Q-C Sports Hall of Fame

Olsen's uplifting style endures at Augustana

2013-04-21T00:03:00Z 2014-04-14T12:56:13Z Olsen's uplifting style endures at AugustanaAdam Soebbing asoebbing@qctimes.com The Quad-City Times
April 21, 2013 12:03 am  • 

The gate was locked.

So Paul Olsen stepped to the chain-link fence and admired Augustana College's all-weather track from a distance.

Five decades ago, shortly after Olsen finished his college athletic career, this was a life-changing moment for him. This, and the day his brother was killed.

In 1965, Olsen and his parents, Rolf and Borghild — “Buggs” for short — traveled home to Onamia, Minn., from a family reunion in the Ozarks.

They stopped in Rock Island so Olsen could show his parents what he believed to be the only all-weather track in the Midwest at the time.

Olsen had been here before as a runner. But this moment would stick with him for what he said to his parents that day.

"Mom and Dad, look at this,” Olsen said. “This would be great to coach here someday.”

A year later, that's exactly what happened. And, all these years later, it's difficult to imagine one without the other.

On May 8, Olsen will be honored for his accomplishments when he is inducted into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame along with former volleyball star Cathy Noth and longtime St. Ambrose basketball coach and athletic director Ray Shovlain.

Living the dream

Olsen stands at the top of the Ericson Field bleachers. He looks down on the track that now bears his name.

Forty-eight years have passed since he peered at the surface as a 21-year-old Luther College graduate.

Olsen and the Vikings are still going strong.

Augustana ranks No. 8 in the nation as it approaches the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin meet, where Olsen will go for a 13th outdoor championship. Since he took over as men’s track coach in 1969, Augie has fared no worse than third in the conference, and that happened just twice.

On campus, he's equally respected as a professor of English.

Since Olsen first came to Augustana in 1966 as head cross country coach, among other roles, he has built a remarkable resumé that includes 172 Division III all-Americans and 25 individual national champions across track and cross country.

Olsen has done it all with a positive coaching philosophy fostered during a childhood touched by tragedy and deepened by an appreciation for literature and poetry.

“My goal is to help kids have the best four years of their life,” Olsen says. “If we celebrate life — times and heights and distances — they take care of themselves.”

He uses themes such as “Celebrate life” and “The journey is the goal.” It has produced a winning formula that's both endured and endeared him to his athletes and students.

“You couldn’t help but love him,” says Mike Meyer, an all-American in 1980.

‘Glass is always full’

"Come on Jeremy!” Olsen booms from the top of the bleachers.

Olsen hustles to the finish line to greet his runner, a scene repeated often throughout the Augustana Open on March 28, the season’s second outdoor track meet.

Olsen’s endless enthusiasm is on full display.

After the 4x100 relay, Olsen hurries to the scorer’s table to check the time.

“41.27! 41.27!” he repeats. Olsen congratulates his relay squad, including senior Alex Rindone, on an outstanding (officially 41.28) early-season time. “Great job. Great job. Way to go. Wow."

Rindone says: “He’s one of our sparkplugs even though he’s a little bit old.”

Olsen makes his way to the high jump, where Justin Davidson is on his way to a victory despite missing practice time and the first meet of the season with an illness.

“New training method,” Olsen tells him after an embrace. “Get sick, get well-rested.”

Josh Eisenberg finishes middle of the pack in the 110-meter hurdles, but Olsen is there to pick him up.

“It’s one of the most inspirational things,” says Eisenberg, a decathlete. “Even if you were to no-height, there’s always something you did great.”

It's been this way for 40-plus years.

Jim Braet, a 1969 graduate, recalls when Olsen would clock as many miles as the runners.

"When you ran, he was on one side, and when you got to the other side of the track when you're running the corner, he was there. Then he was back at the finish line," Braet says. “His enthusiasm was contagious.”

Olsen, 69, still gets around the track. He walks briskly from event to event, athlete to athlete. And in all of of his interactions with his team, the delivery remains the same, without fail, win or lose: Overwhelmingly positive.

