Five years ago, Jason Olexyn quit as head volleyball coach of the Duchess Park school in Prince George, British Columbia.
When he stepped down, he was regarded as one of the area's best coaches, guiding his teams to three championships and earning B.C. coach of the year honors in 2001.
But in November 2002, just a few days before he turned 30, Coach Olexyn found out he has multiple sclerosis.
Today, the disease has progressed to the point where he's unable to walk without the use of a cane.
But one day last year, Coach Olexyn's 5-year-old son Griffin, who was born after his father quit coaching, saw a picture of his Dad that caught his eye.
The following is an excerpt from this article:
The snapshot was taken at the exact moment [Coach Olexyn's team] won their 2001 B.C. championship at the College of New Caledonia. The picture shows the Duchess Park players just starting their celebration after beating the top-ranked H.J. Cambie Crusaders of Richmond 15-9 in a fifth and deciding set.
The Crusaders had taken the first two sets 27-25, 25-22 but the Condors -- with a display of guts and determination -- won the next two 25-19, 25-13. In the photo taken at championship point, Olexyn can be seen on the Duchess Park sidelines, in a crouch, with both fists clenched in victory.
Griffin, after looking at the photo, had a question for his mom.
"Mommy, what’s that a picture of?"
[Olexyon's wife answered] "Well, that’s daddy at provincials."
He asked, "What’s he doing?"
She proceeded to say, "He’s coaching."
And then he proceeded to say, "Well, when’s he going to coach again?"
Prior to that day, Olexyn had been spinning his wheels about a return to coaching. He wanted to do it, but concerns about his lack of mobility were holding him back.
He didn’t know if he could still lead practices and was worried about whether or not players would be able to see past his disability and respect him as a coach.
"(Griffin asking about the photo) was the light that came on,” Olexyn said. “That was the moment that I went, ‘I’ve got to coach.’ And, if not for myself, for my son to be exposed to the sport of volleyball, me coaching, being in a gym. It’s priceless to have him around and exposed to the sport itself and to me coaching. I wanted him to see me coaching and him to experience that. That’s my honest truth, and that’s what threw me over the edge."
"It’s just where I should be, it’s where I want to be, it’s what I want to be doing,” Olexyn said of coaching. “Of course it takes my mind off of things but I don’t sit and dwell on my disability. It’s not something that I’m going to worry about. I don’t have very much control over it anyway.
“It’s just good to be back. Physically, I don’t have as much to offer but mentally I still think I have a pretty good volleyball mind and I still have a lot to offer if people are willing to listen.”
“I had skepticism because obviously the MS had sort of taken over my physicality,” Olexyn added. “I don’t have much balance, my ability to walk is diminishing. And so to be the same coach I once was, I wasn’t sure if I could be effective because I couldn’t get up and do the drills and I couldn’t physically do what I used to be able to do.”
Thankfully, but not surprisingly, a coaching staff with spotless credentials stepped up to help Olexyn [at his new job at College Heights Secondary School]. His fellow College Heights coaches include Mike Sookochoff, Meredith Spike, Marla Spike and Pamela Parker.
On practice nights, with the extra hands on deck, Olexyn is able to run the show from the sidelines.
“I give the team the instructions -- this is how the drill’s going to go -- and then Mike or Meredith toss balls and hit balls at the girls for me and I instruct them what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong at the time,” Olexyn said. “I think it’s really working. Just the amount of improvement they’ve shown says to me that something’s working and something is going right.”
At a Kelly Road tournament two weekends ago, [Olexyn's team] finished in the bronze-medal position, their first top-three result of the season.
Olexyn’s return to high school volleyball is described by Sookochoff as “heroic.”
Sookochoff, perhaps the longest-serving volleyball coach in the city, said he’s proud to work with Olexyn and is thrilled to see him passing along his knowledge to a new crop of players.
“He has his way of bringing out the best in each player,” Sookochoff said. “He’s a good teacher. At practices, I’ve noticed that the girls listen and they react to his instructions.
“I have deep admiration for him,” Sookochoff added. “I think him being back reflects on his love of the sport, his passion for the sport.”
As a coach, Olexyn is just as intense as he was during his championship seasons at Duchess Park.
When he senses his players aren’t practicing or playing with total focus, he speaks out. He has made the commitment to them and he expects them to give their best in return.
“He’s honestly the best coach we’ve had. He’s very good, even though he can’t do the most physical stuff with us. He knows exactly what he’s talking about and it has helped us out a lot this year.”
Hegel is inspired by the courage Olexyn has shown in stepping back into the game.
“It shows his love for volleyball, and he’s very committed,” she said. “He’s probably more committed than half the people on our team.”
Right from the start, Olexyn told his players that five-year-old Griffin was the motivation behind his coaching comeback. On select practice nights, Griffin is in the gym, chasing loose balls and just being a kid. He also sits on the team bench during games.
“The girls have embraced him,” Olexyn said.
Despite the challenges presented by his MS, he hopes to be on the Cougars’ bench for many seasons to come.
“I’m not going to sit around and dwell on it and worry about it. I’ve got an extremely supportive wife in everything I do, an extremely helpful family. Even my five-year-old son helps me out immensely. And he’s the one who keeps me going.”