor Britten,' it's 'Lucky Britten.'”

He said he was "Lucky" to be alive, having survived a spinal cord injury, collapsed lung, broken arm and brain bleed in the late February crash. Olinger's memories begin in mid-March at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. He doesn’t have any recollection of the accident or being in ICU. When he came off painkillers, he thought it was 2014. Seeing pictures of the crash, he’s amazed he's alive.

“Deep down inside, I knew I was paralyzed, but I didn't know,” Olinger said. “The first week was hard, realizing this is your life now.”

RELATED | Montreat track athletes paint to support coach and community

But for Olinger, life is what you make it. He counts every small victory, like being able to feed himself with his right hand, breathing on his own and now being able to talk.

Part of his therapy includes learning how to pick things up with his right hand. He started the exercise a few weeks ago with large game board pieces and has now progressed to Gummi Bears. Olinger joked about not having a sweet tooth until seeing Gummi Bears at the Shepherd Center’s gift shop.

One of his biggest frustrations is when he picks a Gummi Bear up, but it falls before it reaches his mouth.

“Before the accident, I took for granted picking up whatever, whenever I wanted. Now, it's like I struggle to pick up a Gummi Bear,” Olinger said.

His therapist said repetition is crucial.

“A lot of it is learning, because you think when you put your hand there you're going close your fingers, but a lot it is learning to coordinate,” occupational therapist Patty Antcliff explained. “So, for him, the more he does it, the more it sends that motor learning in.”

That’s where Olinger’s wife Sam comes in. The Shepherd Center is helping house her and their 1-year-old daughter Kolbie about a mile away from the rehab center. Sam Olinger spends a lot of time with her husband doing “homework,” like picking up Gummi Bears or helping him stretch.

“She practically works here now because she knows how to do different things here,” Britten Olinger said. “If Kolbie wasn't around or my wife wasn't around, my days would look a lot different because I don't know how mentally I would be.”

Family and community support

The family is extremely grateful for the more than $100,000 the community has helped raise for medical bills and renovations to make their Black Mountain home handicapped accessible.

“It's been nice having them both around because it's been big-time extra motivation, especially my daughter because I want to at some point pick her up again,” said Olinger. “That's a big thing. I'm the emotional one between me and my wife.”

RELATED | More than $12K raised during 5K for Montreat coach injured in crash

There's a GoFundMe page, and there's been numerous fund raisers to help the Olinger family. There's been a slideshow in West Asheville, a 5K at Montreat, several benefits and parties, prayer services and even a blood drive. Students from Montreat joined students from other schools in putting tributes to the coach on their gear. Students from several high schools donated gate entrances fees from their meet to the coach.

RELATED | Community raising money & support of Britten Olinger family following tragic crash

Members of the Black Mountain community have begun working on the Olinger’s home to make it wheelchair accessible. If you’d like to donate, click here or e-mail michael.shoaf@montreat.edu. You can also write checks to Olinger's sister NancyQuesenberry and mail them to: Nancy Quesenberry, PO Box 2188, Pulaski, VA 24301.

'The' call

Sam Olinger, who hadn't heard from her husband for about an hour and a half, remembered getting the phone call from an Asheville phone number she didn't recognize.

“I just knew. It's just one of those things you don't expect, but (you know) something's wrong,” Sam Olinger said. “I get there, and it really was the worst-case scenario.

"(Hearing) ‘Your husband might not make it through the night.’ I was like, if you can just keep him stable until his family gets here, at least let them see him if it comes to that.”

RELATED | Serious injuries reported in Black Mountain crash

According to Black Mountain Police, Kyle Carney was driving more than 100 mph over the speed limit the night of the crash. According to arrest warrants, Carney has now been charged with a felony count of assault with a deadly weapon, reckless driving, driving left of center and speeding.

RELATED | New warrants show Black Mountain crash suspect was traveling 120mph in a 20mph zone

Police said the wreck happened about 7 p.m. Feb. 27, 2017, after Carney exited Interstate 40 Westbound onto Highway 70 at about 120 mph in a 20 mph zone and slammed into another vehicle at the intersection of Montreat Road and State Street. Olinger was one of five people injured in the wreck.

In the hospital

The first few weeks at Mission Hospital and Shepherd Center were challenging for the Olinger family. Sam Olinger said she had to read her husband’s lips to inform doctors what he was saying while he was intubated.

“I had instances where they had to FaceTime Sam, so they could see what I was saying, Britten Olinger said.

Britten's occupational therapist said his athletic mindset and having his wife around to help with therapy has contributed to his quick recovery.

“He knows the muscles, he knows what I'm talking about when I say we have to work on your scapula first to give you stability there,” Antcliff said.

Olinger counts the small victories, like getting his neck brace off, being able to shrug his left shoulder, celebrating Kolbie’s first birthday a couple weeks ago and having his first outing to Chick-fil-A. And, with another baby on the way, mental strength is one of Britten's biggest challenges.

“I could be like this in two years, No change. Or I can be walking. You don't know. So, that's what I'm, personally, trying to learn. It's hard. As a coach, you're kind of a control freak, and now I have zero control,” Olinger said.

The only thing he said he can control is how hard he's working, which includes setting up workouts for his track team at home as the athletes try to make it to nationals.

“There are plenty of really good coaches out there. Better than me at track, but now I have a little different story in how I recruit and how to motivate,” Olinger said.

He hopes to return to the track again, but until then, Olinger will continue working.

“I just think that our story's not done yet. There's a bigger purpose,” Olinger said.

If everything goes as expected, Olinger will be coming home by the end of the summer. He will have to make trips back to Shepherd Center to work on his left arm.

Timeline of events

  • About 7 p.m. Feb. 27, 2017 - The wreck happened
  • 4-5 days later - When Olinger opened his eyes
  • About 3 weeks - Olinger was able to mouth words
  • 1 month - How long Olinger was at Mission Hospital
  • March 24 - He was transferred to the ICU in the Shepherd Center
  • End of June or the beginning of July - When Olinger should be able to return home


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