Phil Olsen of Nanaimo, who possessed one of the strongest throwing arms across any sport in Canadian history, has died at 63. Olsen was out collecting firewood with wife, Nancy, last Sunday when he suffered a massive coronary.
Canada’s greatest javelin thrower competed in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, where he placed 11th at just 19 years of age, and won gold in the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games. Among his fondest memories was of the Queen presenting him with his gold medal in Edmonton and, while touching his arm, saying: “Good job, Master Olsen. You represented your country so well.”
The 11-time Canadian champion capped an outstanding career with the University of Tennessee Volunteers by becoming NCAA champion and four-time All-American. Olsen once wowed a Tennessee Vols gridiron crowd of more than 75,000 by throwing a football 100 yards in a half-time demonstration.
But Olsen’s greatest potential moment was denied him when Canada joined the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Islander was ranked third in the world and favoured for a medal at Moscow.
“Phil was disappointed and not happy about it [the boycott], but he never dwelled on it. Instead, he used it as a teaching moment when talking to students to show them that life doesn’t always go the way you want it to,” said Nanaimo teacher and Olsen’s good friend Brian Lennox.
Olsen was a teaching assistant for more than 30 years at Woodlands, his alma mater, Nanaimo District Secondary and, most recently, Wellington Secondary.
“Many of the students didn’t know about Phil’s athletic successes and were amazed when they found out,” said Lennox.
Olsen’s B.C. high school record, set in 1975 while at NDSS, still stands. Olsen joined University of Victoria basketball great and two-time Olympian Gerald Kazanowski and Olympic double gold-medallist rower Brenda Taylor as the first three charter athlete inductees into the Nanaimo Sports Hall of Fame when it opened in 2008.
Hampered by a shoulder injury, Olsen placed fourth in the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games. The injury forced him to miss the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It ended his career prematurely in 1985, in what should have been his prime at age 28.
But the love of life, and especially physical activity, never left him.
“Phil was a huge fitness freak,” said his wife, Nancy Olsen.
“He was such a healthy, fit individual who led a healthy lifestyle and ate well. That’s why this is a total shock and so sudden and devastating to all of us. Phil was so loving and so exuberant and never held anything back. Everything about him was larger than life.”
Lennox remembers his friend always having a smile on his face: “Phil was a very open, gregarious and energetic individual.”
Olsen’s impact on students over three decades was profound.
“He was a friend and a help to so many of them . . . a good inspiration and role model,” Nancy said.
“Just from things like getting students off cigarettes. He loved the students and made a difference. Some have said they wouldn’t have graduated school without him. He was always upbeat and loved trying to make a difference in their lives.”
Nanaimo teacher and friend James Cox recalled Olsen’s work with students in alternative programs.
“Phil had such kindness, lovingness and patience with those students, and was so uplifting to them, that they would seek him out,” Cox said.
The loss is being felt throughout the Canadian track and field community.
“Phil was born and raised in Nanaimo, represented his country around the world, and died in the hometown that he loved,” Nancy said.
A celebration of life is planned in Nanaimo at a date to be announced.