Olsen, an Augustana Legacy


This article was written by guest reporter, Clayton Sommers
Paul Olsen has had many experiences, but the one that changed Augustana’s track and field coach forever came the first time he hunted.
On an early, cold fall morning in Minnesota when he was 10 years old, Olsen shot across the lake, only hear a cry from what sounded like his brother. Immediately he ran to his father. His father, without saying a word, walked to the lake, where he found his dead son. He laid a sheet over his son’s body and walked back home. Without a tear in his eye, his father approached Olsen and his mother, who fainted off the front porch into her husband’s arms.
Something this tragic happening at only 10 years old changes the way one looks at the world, but somehow Olsen has not let it control him. It’s made him see the world in a more positive way and helped turn him into the legend who is now coaching in his 52nd and final season at Augie. Olsen is retiring.
Walking into his office, one sees pictures all around – not just ordinary pictures, but images of track and field athletes. Some are pictures of what past athletes look like now with spouses and kids. Some are of the 264 All-Americans, and others are of the 46 academic All-Americans coached by Olsen.
Some pictures show less-distinguished athletes. They are athletes that Olsen simply thought meant more to the team than what they did on the track. For each one of those hundreds of athletes he has on his wall, he has 10 stories – stories that date back to 1967, when his career began. Yes, he’s a decorated track coach, but there is more than just a coach that makes up Paul Olsen – or “Ols,” as people say.
“Coach Olsen was incredibly important to me as an athlete, but it was Dr. Paul Olsen who had the greatest impact on the way I think and act as a teacher, coach, father, husband, friend, etc.,” said Evan Holshback, a former Olsen athlete who also became a track coach. “My time with Olsen left me with a more hopeful lens through which I see the world.
Olsen has been at the top of the track-and-field game for a long time, but track was not his first and only love. He was a huge football kid growing up in a small town in Minnesota. Because he played football and baseball, there wasn’t any time for him to run track in high school. However, when the track coach one day said “You’re coming with us to go run in the track meet,” Olsen was all in.
He wasn’t the fastest or strongest, but he found a new love. He even cut the grass to make a 200-meter circle that went uphill a bit. He joined the Luther College track team. He didn’t run much his freshman year, but come sophomore year he beat out one of the senior captains for a spot on the 4×400 relay. His success in college was just the beginning.
His first coaching job right out of college landed him at a small school in Wisconsin, where he was an assistant football and track-and-field coach. He had everything he had ever wanted at that school: a teaching position, coaching in two sports, and great friends around him. So, how did Olsen give up everything that he had ever wanted to come to a school where they were offering him just the position as head cross country and track coach?
It’s simple. He said he had a bit too much to drink one night, called Augustana up and said yes to the deal. Olsen is not a drinker, but one wild night at a friend’s wedding turned into a 52-year career at Augie.
“A decision that would lead me to 50 years of happiness,” Olsen said.
Only being a year or two older than the seniors on the Augie track team, it was hard the first couple of years, but the athletes welcomed him as a peer. Some say that a coach should not become friends with his players. Olsen said no to that and has become way more than just a friend to most of his athletes.
He has become a mentor. Some of his former athletes have even gone as far as to name their own children after Olsen. Holshbach did just that. Holshbach said the Augustana track team and Olsen had a huge influence on his decision to become a track coach. The positivity and the “I Believe” attitude really made his experience amazing and helped him realize how much he loves track. Not only did Olsen impact Holshbach on the track but in the classroom as well.
Another one of Olsen’s athletes got his girlfriend pregnant while attending Augie. The athlete came from a deeply religious home. His parents kicked him out of the house. Olsen went to the man’s house and told the parents just how much their kid needed them now more than ever. Later during the season, Olsen said he looked over next to the track and saw the couple playing with their newly born grandchild and the child’s mother.
Olsen said he cares more about what goes on off the track than he does on. Winning and becoming and All-American is great, but for a coach to care that much about his athletes is truly something special. In return for that, his athletes come back to him. Every track assistant currently with the team used to compete for Olsen.
One of these Assistants is Mike Pettis. Pettis has been around since he first came to Augie in 2005. He enjoys the positivity that Olsen brings every day so much that he decided he never wants to leave.
“Without Olsen, I wouldn’t have Augustana in my life,” Pettis said. “Olsen provided me the opportunity to coach, specifically at Augustana, but I could have coached in a myriad of different environments. The difference is the culture and environment I get to coach in.
“My coach/life balance is much greater than it would be elsewhere because he has always stressed he’d rather have me around a little than not at all. I aspire to achieve the level of patience, selflessness and positivity he has.”
Pettis has had many opportunities to have a coaching position elsewhere, but the amount of respect that he has for Olsen and how much he enjoys being around him would make that nearly impossible for him to do. Pettis is not alone in those feelings.
“Our track team goes by a saying, ‘celebration of life’, that I think goes with all of our lives,” Olsen said, “Finding the positive of life and staying positive.”