Viking turned Vandal

At first glance, you don't notice <b>Joachim Olsen's</b> tattoo. It's strategically placed at the right triceps, and becomes visible only when he steps into the ring and raises his arm, in that vaguely primal ritual that shot-putters employ while limbering up for a throw.

(Reprinted with permission from the Lewiston Morning Tribune)

Viking turned Vandal; Danish import's feats
unprecedented at UI

Dale Grummert

MOSCOW -- At first glance, you don't notice Joachim Olsen's tattoo. It's strategically placed at the right triceps, and becomes visible only when he steps into the ring and raises his arm, in that vaguely primal ritual that shot-putters employ while limbering up for a throw.

The design itself isn't especially intimidating, if indeed any tattoo is intimidating these days. "Twenty years ago," noted Olsen, who is only 24 but has a well-developed sense of history, "you stood out if you had a tattoo. Now you stand out if you don't have one."

It's a relatively simple, cylindrical design, but the Danish tattooist who emblazoned this image, almost four years ago, just before the shot-putter left for America, had vouched for its authenticity, as a design lifted straight from an old Viking artifact.

In coming to the University of Idaho -- this school whose mascot is a Vandal, distant cousin to the Vikings -- Olsen was therefore bringing something of his Danish heritage, something tongue-in-cheek perhaps but something apt and evocative, something that might take root in the distinctive soil of his new home.

Is that why his career here has been so charmed?

If Olympic gold-medalist Dan O'Brien is the Vandals' most famous track alumnus, Olsen is clearly their most accomplished one, in terms of collegiate success. O'Brien stumbled through the college experience and unleashed his marvels on the world later. Olsen has been the picture of consistency.

He is one of only three UI men's track athletes ever to win a national collegiate championship, and he will aim for his second title when he concludes his Vandal career at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which begin May 29 at Baton Rouge, La.

Perhaps just as impressively, he has placed in the top 3 in all seven of his NCAA indoor and outdoor meets, despite an ever-rising level of competition.

"That's tough to do, especially in the throwing events," said O'Brien, now a volunteer coach at Washington State, "because you see how many guys come alive on any given day at the NCAA Championships. We had a great thrower here (at WSU), Ian Waltz. As good as Ian was, if it was raining, if it was too hot, he wavered. With Joachim, I think it's a testament to his training and who he's working with."

For comic relief, Olsen sometimes alludes to Scandinavia's rich history in the throwing arts and other strong-man traditions, recent and not-so-recent. He likes to chide his roommate and training partner, Simon Stewart, who is of Scottish descent and complements his shot-put work by competing in that unique assortment of throwing events called the Highland Games. Olsen says the Scots' success in the Highland Games is wholly attributable to their Scandinavian blood, the result of the Vikings' invasion of Great Britain.

Yet Olsen also brings to Moscow a certain receptivity, a willingness to explore and embrace.

Part of this openness was rooted in melancholy. A few days before he left his home at Halborg, Denmark, in January 1999, his coach and mentor of nine years, James Mikkelsen, died unexpectedly of a heart attack, at age 35.

With little time to mourn, Olsen boarded a flight to the U.S. -- his first visit here, since UI had recruited him strictly by e-mail and letters. On the day of Mikkelsen's burial service, Olsen was accompanying his new teammates on a road trip to Spokane, for his first U.S. track meet. "I remember sitting in the back of the van, and I was pretty messed up," he said.

Yet he already felt an affinity with his new surroundings. "It was probably the best thing for me, to be in another place, to start something new," he said. "You kind of get your mind off it. It was pretty tough for a couple of meets. Actually, it was a tough semester. But you have to move on."

Much of the void was filled by Tim Taylor, the former UI thrower who, with his wife Julie, now serves as throws coach at the school, as well as Olsen's personal coach. When arriving in this country, Olsen had trained seriously for five years, and didn't need a drill sergeant for a coach. He says Taylor gave him both the guidance and the freedom he needed. "He gave me a program and said, 'I expect you to make changes in this program so it fits you.' That's the perfect coach for me to have. Had I gone other places with more famous coaches, I'm not sure I would have thrown as far, and I'm sure I wouldn't have had as much fun."

Whatever the reason, Olsen has thrived here, transforming himself from a physically unimposing 60-foot shot-putter to a Danish national record-holder, who competed in the 2000 Olympics and three months ago threw 70 feet, 5 1/2 inches indoors.

