BENZONIA — Matt Olson knows the power of a good pep talk.
The Benzie Central High School boys basketball coach peps up his players. He boosts books to his high school English students. He is upbeat about his multiple sclerosis diagnosis.
"I'm optimistic — that's my personality," Olson said of the diagnosis he received in February. "I keep going about things the way I did before. I forget about it."
Olson, 36, lives in Beulah with his dog and two cats. He moved to the area as a 9-year-old; his father, Pete Olson, retired as Benzie Central's principal a few years ago. His mom, Donna Brown, is a bookkeeper in Arcadia.
Olson loves sports, history and the fine points of grammar, he said. MS was the furthest thing from his mind when he started seeing double last February.
"I thought I had vertigo, or I hit my head," Olson said.
Symptoms worsened, tests were run, then he got his diagnosis.
"It was the farthest thing from my mind — MS is not as common as it once was," Olson said. "I thought at one point that I had a tumor ... It could be worse, it could be much worse."
MS is when the body's immune system starts attacking the central nervous system, specifically, the blood's T-cells start secreting chemicals that destroy myelin — a fatty sheath that surrounds and protects nerves.
But Olson's prognosis is good, and his symptoms now are handled by thrice weekly injections, he said.
Olson's mom accompanied him to his first neurology appointment.
She was diagnosed with MS at 38, almost 25 years ago.
"It's not genetic but runs in families — there's still a lot we don't know a lot about it," Brown said of MS, which doesn't have an established cause.
"It's not something you want to hear about your child."
But Brown, too, is optimistic, as medical knowledge expands and research seems closer to finding a cure, she said.
"He's very positive, and I think he has a pretty good role model. I'm not a 'Debbie Downer' about it," Brown said of Olson. "I take it as it comes. It hasn't impaired my life. I work, I do what I need to do."
She knows Olson is slightly uncomfortable with his role in Saturday's Sandy Kay 5K Race at 9 a.m. on the Benzie Central High School cross country course — the run/ walk benefits multiple sclerosis research in his honor.
But people should know that they can help, she said.
"I think people have the wrong idea — they don't think you can do anything for MS, but with more funding, we could see a cure in Matt's lifetime," Brown said. "I would like that."
Olson said he supports the students' effort to raise money for the National MS Society and is touched by the rural school's response to his condition, he said.
Students studied multiple sclerosis in their biology classes, strapped on eye patches like the one Olson wore and filled the stands of a Benzie Central/Frankfort basketball game wearing MS-awareness orange after Olson shared his news.
"The 'orange out' was amazing to see ... all the kids in the stands. It's humbling," Olson said.
Olson's ongoing sunny attitude is inspiring to the students, said Benzie Central junior Lauren Church, who presides over the Rotary-sponsored Interact club hosting Saturday's event.
"We were surprised; he still seems himself," Church said of Olson. "He came back the next day like nothing happened."
Olson went on to coach his Huskies to a district title — their first in 20 years — and recently revived the school's television station.
"If there's something to get involved in, I'm in it," Olson said.