Sometimes, the things Jayme Olson hears in the halls at Bettendorf Middle School sound too familiar.
Now working as an associate principal at the school she once attended, Olson can point out to today’s generation of students that what you are today doesn’t necessarily translate to what you can become tomorrow.
“Just because something is a kind of a struggle when you’re a young athlete, it doesn’t always have to stay that way. I wasn’t a good basketball player in middle school. Seventh grade, I was pretty bad,’’ Olson said.
“Nothing was easy about it, but a coach saw in me something I didn’t see in myself. We worked and worked and failing was not an option. Eventually, the confidence that so many middle school-age kids lack, it grew as did my skill. I tell kids now, don’t give up on yourself. You never know what might happen.’’
Once a state champion swimmer, Olson grew to thrive on the basketball court.
She helped Bettendorf High School earn a state championship and went on to become a cornerstone in the foundation of the women’s basketball program at Iowa State where Olson’s jersey has been retired and now hangs from the rafters at Hilton Coliseum.
Olson returned to the Quad-Cities as an educator and coach, first coaching at the freshman level at Pleasant Valley and ultimately as the head coach at her alma mater.
For her accomplishments as an athlete and as a coach, Olson is one of three individuals chosen to be part of the 2019 induction class to the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame.
Davenport Central and Nebraska running back Curtis Craig and a longtime Quad-City journalist, the late Murray Hurt, will be honored with Olson on May 5 at the Quad-City Times Salute to Sports at Bettendorf High School.
Olson’s story of perseverance and ultimate success in a sport that was initially a struggle for her provides lessons she now uses as an example while working with students today.
“I’ve been there," she said. "Being a middle-school age kid can be a pretty rough time, but if you believe in yourself and are willing to put in the work, good things can happen.’’
A swimming beginning
Olson never thought much about becoming a basketball player early in her life.
Her father, Gary, had played at the University of Iowa but Olson’s initial area of competition came in the water.
She was born in Storm Lake, Iowa, and by the age of five she was participating in competitive events for a swim club in that community.
“Basketball wasn’t even on my radar then,’’ Olson said. “My older sister (Mikka) was into swimming. She was three years older than me and at that age, I just wanted to be like her. It was what she did, and it became what I did. It was fun and something to do growing up in a small town.’’
Mikka Olson, a state champion for the Bulldogs herself, would go on to compete in women’s swimming at Iowa State. There was a time when Jayme Olson envisioned herself swimming at the collegiate level as well.
“It was an option, and in my first couple of years of high school, there were recruiters who were reaching out,’’ she said. “It’s something that could have happened, but after 10 years of competitive swimming, there was something about basketball that was catching my attention.’’
By that time, the Olson family had relocated to the Quad-Cities.
Olson was in sixth grade, still swimming and enjoying the sport.
“I was at an age where I was starting to get into sports and I saw it in some ways as a way to make friends after moving into Bettendorf,’’ Olson said. “I joined a basketball team and I had instant friends, a group to hang out with.’’
Olson continued to excel as a swimmer.
From her freshman through her junior year at Bettendorf, she was part of teams coached by Wayne Fatchett which won three Iowa girls state high school championships. As a senior, she was part of a team which finished second in the state.
During Olson’s sophomore season in 1991, Olson won the 100-yard backstroke at the Iowa state finals in a time of 59.06 seconds.
“She was a determined competitor,’’ Fatchett said. “Her sister may have been a little more intense than Jayme was in the pool, but she knew how to compete. She wanted to be good. We had a lot of fun, but she worked hard. The whole team did.’’
Olson’s effort helped the Bulldogs amass what at the time was a state-record 288 points in the 1991 Iowa championships.
“Being a part of great teams at Bettendorf made swimming a lot of fun for me. I had good teammates and we competed at a high level,’’ Olson said. “Being a state champion was a special feeling, something growing up that was a really big deal. Winning as a team was a great accomplishment.’’
A fourth title
Olson wasn’t done winning championships.
As a senior, she led Bettendorf to the Class 4A state championship in the first Iowa state tournament where everybody had five-player basketball.
That came in 1994 and Olson was dominant in a 50-38 title-game victory over a Dubuque Senior team led by future Iowa player Amy Herrig. Olson finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds to help the Bulldogs earn the championship trophy at Veterans Auditorium.
By then, Olson had fallen in love with basketball.
Things didn’t exactly start that way.
She was taller than many of her peers in middle school and Bettendorf seventh-grade coach Lori (Busch) Hatch was determined to make the most of it.
