|Thursday, December 14
One dinged up Otto
By Wayne Drehs
It would have been easy at any point in the past 23 years for Otto Olson to just quit. To throw his hands in the air, shrug his shoulders and admit he's had enough. After all Olson has been through, everyone would have understood.
This is a kid who didn't get his driver's license until his senior year of high school because he thought it would make him lazy. Instead, he ran or rode his bike everywhere.
It's a kid who spends two weeks each summer sprinting for afternoons on end, hand-delivering food orders to 160 fireworks stands on an Indian reservation in Washington.
"It's sort of a joke around here that if you're looking for Otto, just stand still for a few seconds and he'll come flying by," said Ron Bessemer, a former athletics director in Otto's hometown of Everett, Wash. "I've never seen anyone with a drive like his."
And it has paid off, as Olson is currently the nation's top-ranked wrestler at 174 pounds and a favorite this spring to give the Wolverines their first individual national champion since 1986.
But it's hardly been a typical road to greatness. As if it wasn't enough to overcome a trying childhood that culminated with the bitter divorce of his parents, Olson has dealt with a pair of torn knee ligaments, a life-threatening car crash and another accident in which a car struck him as he was riding his bicycle -- and that's in just the last year.
"Here's a kid who has been thrown every curve ball you can imagine," Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. "And while other kids in these situations have completely gone the other way, not him. He doesn't swear, he doesn't drink, he doesn't do drugs. None of it. The more you sit back and think about it, the more amazing it is."
The knee injury, which happened last January against Randy Pugh of Northern Iowa, handed Olson his first dual meet loss in more than two years of collegiate wrestling. He tore both his posterior cruciate ligament and the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament.
After nine months of rehab, the car accident occurred during a trip back to Ann Arbor following Thanksgiving this year. Though Olson totaled his pickup, he miraculously walked away unscathed.
He wasn't as lucky the next morning en route to his student teaching assignment in neighboring Saline, Mich. Without his destroyed truck, Olson, who planned on working out that 15-degree morning anyway, decided to ride his bicycle 10 miles from his home to Saline for exercise. But in the dark hours of that early morning, an anxious driver collided with the All-American wrestler.
Though his recollections of the incident are fuzzy, he does remember that the lady who hit him drove him to the hospital but has since disappeared.
"Here came this car, rushing to try and get in front of traffic without seeing me at all," Olson said. "She came flying into this driveway and I threw on the brakes so fast ? next thing I knew I was in a ton of pain."
The injury was a third-degree separation and complete tear of the joint in the shoulder, the same injury that Broncos quarterback Brian Griese has struggled with this season. Though the shoulder fuses back together on its own, it's a painful six-week process.
Yet there was Olson last weekend, just two weeks after the accident occurred, taking the mat against archrival Michigan State. It was a return he had targeted throughout his knee rehab and nothing -- not even getting hit by a car -- was going to keep him from that.
In warm-ups before his match against the Spartans' Nate Nesyn, Wolverine fans who didn't know any better thought Olson was spazzing when he began pacing back and forth, slapping himself across the face and yelling at himself.
But that was all part of the trick.
"I'm out there focused on my other wrestlers, on what's taking place on the mat," McFarland said. "But I had a bunch of people come up to me after the match and tell me they couldn't believe the intensity he had. They said he made these faces like he wanted to go out there and rip the guy's limb off."
It's fitting, because if you were to categorize the wrestling style of Olson, the word kamikaze might come to mind. Though he teaches proper technique to the students at Saline, Olson prefers to brawl with his opponents and demoralize them mentally and physically. He calls it seven minutes of hell. McFarland has never seen anything like it.
"He bangs with you, knocks you around," McFarland said. "And if he can turn it into a fight, he feeds off that and knows he's going to win. It's certainly unorthodox."
Twice during high school, Olson's opponents walked off of the mat in fear. At Michigan, he has picked up the nickname "O.T.," for his propensity to extend matches into the draining overtime period.
But don't think this is some sort of ravaging beast. Outside the circle, Olson is an intelligent, articulate honor roll student.
It's just that deep inside, he's driven like few others. Freshman year, he hitched a ride on a family friend's semi to bring him to Ann Arbor. Since drivers are limited to 10 hours of driving a day, it was a five-day trip. But Olson took didn't waste any time. At each truck stop, there was Olson, running and jumping in between semis and doing push-ups to be in shape for his first Michigan practice.
He said it's a credit to his father, a man who idolized the work ethic of Iowa wrestling legend Dan Gable. From the earliest age, Olson's dad would make his two sons run steep hills and do push-ups and sit-ups. Many thought the man was crazy for pushing his kids this hard, but not Otto.
"I liked it because of all the success it brought me at a young age," Otto said. "It showed me what you needed to do to reach a certain level of success."
But with that came another side of his father, one that drank heavily, used drugs and wouldn't come home for days on end. He would gamble on his son's wrestling matches and then get in fist fights in the stands.
"He was just nuts," Bessemer said. "His dad would come to practice and bad-mouth his mother in an awful, awful way. Poor Otto was so embarrassed. I would pull him aside and say, 'Otto, you can't take care of your dad and you can't take care of your mom, so just worry about taking care of you. Focus on you.'
"Somehow he found away to put all that aside and focus on wrestling. And it's worked."
Olson said he now speaks with his father, who has cleaned up since Olson's younger days, once every couple of weeks. His mom, who also struggled with addiction problems in the past, has become his anchor.
Through it all, Olson has persevered. He is currently in the third phase of applying for a medical hardship, in hopes of being granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. And this March, his sights will be set on his first national title.
"I've put too much work in to get down and depressed about my life or things that go wrong," Olson said. "I look at it as things happen for a reason. No matter how difficult things seem, they happen for a reason. And I have to make the best of it."