"When I'm on the field I let my pain wash over me," Olivia tells PEOPLE

By Rose Minutaglio
Updated January 15, 2016 10:30 AM
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Madelin Zaycheck

When Olivia Maccoux’s head hurts, she laces up her cleats and heads out to the soccer field – she doesn’t know why, but when she’s playing sports her pain goes away.

The 20-year-old sophomore at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has endured 120 brain surgeries to treat a condition called hydrocephalus, which causes excess fluid to accumulate in the brain.

Olivia, who also suffers from cerebral palsy and epilepsy, has experienced massive headaches and grand mal seizures her entire life.

But the pain goes away when she puts on a jersey.

“I don’t know if it’s sports that distract me or if it’s just because I love playing them, but for whatever reason, when I’m on the field, in the pool or on the rink, I let my pain wash over me,” she says. “It’s like it doesn’t exist.”

From an early age, Olivia found that participating in sports – soccer, swimming and hockey – helped take her mind off any cerebral pain she was experiencing.

“She’s a different person when she’s out there playing,” Olivia’s mother, Cathy Maccoux, 53, tells PEOPLE. “We see her sad so often, so it’s nice to see her in her happy place. Athletics are her medicine and what she’s most proud of. She doesn’t want to be the sick girl, she wants to be the athlete.”

The proud mother adds, “Her coaches all call her ‘Iron Woman!’ But she’s an iron woman off the court too, we know how hard each surgery is and she’s come out stronger after each one.”

The spunky young woman has always been involved in sports. She joined a fifth-grade swim team in her hometown of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, but when she entered her freshman year of high school, Olivia decided to participate in her school’s adapted athletics program.

“Adapted sports are for kids with disabilities,” she explains. “Basically, it’s a league for people with different kinds of impairments, to be fair and make sure everyone is on the same level.”

But the star athlete, who was awarded “Student Athlete of the Year” during her senior year of high school, is quick to assure you that the word “adapted” doesn’t mean the league is any less competitive.

“If you come to a game, you would never expect that the people on my team are sick or disabled or have spent their entire lives in and out of hospitals,” explains Olivia. “We ram each other into walls and we’re all so focused and passionate!”

Olivia says she doesn’t allow any “inherent stigmas about adapted sports” get in her way during games or matches.

“When I m on the field or in the pool or wherever, I’m not looked at differently,” she says. “I don’t have to be the kid on the disabled team, rather, I’m the girl who is captain of her team and all-tournament and who has three rows of bars on her letter jacket.”

Cathy Maccoux says she used to worry about her daughter getting injured while participating in athletics – especially soccer – but now she hardly thinks about it.

“She would go straight from the ICU to a soccer game with her hospital bracelets still on!” she says. “The first time she did a header in soccer, I almost had a heart attack, but I want her to do everything, I want her to live a normal life.”

Olivia’s doctor, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Children’s Minnesota Dr. Joseph Petronio, says he is “amazed” by Olivia’s determination not to let the hydrocephalus take over her life.

“She is an example of how kids with hydrocephalus can overcome adversity and live normal – and in her case – exemplary, lives,” Dr. Petronio, 56, tells PEOPLE. “She’s transcended her disease.”

The doctor adds, “She’s been a trooper in terms of her resilience and she hasn’t let this compromise her life.”

Olivia, who has made the Dean’s List every semester since starting college, is working toward a communications degree, which she hopes will lead her to a job in non-profit fundraising in the healthcare industry.

“Healthcare is what I’ve known my whole life,” she explains. “I’ve been in the hospital so much and experienced tremendous kindness. I want to give back in any way I can, because I’ve been there!”

The sports aficionado says her athletic endeavors helped boost her self-confidence to become “who she was meant to be.”

“I’m not the sick girl to people, because that’s not who I want to be. I’m not defined by my hydrocephalus or by my 120 surgeries,” she says. “It’s really simple, I’m me! I’m Olivia, and that’s all anyone needs to know!”