“I was awkward, but she saw some potential and kept trotting me out there,’’ Olson said. “I’d stay after practice and work and work and work with her. There were days when I wondered if it was ever going to amount to anything, but she knew what she was doing.’’
Hatch said Olson wasn’t the only one questioning why Olson was in the lineup.
“When she was in seventh grade, I had an official come up and question me as to why I was playing this kid and it happened to be Jayme,’’ Hatch said. “I remember thinking at the time, he has no idea what her work ethic is.’’
Hatch saw even more.
She had an appreciation for the value that taller players in the middle could provide a team, creating not only inside mismatches but opening things up for perimeter players.
In Olson, Hatch saw those possibilities in a player who ultimately grew to 6-foot-1.
“The possibilities, they were there,’’ Hatch said. “By seventh grade, she was big-time swimmer, and I do feel her training in that sport, the work she had to put in to be good at it, it taught her how to work and she wanted to learn. She wanted to absorb what we were trying to teach her.’’
Ultimately, things clicked for Olson.
“She had more confidence in me than I did in myself,’’ Olson said. “She was constantly reinforcing the positives to keep me going, building me up. At that point, I still wasn’t sure if there was anything to be confident about.’’
Olson believed her strength from swimming did make a difference.
“There was a whole different mentality to the training, and there was a significant adjustment between the seasons, but I do think the strength that I had from swimming helped me in basketball over time,’’ Olson said. “I was able to use that to my advantage.’’
That helped lead Olson to success at a time when her interest in the game was growing.
“I had been swimming for what seemed like my entire life and as I began to experience some good things in my game in basketball, it was new and exciting for me,’’ Olson said. “It was a different experience and I was starting to really enjoy the game.’’
She was also beginning to see the same potential that Hatch had seen several years earlier.
Gary Altman was coaching the Bettendorf varsity team at the time. After getting a taste of varsity competition, Olson was surprising herself but also beginning to understand what Hatch had working to develop two seasons before.
“I was having some success, starting to believe that maybe I could actually do this,’’ Olson said.
The Bulldogs reached the Iowa state tournament in each of Olson’s four years of high school, teams coached by Altman in 1991 and 1992 and by Hatch in 1993 and 1994 after Altman left to become the director of athletics at Burlington High School.
“By my senior year, we had one goal in mind, to win a state championship,’’ Olson said. “Everybody got along, everybody was willing to put in the work to make it happen. Gary Altman left the program in a good place and Lori built on that and together we accomplished a lot of good things.’’
Olson believes a lot of that had to do with Hatch’s style.
“She was always, from middle school through high school, a very positive person as she coached and she cared a great deal about fundamentals and breaking things down in a way which resonated,’’ Olson said.
Named as the Quad-City Times Female of the Year as a senior, Olson captained the all-tournament team in addition to leading the state in scoring in 1994.
She finished her career at Bettendorf with a school-record 1,421 career points and 693 rebounds. In 2003, Olson was named to the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union Hall of Fame.
The next step
Olson began to hear from college basketball recruiters during her sophomore year of high school.
One of the first letters arrived from Butler. Another came from Bradley. She also heard from Notre Dame, but quickly dissected it was a form letter because she was receiving duplicates with her name spelled two different ways.
“At least they were sending them,’’ Olson said.
As recruiting intensified, Olson began to whittle down possibilities.
With her sister swimming at Iowa State, she was familiar with the campus and liked a lot of what she saw.
“With my dad having played at Iowa, I grew up a Hawkeye fan but I liked Ames a lot and academically it was the right fit for me,’’ Olson said. “I was interested in majoring in psychology and everything about Iowa State made sense. I could see myself playing there.’’
The Cyclones had little tradition in women’s basketball at the time.
The program at Iowa State had only five winning seasons in its history and had never played in a postseason game when Olson signed with coach Theresa Becker’s program.
She found her way onto the court quickly and in her freshman year, Olson earned all-conference honors and was named the 1995 Big Eight freshman of the year despite playing on a team which finished 8-19.
Having been a part of teams which had reached four consecutive state tournaments in high school, Olson found herself dealing with all sorts of different emotions at that point.
“I could tell coming in that the players cared and wanted to succeed,’’ Olson said. “I felt like it was a chance for me to step in and help build something good. It was a tough first year, though, real tough.’’
The experience helped her gain mental toughness. When the season was over, Olson did contemplate re-evaluating her future and if ISU was the place she wanted to be.
Ultimately, Becker resigned and Iowa State hired Toledo coach Bill Fennelly to build the Cyclones’ program.