“He’s not a glass half-full guy,” says Dave Wrath, who ran for Olsen and has worked alongside him in the Augustana athletic department for 32 years. “The glass is always full in his world.”

Story time

At some point in every season, Olsen will sit the team down and he’ll tell a story.

Sometimes a little goofy. Sometimes serious. But always with a message.

“He would tell you stories that make 19-, 20-year old kids bawl their eyes out one minute and ready to run through a brick wall the next,” Meyer says.

Sitting in his office at the Carver PE Center the day before the Augustana Open, “Ols” is in classic form.

This tale is one of his favorites about Socrates Catavatis, a three-time all-American decathlete in the 1980s.

Not quite a distinguished pole vaulter — "He's no good, but he's not going to kill himself," Olsen says — Catavatis took off down the runway at a meet. The pole hit the box and went flying. Catavatis crashed into the pit, with the bar and both standards toppling on top of him.

Olsen remembers Catavatis sitting in the box, embarrassed.

“You had to be a hell of an athlete to live through that," Olsen told him.

Olsen could have said what many coaches would.

"Next time Soc, move your grip down." Or "Next time, drive your leg harder."

Not Olsen.

“They want to be overcoached, I think, and they overcoach themselves,” Olsen says of track athletes in general. “And we fight that.”

Olsen uses a more recent example of a high jumper who was planting heel first instead of toe first. A coach pointed this out to Olsen.

“I know,” Olsen replied. “Don’t tell him.

"The kid’s a 7-foot high jumper, and he’s 5-10. You’re doing it all wrong!" he says. "That’s overcoaching."

Wrath, though, wants to make sure one core fact comes out.

“Sometimes we forget what an actual tremendous fundamental coach he really is,” Wrath says. “You look at this guy who has taken positiveness to a whole new level. And he’s taken belief in individuals to a whole new level. And you forget that part of why he believes in people is because he believes in what he’s teaching.”

Olsen often uses literature and poetry to inspire his team. He says he first discovered the energizing power of the written word in college.

He and his roommate would read from “A Heart of a Champion,” a book about track by Olympic decathlon champion Bob Richards, on bus rides to meets. They pounded their feet against the floor as they read.

“Read it, Ols! Read it!” his roommate would say.

As a coach, Olsen doesn’t hesitate to draw from his favorite authors and poets.

Olsen’s athletes, from Wrath to Rindone, would recognize this piece of literature from Swedish novelist Karl Lagerfield. The passage hits on another Olsen theme: Aim high.

“The wealth of life is boundless. The wealth of life is as great as we can grasp. Can we ask for more? When, nevertheless, we do ask for more, then all the incomprehensible exists as well, all that we cannot grasp. As soon as we are able to reach out our hands for something, as soon as we get the feeling that something is, immediately it is. Can we ask for more?"

'I killed him!'

Olsen was 10 when he went hunting for the first time in 1953. He has never forgotten the day.

He was with his father, while his 14-year-old brother, David, was hunting ducks with his best friend, Jack, on Lake Onamia, just a few blocks from the family home.

Suddenly, Olsen heard a chilling scream.

“I killed him!”

Olsen looked at his father and said, “That sounds like Jack.”

No, his father replied, they said they were going across the lake. He sent Olsen home.

Not knowing his brother had been accidentally shot and killed, Olsen ran to check on the neighbors before heading home.

Olsen’s father stayed behind and watched as a duck boat pulling Jack and something under a piece of canvas rowed to shore.

“He picked up that piece of canvas, and my brother was shot this far away with a shotgun in his face,” Olsen says, holding his hands just a few feet apart. “How that could ever happen ...”

David and his friend had stood at the same time to shoot. Tragically, David ended up in front of his friend’s aim.

When Olsen got home, he saw his dad and a family friend, Walt, walking up the hill. Walt had his arm around Rolf.

Olsen’s mom came out to the steps leading to the house to see what was wrong. His father approached.

“She just looked at him and fell off the step,” Olsen said. “He caught her.”

