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Olsen delivers stirring Hall of Fame induction speech

Full text and a video excerpt of Paul Olsen's acceptance speech into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame

May  09, 2013

I am so deeply touched by this honor. I know many of the people who have received this award; I have good friends here; and I am grateful to be selected with Ray and Cathy. I know their stories, their careers, and I feel privileged to be honored with them.

No one coaches and teaches in a vacuum. We don’t do it alone. No one could be a better life-partner for me than my wife, Jeanne. Her calling in life has been as a hospital chaplain. For nearly 30 years, she has dealt with life-and-death issues every day, yet she still understands that races, throws and jumps — while not life and death activities — play an immeasurably important role in the life of the young men I am privileged to coach. I don’t think we’ve ever had a supper together before 7 o’clock, but the conversation at that meal is always engaging and meaningful. And we have two adult sons, David and Eric, who are models of enthusiasm and zest for life, and I catch their energy even from 2,000 miles away.

No one competes in a vacuum either. Our athletes have to wrestle with organic chemistry, neuroanatomy, and Shakespeare. The guy who dusts his shelves daily and files alphabetically his assignments sometimes ends up living with friends who have never, ever, made their bed and whose room looks like a pizza-crust storage bin. All these athletes must balance workouts, classes, bed-times, and nutrition; they deal with injuries and sickness; and they all ask the big existential questions of life, trying to calculate the importance of a race with the other affairs in their life that matter.

It is a singular honor to be a part of these men’s complex lives on a day-to-day basis. And it’s also a tremendous joy to work with the assistant coaches we have in our program. They are smart, passionate, and loyal. And I get to work with them all year. Thank you coaches; thank you family; thank you athletes. Thanks to all.

Much of the time I think about my work as a teacher and a coach in the same way that I think about a favorite poem of mine...
I’m going out to clean the pasture spring.
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
and wait to watch the water clear, I may.
I shan’t be gone long,
You come too.

Pasture springs have been thriving just fine for eons without the poet raking away the leaves. And surely that pond doesn’t need him to be sure that the water clears. Yet it’s that very impractical activity that he wants to share. And the second stanza tells us
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother.
It’s so young it totters
when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long,
You come too.

Here too his work is probably unnecessary for the mother and calf. Cows delivered calves long before someone put them in the barn. But this calf was just born---it is still coated with the afterbirth, and it can hardly walk. The whole scene is a miracle of creation, and the poet wants to share this too.

Often we hear people justify sports because we learn commitment, discipline, team loyalty, fair play, how to handle disappointment, how to handle success. And that’s legitimate justification. But I think there is more. I think in our sport we don’t only learn; we live in a new spirit, like the speaker who wants to share and celebrate the miracles of nature and creation. Our sport is, in reality, a celebration of life, of living beyond the practical necessities of life. As the New Testament puts it, we learn that we do not live by bread alone. We “live” when we reach out beyond the common place. Instead of lying in a hammock drinking lemonade, we run over the bike paths or we lift weights in the fitness room. Instead of watching someone else fight battles on television, we prepare for our own challenges, the next race that will demand our very best, that will demand our willingness to risk failure. We “live” by the spirit.

(Show Augustana Track T-shirt & “A Celebration of Life”)

Every single person on our team has this T-shirt. Our guys celebrate and take risks.

I would like to share my favorite story that in lots of ways illustrates what I mean.

A man is walking along the edge of a cliff: to his right it drops down 500 feet to a pristine valley, river running through ... to his left are snow-capped mountains. He is so absorbed in the beauty that he stumbles and falls off the cliff. Falling to the bottom he catches a branch that stops his fall. He is “in a pickle.” He cries out, “can anyone help me?” A Voice rumbles from the sky, “I can help you.” “Who are you?” “I am God” comes the reply. “What do I have to do?” the man asks. “The voice thunders, “Let go!” PAUSE. “Is there anyone else up there?”

The point is that he could come to God; he could “live,” not just “hang on.” If... he gives up the most secure thing in his life. That’s one of the beauties of coaching---to help athletes reach beyond what is “secure,” to take risks, to go out harder or faster than they ever have. . . to move to a bigger pole that can either reject you right off the runway or help you to a lifetime best. We celebrate life every day, and ---you know---the times and distances and heights just take care of themselves.

This requires confidence, enthusiasm, courage, and imagination. It requires gratitude for life itself. It requires faith. Note the words — confidence ... enthusiasm ... courage ... imagination ... gratitude ... faith. They are all vague abstractions that are impossible to measure, but are manifestations of spirit.

We have had hundreds of great athletes compete in the Augustana uniform, but I think the best story to illustrate these abstract words goes back to the year Augustana hosted the national championships in cross country, and our very fine team that year was led by the defending national champion, David Terronez.

I remember the day well: it’s zero degrees; the wind is blowing at nearly 30-miles an hour; the wind-chill is numbing. Since we were hosting, I had been out at the course for hours, and the team drove themselves out later. Teams from all over the United States were gathering in the dressing tent or their buses or vans adding stocking hats, gloves, long underwear under their uniforms.

Our men asked Terronez, “What are you going to wear?”
“This,” he replied pointing only to his singlet and shorts.
They were dumbfounded: “You’ll freeze to death.”
PAUSE. “I don’t plan on being out there that long.”

He defended his title ... a manifestation of the spirit.

We have had many other great athletes at Augustana — 25 national champions — and we’ve also had many who knew they would never score a point. Several years ago, we broke the school record at the Drake Relays in the two-mile relay with each runner averaging a time of 1:52. At another meet that weekend we had a tall, skinny 800-man run a 2:11. That’s a good junior-high time. The following Monday we celebrated that school record with Whitey’s ice cream and much applause. We also celebrated that 2:11 which was 4 seconds below that athlete’s “dream goal.” The entire team knew just what that meant. He got a standing ovation.

So to everything that all of you represent here tonight I give a thank you and a standing ovation because some of you are — and many of you support — those who take the risk to reach out, to let go, to celebrate life.

Thank you again.

— Paul Olsen, head coach, men's cross country/track and field