Fennelly already knew a little about Olson.
Hatch was at William Penn when Fennelly was working as a graduate assistant there and she had reached out to Fennelly to let him know that Olson might be worth a look.
“Best decision she ever made was not to go to Toledo,’’ Fennelly said. “She was what you look for at her position and she could have helped us, but that’s one recruit I’m thankful I didn’t get and that Jayme was at Iowa State when I arrived.’’
A different level
It didn’t take Olson long to realize that Fennelly arrived prepared to change the culture of the Iowa State program.
“Immediately, you could tell he had a great basketball knowledge and he changed the demeanor of the program 180 degrees from where it had been,’’ Olson said.
“It was easy to buy in to what he was asking us to do because the players there, they cared. They wanted to have success. He was the guy to bring it together.’’
Fennelly sensed that as well.
“Any growth was going to be progress,’’ he said. “At that time, you could probably have written the highlights of Iowa State women’s basketball history on a napkin.’’
Olson welcomed the opportunity.
“I had three years left. I wanted to make the most of it. And the change, it happened quickly, more so than I think any of us could have anticipated,’’ she said. “Coach Fennelly, the new staff, they invigorated all of us and had us believing in ourselves.’’
Fennelly believed in what he saw in Olson.
“She was a very skilled, undersized post player who understood how to play within her capabilities and she wasn’t afraid to work at her game,’’ Fennelly said. “She could score from any angle. She was the kind of player that her teammates migrated to because they liked the way she worked and played."
Olson found herself in the middle of it all.
She became one of the cornerstones of the transformation that was taking place within an Iowa State program that Fennelly has led for the past 24 seasons.
“When you’re establishing a program, you need a Jayme Olson to set the bar of expectations,’’ Fennelly said. “I liked her game in high school. I liked it even better when I had the chance to coach her and the fact she was an eastern Iowa kid was the bonus that made it even better.’’
Under Fennelly, Olson started every game for Iowa State during her final three seasons and was a part of the first two Cyclone teams to ever play in the NCAA tournament.
As a senior in 1998, Olson was part of an Iowa State team which defeated Kent State to win in the NCAA tourney for the first time in school history.
“To be a part of the program at Iowa State at that time, it was exciting. People were discovering women’s basketball and fans were showing up at our games,’’ Olson said. “It was exciting to be part of the foundation of what is still a strong program.''
She completed her collegiate career as a four-time all-conference selection, splitting honors between the Big Eight and Big 12, and had established 13 season and 15 career school records at Iowa State.
In 2004, ISU retired Olson’s jersey number 53. In 2014, she was selected to the ISU Letterwinners Athletics Hall of Fame.
Olson didn’t step away from the game after completing her college career, but her role changed.
Altman returned to the Quad-Cities and was coaching at Pleasant Valley where he offered Olson an opportunity to coach the Spartans’ freshman team.
“I had a good experience playing for coach Altman and coaching was something I was definitely interested in doing,’’ Olson said. “Getting the chance to teach the fundamental side of the game, something I believe in, was my niche.’’
That also proved to be among the greatest challenges of transitioning from player to coach.
“Coming right out of college, it was tough at first to remember that these were kids just learning,’’ Olson said. “You wanted them to grasp everything right away, but it doesn’t work that way. My own career should have taught me that. I learned a lot coaching for the first time and it was a good experience for me.’’
She relied on what she had learned from Altman and Hatch in high school and from Fennelly in college.
The methodology was rooted in the fundamental beliefs of the coaches she had played for in the past.
After two years as a freshman coach at Pleasant Valley, Olson became an assistant coach at Bettendorf for the 2002-03 season on a staff led by Dave Terronez.
Olson became the Bulldogs' head coach after Terronez stepped down following that season, guiding the Bettendorf program for the next six seasons before working toward an educational leadership degree and ultimately into her current administrative position.
“It was a special opportunity to be the head coach of the program I played for in high school,’’ Olson said. “Every season in coaching was a different year, something I appreciate probably now more than I did at the time. I have a real appreciation for the time and hours coaches put into their work.’’
Olson has spent time in recent years coaching youth teams that included her nieces, but now mostly enjoys being a spectator.
She typically finds a seat in the gym, often away from a lot of fans to simply sit back and take in the action.
“It’s a different perspective, just like coaching and playing was,’’ Olson said. “Watching takes me back to when I was learning the game.''
As she watches, she appreciates every step along the way.
“Keep working, keep working, and at the end of the day you can get to places you never expected to be,’’ Olson said. “The kids at school now, they can do the same.’’