The picture on the alarm clock keeps him going.
It is the first thing he sees every morning when he wakes up. And the last thing he sees every night before he goes to sleep.
He has it there as a reminder of what it’s like to lose the biggest wrestling match of his life.
His coach told him to “remember this feeling … the hurt … the other guy getting cheered.”
And so, he does. Otto Olson remembers. He remembers each morning. And he remembers each night. And he remembers all the time in between.
It is what drove him to get out of bed and work for hours each day to rehabilitate the knee he tore up soon after the New Year.
It is what keeps him focused on the 2000-2001 season that begins next Saturday.
It is what pushes him towards the one thing he wants above all else: an NCAA championship.
The man in the photo on the alarm clock got one. His name is Glenn Pritzlaugh and he is celebrating his victory in the NCAA Championhips in 1999.
He got that title by beating Olson. And Otto will never let himself forget the feeling he had that day – until he wins an NCAA championship of his own and the feeling of triumph eclipses the feeling of disappointment.
That’s all wrestlers have to keep them going: competing and winning.
There is no money in the sport after college, as there is in baseball, basketball and football. A wrestler might get himself a few endorsements if he wins an Olympic gold medal, but these are short-lived.
So, Olson, a former Everett High three-time state champion, drives himself for the pure love of what the sport offers: a chance to compete mano a mano, best man wins.
Otto Olson aims to be the best man in the 174-pound division at the NCAA Championships this season.
He is already ranked No.1 by several publications. This despite the fact his 1999-2000 season was cut short when he suffered torn medial collateral and posterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee during a tournament last January.
“I don’t know what the thought process was (that went into his being ranked No.1),” Joe McFarland, Olson’s coach at the University of Michigan, said last week, “unless it was the fact that he was on pace to win a national championship last year. Maybe they’re just assuming he’s back.
“And he is.”
He is back because of that picture on his alarm clock.
He is back because, well, because that’s just the way Otto Olson is.
There’s still work to do, but he believes the new Otto will be even better than the old one. “The difference,” he said, “is I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been for wrestling.”
As if that’s possible.
“There is no halfway of doing things with Otto,” McFarland said. “He is one of the most focused, driven wrestlers I’ve ever been around. His work ethic is incredible. He loves to work out. Everything he does is very intense.”
That’s not to say Olson is the same wrestler he was nine months ago. The knee isn’t as strong or as flexible as it once was. “My coaches are really extra cautious with it,” he said, “and when I get in certain situations, they say, “Let’s stop.’ “
To compensate for what he might have lost to the injury, he worked extra hard to strengthen his upper body. “That’s what I had to do because I knew my lower body would be my weakness,” he said. “I’m using my arms to wear on people, I’m pushing their bodies around, pushing on their arms to keep them from being able to attack my legs.”
Athletes suffer serious injuries all the time. Most are able to come back strongly. Part of it is due to their mental approach. That first time back on the field or the court or the mats, they can’t be scared.
Olson swears he isn’t. “I’m not worried about my knee,” he said. “That would take me away from dominating my opponent. That’s not going to work.”
When he was officially cleared to wrestle, he was so excited that he went on pure adrenalin. “It felt so good to get out there,” he said. “I came through with some good flurries, though I wasn’t able to move my leg, it was braced up so much.”
Olson went through some of his roughest times after the surgery, and it wasn’t the physical part so much as it was the mental aspect: watching others compete. “Guys I beat became All-Americans,” he said. “I didn’t come to Michigan to be a spectator. That’s what motivated me to get another chance to do it. I’m glad I’ve been able to make it back.”
He calls the season that is about to begin “payback time.”
“I’ve got some things to take care of,” he said. “I’ve got a national title I still haven’t won. It’s just like in high school, where I dedicated my time to accomplishing my goal.”
Only in high school, he didn’t have just one goal. He won three straight state championships.
Then he made a smooth transition to college, winning the Wolverines’ Most Outstanding Freshman Wrestler Award. He followed that up with a 37-5 record and the runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament. When he got injured last year, he was 21-1 and ranked No. 1 in the country.
Now he’s No. 1 again, based apparently on what might have been.
“That’s not important,” Olson said of the ranking. “It’s going out and taking care of business that matters. I’ve had that pressure haunt me before. Sometimes I’d rather be the underdog. But it’s nice that they have that much faith in me.”
Olson has applied for another year of eligibility, but late this week hadn’t heard from the NCAA. Meanwhile, he is finishing up some student teaching at an elementary school and next week begins a seven-week stint at a high school. This is all in preparation for the day when he hopes to return to his old high school as an educator.
“He’ll make a real good coach,” McFarland said. “Just the fact that he’s enthusiastic shines through. He loves what he does.”
Whether he leaves Michigan in 2001 or 2002, Olson wants to go with a couple of records intact. One, he has never had an unexcused absence from class. “I take pride in that,” he said.
Secondly, he has never lost a wrestling team run, which typically is 3-4 miles. “I almost killed myself to run some races, my knee was so swollen up,” he said.
He has had to back off the running, but if anyone wants to test him on a stationary bike, Olson would surely be up to the challenge.
For isn’t that what life is all about for Otto Olson – challenges, setbacks, overcoming, winning?
“I don’t consider it coming back from an injury,” he said, “unless I win a national championship.”
He is driven to put a new face on the alarm clock – his own.
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