It’s roughly 2,000 miles from Colorado to Hartford, Connecticut. When Weaver High School senior Olivia Deleon-Gaston was entrenched in the foster care system in Colorado and then in facing down the many challenges that followed, the idea of being a CAS-CIAC Scholar Athlete likely seemed much farther away than even those 2,000 miles. Ultimately, those distances and challenges were nothing when matched up against the will and tenacity of this special student athlete.
Her story of perseverance and subsequent honors seemed unlikely as recently as a few years ago. But the most exciting thing is that while her selection as Weaver’s female scholar athlete reflects what she’s accomplished in the past, this honor is not a finish — it’s just the start.
“To be chosen this time is everything for me,” Deleon-Gaston explained. “It brought back so many memories and reminded me that I am capable of anything and that people do notice the change.”
Matt Fuller, who coached Deleon-Gaston in several sports at Weaver, nicely sums up what she’s done, and what lies ahead. “She’s [Olivia] done something that some people spend their whole lives trying to accomplish — she’s made peace with a difficult past and took control of her future!”
A quick look at her recent resume shows a set of accomplishments pretty similar to the more than 335 male and female scholar athletes representing their schools in recognition of their exemplary athletic and academic accomplishments. She was a multi-sport athlete as a junior and senior at Weaver, competing as a two-sport athlete as a junior and then adding volleyball to the mix her senior season along with basketball and softball. All that while collecting high honors and honor roll status in the classroom as a junior and senior.
Yet the journey to the sparkling records of the past few years belies the long journey of adversity and personal challenge and triumph that brought her there. After spending time in the foster care system in Colorado, she was adopted and moved to Connecticut at age 10. The change of scenery and newfound family stability did result in an immediate benefit as she struggled with the transition to her new life.
Acting out, run-ins with the police, and even some time spent at an in-patient facility for children with mental health challenges marked the early stages of her life in Connecticut. Things did not improve drastically with the move to high school, as she was ineligible to compete in athletics as a freshman or sophomore due to failure to qualify academically along with disciplinary issues.
As if that all was not enough, she also had to deal with the emotional toll and trauma of losing several close friends to gun violence.
Any one of those hurdles could easily have kept any youngster from reaching their potential, but for Deleon-Gaston a burgeoning support system and the tragedy of those lost helped bring about the changes that propelled her forward.
“Every friend that I’ve lost was on their way to becoming better. They have a past, we all do, but they were on track to change their lives around just like I was, and it was taken from them. Everything I do is for myself, and them so that they can live through me and see that we all made it.”
“I have so much respect and admiration for what her mom did for her, giving her a home and sticking by her side even through some really difficult days at first,” Fuller explained. “I think an even bigger part of it though is just Olivia’s determination and faith in herself. You can’t keep Livie down — every obstacle or hardship or loss she’s faced she’s come back from even stronger.”
Like it has for many students, athletics proved a key piece in the puzzle Deleon-Gaston put together to get the picture of her life in focus. The desire to compete served as a powerful motivator to put the necessary attention on her school work and to keep behavioral issues in check. And the lessons learned as part of a team have bolstered the changes she has made elsewhere.
“[Participating in sports] gave me the foundation I needed to change,” she states. “I knew that when playing sports, the attitude had to go, getting in trouble had to stop, and most importantly I had to actually start caring about school again.”
Caring turned into success everywhere, and the successes began to mount, finally culminating with her selection as Weaver’s female CAS-CIAC Scholar Athlete. CIAC’s description of the Scholar Athlete award states the award is meant to honor students “whose academic and athletic careers have been exemplary, whose personal standards and achievements are a model to others, and who possess high levels of integrity, self-discipline and courage.” Given all she has been through and where she is now, it’s hard to imagine anyone embodying that sentiment more than Deleon-Gaston.
What once seemed so far away and unlikely has come to pass, and while this year’s formal Scholar Athlete banquet will not take place, that does not dampen the remarkable accomplishments and the example she has become. Being in a banquet hall full of people isn’t necessary to validate what she’s overcome to earn this honor.
She says this award serves as a reminder she is capable of anything. As she eyes a path forward — most likely community college with an aim of moving on to a four-year college and perhaps a career in social work — there is little reason to doubt she will reach those goals. She has come too far to stop now. Capable of anything indeed.
“There’s that saying — you can’t go back and change your beginning, but you can start from now and write a new ending,” Fuller says. “That’s Livie. So anyone with a beginning like hers..they can look at Olivia’s story and see hope.”
Hope. It helped bring Deleon-Gaston those 2,000-plus miles and through more trials and tribulations than most can imagine. Now that hope has changed. It’s not just about the hopes she has for herself — it’s about what she knows her story can do to lift up others.
“I want everyone to know that regardless of what you’ve been through, or what you are currently going through, you can do anything,” she explains. “I had to realize that there are people who genuinely want to help you, and I want other kids to know that. If I could possibly help someone to find their passion or purpose in the world, or even just simply to find themselves again then my job will be complete.”