T h e S T R E A M :
Stronger Together: Three Profiles of Survivors
Determined to survive
On April 26, 1976, 29-year-old Lauren Elder found herself stranded on an icy cliff after the four-seat Cessna plane she was in crashed over the mountains. The two other members aboard died immediately after the crash or the next day. She was stranded, alone and alive.
In the late 1930s, Sister Charles Chouinard was sent from her hometown in Northern Minnesota to the motherhouse in France. When World War II broke out, she was forced to stay put; an American, just feet away from German barracks.
At age 77, Olga Kotelko took up track and field. By 94, she held 26 world records, including age group bests in the high jump, hammer throw and 200-meter run.
What sustained these three women to overcome incredible and seemingly impossible feats? That this was not the end. That their circumstances would not define them. They chose to fight. To not merely survive, but to thrive.
As we celebrate women throughout March as part of National Women’s History Month, we profiled the strength, skills and beliefs of these three women. Because we can learn from each other. Because we are stronger together.
See the beauty
After the plane crash, Elder used gasoline from the plane to keep a fire going throughout the chilly night. She drank beer to stave off dehydration. Wearing her outfit of high-heeled boots and a skirt, she still managed hiked for 36 hours until she reached a small California town.
Throughout her trek, she chose to acknowledge the beauty, rather than the fear.
Journalist Laurence Gonzales compiled harrowing survival stories in his book Deep Survival. He learned that survivors see things differently. He sat down with Elder to talk about the hike that eventually led her safely home.
“She found time to stop and skinny-dip in an icy mountain pool and was even moved to cry out with joy. Survival is the celebration of choosing life over death,” Gonzales writes. “Survivors always turn a bad situation into an advantage or at least an opportunity.”
Let go of fears
A retired elementary school teacher, Olga Kotelko began breaking track and field records when others her age were moving into nursing homes. She wanted to stay busy. Despite her age, she wanted to keep on living.
Bruce Grierson, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, became intrigued by Kotelko’s dedication and wrote a book about her called What Makes Olga Run?
He writes, “When people hear how old she is, they seem to look at her more deeply, at her face. To be blunt: she is not aging normally.
"How old do you feel?" I asked her on her 91st birthday.
She thought about that. "Fifty?" She gave a half shrug. "I still have the energy I had at fifty," she said. "More. Where is it coming from? Honestly, I don't know. I wish I knew. It's a mystery even to me.”
Never let your spirit break
When Sister Charles came to the realization she wouldn’t be returning to the U.S. after one year like she planned, she relied on her skills and sense of humor to keep her alive. Born into a French Canadian family, she grew up speaking French, a skill that kept her American heritage hidden.
“No one ever knew she was an American,” her niece, Mary Jeanne Johnson, says. “ And she worked in a nursing home right next to the German barracks.”
Befriending the gardener at the nursing home, she plucked vegetables in the one-acre garden and picked apples in the orchard. This became her sanctuary; her breath of fresh air.
She finally returned home to Minnesota — nine years after she first set foot in France. Years later, she returned to visit the gardener and his family — her saving grace.
Believe that you will succeed
In her book, And I Alone Survived, Elder recounts the aftermath of the crash. “Something very peculiar happened. I got angry. It came simmering up from inside. I thought: That’s not going to happen to me. I am going to get down from here.”
She believed she could — and would — survive.
Sister Charles knew that she would again sink her feet into her beloved Minnesota lakeside town. And she did. Even more impressive, she pursued nursing school and became a nurse anesthetist, managing hospitals in Northern Minnesota until her retirement.
See the opportunity
During setbacks, both Elder and Sister Charles noticed their surroundings. Elder breathed in the wilderness and Sister Charles befriended the gardener.
When Elder spoke of her 36-hour trek to safety, she said, “I kept stopping to appreciate how beautiful the place I was in was. There I was in this amazing wilderness, and I had the whole place to myself.”
By seeing the good and persevering through nearly impossible situations, these women accepted their struggles and found ways to cope.