2019 Tillman Scholar

Sara Olsen

University of Maryland
Ph.D., Behavioral & Community Health

“People with disabilities deserve to be heard. I intend to be the change agent for how fitness and medical professionals learn to listen.”


Sara grew up surrounded by people who dedicated their lives to the service of others despite challenges or sacrifices involved: firefighters, teachers, missionaries, nurses and lifelong volunteers. The Navy seemed a natural choice to continue the family tradition of service before self. The combination of adventure with the mission to protect personnel and property inherent in the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) community drew her in. After nine years of active duty as an EOD Officer, Sara transitioned to civilian life. She involved herself in several nonprofits, searching for the same sense of service. She found it, unexpectedly, in the gym.

In 2012, Sara was training wounded warriors and joined a friend in developing a functional fitness competition for people with physical impairments. They were told it was impossible. And it wasn’t perfect that first year, but it was life changing. Athletes expressed being healthier and feeling a sense of belonging for the first time. Sara had found her next calling to serve. The competition evolved into Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance, a nonprofit designed to increase inclusive fitness for all people with disabilities.

The experiences of working with people with disabilities in fitness opened Sara’s eyes to all the social and environmental barriers to participation. What was more surprising was how infrequently the voices of people with disabilities were present in research and policy. Sara is pursuing a Ph.D. in Public Health not to be a voice for others but to make room for those voices to be heard.