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Manhattan athletes make school a friendly place for previously bullied student

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MANHATTAN, MT -

The hallways at any high school can be lonely. They can be challenging, awkward and cruel, maybe even scary. They certainly were for Mackenzie Olson at her last school in Wisconsin.

She was insulted and ostracized by her classmates. They teased her about her looks and figure until the bullying escalated to the point of sexual harassment when she was a sophomore.

She would cry herself to sleep at night and hide her tears in class.

Now, those days are behind her. Her classmates at Manhattan High School have made sure of it, and they might have even saved her life.

“This school has become a big part of my life,” Olson said. “I mean, I went to my first dance here, I joined my first team here. I did a whole bunch of firsts in just one year of being here. I had my first slow dance, I had my first time talking to a guy face to face seriously. It’s just making wonders for what could’ve been. Just to think if I was still at my last school, I could have committed suicide or attempted to commit suicide, and it just makes me think, ‘What if I was still there?’”

Olson, who said she battles depression and anxiety, has experienced some of the worst things high school too frequently offers. She’s attended schools with 3,000 students and now schools with less than 250. She knows the cliques of popular girls and the stereotypical jocks led by the star quarterback.

But this stop has been different. Olson, who played golf and was a manager on the girls basketball team last year as a junior but opted for work instead of extracurricular activities this year, is experiencing some of the best things high school can offer.

“I could never really talk to a guy face to face that was in my school, because I would either fumble my words or I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” Olson said. “My first week here actually, Alec Nehring came up to me and sat there and talked with me for 30 minutes. He just welcomed me with pretty much open arms in a way.

“And Alec this year was the star quarterback. Just knowing that you have a friend like him, that a quarterback can actually be a friend, is shocking and shows that there are people out there that actually show passion for making others feel welcome.”

Nehring’s athletic accomplishments are well-documented.

Record-setting all-state quarterback. All-state basketball standout. Defending Class B shot put and discus state champion. Future Division I athlete.

But it’s his compassion and humility that separates Nehring, a future thrower at Montana State, from his peers. If Olson posts something on social media or Snapchat, Nehring is one of the first friends to reach out, messaging the entire night if need be.

It’s actually that type of benevolence that separates the Tigers’ entire track and field team from the pack.

“They’re the kind of guys that will go out of their way to do something nice for somebody else,” said coach John Sillitti. “They’re the leaders in the school. They’re everything that you would hope – a team that’s strong, you hope they’re nice kids and not cocky.”

“Definitely having good character has worked out for us,” said Nehring, a senior. “I couldn’t say if there’s a direct correlation there, but I think anyone should try to have success in being a good person before they try to have success on the track.”

The Tigers are proving that success is attainable in both. Last year’s track team was the most successful in Class B history. They set a class record by scoring 109 points at the state meet, claiming their fourth consecutive team championship.

Every point from that team returned this year – though some of the Tigers are battling lingering injuries – so expectations are high yet again. The final results will speak for themselves, one way or another, but they’ll be determined by not only what happens in practice but in the school.

“It’s more important to be known as a good person than a good athlete,” said pole vaulter Shondel Connerton, another senior leading by example.

He’s consciously aware of his actions, but Connerton doesn’t seem to realize the impact he’s had on Olson or in the school.

Dances are difficult for Olson. She had never been to one until Homecoming last year. Even then, she tends to stay to herself, sometimes moping until a boy asks her to dance.

Connerton made the gesture at prom during the king-and-queen dance. He was the first one to walk across the floor, shocking Olson when he extended his hand and asked her to join him on the dance floor. The rest of the students, led by one of Olson’s friends, broke into a chorus of awws.

“When he slow-danced with me, just having those people to step out and say, ‘Hey, want to slow-dance with me?’ or something like that, it makes me realize that they actually do think of me sometimes,” Olson said, adding that Caleb Neth, a two-time long jump and 300-meter hurdles state champion, also asked her to dance later in the evening.

“I wasn’t thinking too much of it in the moment,” Connerton said. “We try to be nice people to everybody. We try to make it important to make everybody feel welcome, so that’s just something we try to do. … It feels great to know that we’re making a difference.”

“It made me feel accepted, compared to other schools where I would sit there for weeks on end just sitting by myself,” Olson said. “I don’t feel alone here.”

Not here. Not in these hallways.

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