The tragedy shook the family. Buggs Olsen told a local newspaper years later that not a day went by when she didn’t think of David.

“But I’ve accepted his passing as part of God’s plan and both Rolf and I have called upon our deep faith to help us through this sorrow,” she told the Mille Lacs Messenger in 1998.

For Olsen, who says he was too young to truly grieve, he simply missed his brother.

“I saw too early before I was intellectually or emotionally mature enough to get what death meant,” Olsen says. “I just knew absence. And I didn’t like absence. So I was going to fill absence with stuff to do.”

Dream big

Like any kid, Olsen had big dreams as a child. The first?

“I wanted to go out West and be a cowboy like Tom Mix,” he says.

Olsen grew out of that and set his heart on becoming an FBI agent. That is until Olsen, who disliked math, realized he needed an accounting degree.

In the Olsen household, no dream was too big.

Rolf Olsen was a high school principal and later superintendent in Onamia, a town of about 500 people in Mille Lacs County. He was the only person in town with a master’s degree, Olsen says, and the man everyone went to when they needed help. Buggs Olsen was a popular fifth-grade teacher.

The Olsens were pillars of the community, and the couple’s lasting impact was chronicled in the aforementioned newspaper article titled “Onamia’s treasure trove.”

Olsen’s full-blooded Norwegian parents were his role models. For emotional stability. For enthusiasm.

“Especially my mom and this demonstrative enthusiasm,” Olsen says. “A zest for life.”

A young Olsen thrived in a culture of constant encouragement.

“I never thought there wasn’t something I couldn’t do,” he says.

It’s a culture he and his wife, Jeanne, re-created within their own family. The couple has two sons and they too had big dreams. The oldest, David, named after Olsen’s brother, became a Navy SEAL. Eric, an actor, has appeared in a number of Hollywood movies and currently portrays detective Marty Deeks on “NCIS: Los Angeles.”

For Olsen growing up, nothing was out of bounds. He hunted, fished and trapped muskrats. He read poetry. In high school, he played basketball, football and baseball and ran track. He sang in the choir. He played in the band.

“Not because I was good,” Olsen points out. “They didn’t have anybody.”

A thought then creeps into Olsen’s head, one he hadn’t articulated before now.

“I wonder if I like doing everything because my brother couldn’t do anything,” he says.

Olsen stayed busy in college. He played football and ran track at Luther while he double majored in history and English.

He got his first job out of college in 1965 in Manitowoc, Wis., as an English teacher and assistant football and track coach at Lincoln High School. He loved it. He never had designs on leaving.

And then he got a call from an old Luther College associate about an opening at Augustana.

Staying put

Olsen’s decision to leave Manitowoc was difficult, as was his eventual decision to stay at Augustana.

In 1970, the University of Wisconsin sought out Olsen to become head cross country and assistant track coach. He had an offer in hand.

But something didn’t feel right. Not this time, and not when Oregon State came calling in 1979.

Ultimately, Olsen concluded, “It was so full-time track, and that isn’t who I am.”

Olsen went on to get his masters and doctorate in English literature from the University of Oregon during the summers and began teaching freshman English at Augie soon after.

Olsen had everything he ever wanted at Augustana. He was coaching. He was teaching.

And nearly 50 years after first arriving at Augie, his passion for both jobs hasn’t waned one bit.

No end in sight

A month ago, Olsen was in the concession stand at Paul V. Olsen Track.

It was a Friday, on the eve of the first outdoor meet of his 45th season as track coach. He swept and vacuumed the area where athletes would check in. The process stirred up familiar feelings.

“It just kind of fired me up," he says.

Later, he went to his office and organized the heats and flights. The feeling returned, stronger than before.

“And I got a little more fired up,” he says. “And I was gathering the records for the announcer, just doing all the little meticulous things — and every step I took I just got more and more excited.”

Eventually, he arrived home and told himself something he already knew.

“Man,” he says, “retirement is way off.”

Copyright 2015 The Quad-City Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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