At 6 feet, he is still smaller than most of his competitors. In the last 3 1/2 years, however, he has gained 40 pounds, to 295, and become a prodigious weight-lifter, squatting 620 pounds and "cleaning" 430.

Like Denmark itself, he is a champion of democracy. He says he'd have languished in the old Communist athletic systems of eastern Europe, partly because, at his size, he'd have never been projected at a young age as a shot-putter.

His most valuable asset as a collegiate thrower is something immeasurable: his ability to derive physical strength from a certain emotional kick -- the kick of competition. Many throwers perform their greatest feats in practice. Olsen routinely throws 4 to 8 feet farther in meets than during workouts.

"He rises to the occasion like nobody I've ever seen," said former UI coach Mike Keller, who handled the recruiting of Olsen in 1998. "He's very cool and collected, doesn't seem to get rattled, even when he's behind. And the great thing he does is he makes adjustments."

Olsen said his technique can deteriorate in high-pressure meets. For example, he was disappointed in his performance at the Olympics, where he failed to make the finals. Yet his pure strength seems to rise in these situations.

"As soon as I get into competition, where there's a measuring tape and a guy calling your name, it's just different," he said. "I love competing. There are moments you never forget -- in the national championships, the Olympics, the World Championships. They are so intense that they just burn into your memory in big burning letters. You get addicted. You've got to have more all the time. And it's better when you keep improving That's where I get that drive to always get better. I know the only way to keep getting that feeling is to keep getting better."

There's perhaps a price to pay for these emotions. Olsen says throwers, and anyone else who trains seriously with weights, can have violent tempers, often in spite of themselves. Things tend to get broken in the apartment Olsen shares with Stewart. One morning a couple of weeks ago, someone left a kitchen cabinet open, and Olsen, still dazed from sleep, struck it with his forehead.

This cabinet door no longer exists in its conventional form.

Asked to describe the national character of Denmark, Olsen said the people are aloof but ultimately warm; community-minded but not more so than Americans; and highly skeptical. This is why the country tends to throw a wrench into efforts at European unification.

"That's what I like about over here," Olsen said. "You're much more open to other cultures and other ideas. There's a lot of hypocrisy in Europe toward the U.S., in the way the U.S. has a history of racial problems. We've always talked about that in a negative way. But when it comes right down it it, and we start getting a lot of foreigners into our country, we're not any better. Yes, there might be racism in American society, but it's not any worse than it is back home."

He endorses the international flavor of the UI track team.

"There's a lot of debate about foreigners getting scholarships, and there are a lot of valid points made. If I were an American and I was denied a scholarship at a school I wanted to go to, because it went to a foreigner, I think it's only natural to feel passed over. But when it comes down to it, that's what this country is all about -- it's about people coming from other countries and creating a future for themselves."

Olsen is still three semesters shy of getting his degree in history, but next month his college eligibility will end and he will return to Europe and begin his professional career.

"I feel this is my passion, my calling," he said. "Those are big words but that's how I feel about it. It's the first thing I think about when I get up in the morning, and the last thing I think about when I go to bed. It's something I have to do in order to feel good about myself."

In truth, he has been ready for this leap for at least a year. He could have left UI after the 2001 season, but this wouldn't have felt right.

"The whole NCAA experience is different than anything else you can do in this sport," he said. "It has a kind of innocence. There are athletes who could be competing professionally but we're all just having fun with it. It's a very, very special atmosphere. It's something I will cherish for the rest of my life."

Olsen's roommate, Stewart, is a senior from Sandpoint, Idaho, who in recent months has improved dramatically as a shot-putter, qualifying for the last two NCAA meets. By all accounts, Olsen's influence on Stewart has been profound, yet the opposite may also be true: Stewart can perhaps take credit for much of the Dane's improvement.

Stewart himself credits Olsen's diligence.

"For anyone to throw 70 feet, it's a combination of a lot of things, like good coaching, hard work, talent," Stewart said. "I'd say hard work is the main thing. He trains so hard that at least once a lifting cycle he'll overtrain. He'll get his legs really sore and they won't recover between workouts. When he cares about something, he gets pretty intense about it."

This seems true. Olsen is personable, courteous, broad-minded, yet there's something else in the mix as well. You see it in little flashes, mostly during track meets but occasionally at other times. Some indefinable intensity.

"Yeah," Stewart agreed, breaking into a smile. "Viking power."

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