Dr. Paul Olsen: "The Journey Is the Goal"

A coach to some, a professor to others, and a friend to many--when Dr. Paul Olsen announced his retirement back in November, it was a shock to many. For those of you that don’t know him, Paul Olsen is warm, intelligent, motivating, and a constant friendly and positive force in a person’s life. He’s been the head Men’s Cross Country and Track & Field coach at Augustana since the 60s and is a professor in the English department (his African American studies class is phenomenal). He was named National Coach of The Year in D3 by U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association in 2008. It is more than apparent that his impact on others is recognized. For those lucky enough to have crossed paths with him know just how valuable and special he makes an individual feel.

How did you end up at Augustana?

I started out working at a high school with a very progressive English department. Along with this, I was an assistant coach for the football and track teams. One day, I got a phone call from a man who was my coach at Luther College letting me know of an opportunity available at Augustana. I interviewed for the position and was offered the position the same day. However, it took me three weeks to actually accept. I feared the unknown and knew I would lose some things by accepting the position. Looking back, I am more than glad I accepted the position here at Augustana because I gained so much more than I lost. Through losing football, I gained a new found love for the sport of Cross Country.

What are your fondest memories from your years at Augustana?

Rather than it being about a few memories, it’s about the relationships that I’ve been able to build as I’ve been here, relationships that are built on passion and a love for the sport. To see all the men I’ve coached give all they have in that throw, race, jump and reflect on what they did to get there, truly is amazing and one of the most valuable aspects of the time I’ve spent at Augustana.

Why did you decide to pursue English literature?

It would be simple to say “I love to read,” but rather it is about my love to study. Reading is a scope of all the disciplines: sociology, history, psychology and that’s what leads to me reading one good book repeatedly. The thought process that one goes through while reading a piece of literature fascinates me. Literature gets at the complexity of the human experience, for me, better than any other discipline.

How did you get into African American literature specifically?

When I first encountered it, it was a matter of justice and fairness. I still remember the moment someone mentioned a black writer to me and I replied with, “Who’s that?” I then realized I had a concern for justice in the terms of what we study and what we choose not to study. I wasn’t going to be told by accident what I should study. Then, this issue for human and literary justice turned into an appreciation for the fight for human rights expressed in literature. Because of African American literature, I have gained an appreciation for diversity and the complexity of the human experience.

The quote “The journey is the goal” is plastered all over the men of the cross country and track and field teams t-shirts, what does this quote mean to you?

I never set out for a goal of having all these all-americans and conference championships. Rather, I set out to enjoy forming relationships and working with people who enjoy what they do. While it’s nice to win conference championships, it’s more about the celebration of life. Heights and distances will take care of themselves, so as long as you are enjoying the experience. It’s not about how far you throw, how far you jump, how fast you run but how you inspire and relate to the other people on your team.

What is the most rewarding thing about teaching and coaching?

Relationships with students, athletes, and colleagues. I have made so many good friends through this experience, other professors in the English department and the athletes whose faces are plastered all over my wall. Though my time here is coming to an end, I know I’ll carry the relationships I’ve formed with me forever.

Who are some key people who helped get you to where you are today?

My mother and my father only encouraged me to do things and never told me I couldn’t. I wanted to go out for football but only weighed 90 pounds. After my mother lost a son, she could’ve held me back and told me to not do it, but instead she encouraged me to go out for all things I developed a love for. My wife, who has supported me all throughout life and especially during graduate school. Dorothy Parkander, I never even had her for a class, but she’s read everything important I’ve written. It’s a lot of people who believed I could do something I wasn’t so sure I could. I didn’t start out with all this crazy confidence, but I had teachers, coaches, and family that believed in me.

What’s a book that changed your life?

Uncle Tom’s Children by Richard Wright because all of the sudden I saw further into the black experience that I knew nothing about, the physical, social, and spiritual horrors of racial injustice and oppression. It changed me so much that I wrote my dissertation about it.

And lastly, what advice do you have for Augustana’s students?

Go after whatever you do with enthusiasm and passion.