By Jeff Bro Olsen
It’s only fitting that Alan “Swede” Olson was born on D-Day. It just wasn’t on June 6, 1944. He was born 13 years later to the day.
So, he’s getting old.
No wonder he’s also a Bartelma Hall of Famer for his durability and talents. “I’ve reffed the Fertile Northwest Tournament for 45 straight years.”
The bloke never gets sick. Either that or his wife, Jackie, doesn’t want him hanging around on that particular Saturday in early February. “You’re not sick, you big Swede!” she says, rubbing Vicks on his chest.
He’s been around so long that he finally got to ref at the Minnesota State Wrestling Tournament. It was long overdue. In 2022, he got the assignment to referee the state team consolation matches. “It had never worked out before. The schedule never cooperated.”
He’s not a ballerina, and he looks like a pipefitter. In fact, he’s an electrician. “I did the subsections and sections until I started coaching.”
In 1983, Fosston head coach Tom Gravelin asked Swede, “Want to get your head bumped into?” “Yeah, I’ll try it,” he said. He had been volunteering in the wrestling room. He’s a certified heavyweight. Just what Gravelin was looking for. “Swede, get out there and earn your keep.” For Gravelin, nothing beats a good workout partner. “He liked to use me as an enforcer. He’d get me all riled up and say, ‘Hey, go wrestle that guy.’ I could move the kid around and he wouldn’t get in trouble.”
Swede’s dad was Big Al – Alfred – and had served in the infantry in World War II under General Patton. “He was in communications so he and his partner were the ones running out. Dad said they had a mile of wire on their backs and they’d reel the wire out before or after the tanks to set up communications.” That could be dangerous. “He told me one time he and his then partner were ambushed and took off running across the field. He said he watched the bullet go right through his partner’s helmet.” There’d be no Swede if Big Al hadn’t been fleet of foot. “He said he didn’t even break stride. They came back afterwards for the body.” His dad had walked and ridden across half of Europe by VE Day in May 1945.
His parents are deceased.
His mom, Phronie, was an absolute character and, for years, served the best grub for the Section 8 tournament seeding meetings and was as comical as Lucille Ball. She handled the food and always laughed when the Swede was taking some joshing from the various coaches. “Hey, Phronie, you should have held your water and drowned baby Swede!” She laughed the loudest.
His dad was one-hundred percent Swede, and his mother was almost one hundred percent German. “When they were dating, her dad had said, ‘Well, he’s a Swede, you know’ – kind of like it was a disease,” he said, recalling family lore. “Back in those days, it was considered a mixed marriage.”
“I was a little round, dough-faced seventh grader around a hundred pounds. By the time I was a senior, I was 185 pounds and wrestled heavyweight.” Rick Engh was his coach at Fosston, and he came out of Robbinsdale High School in the Twin Cities. Swede had a respectable high school career and was a co-captain his senior year.
He was no slouch. “There was just one class in 1975 with 32 teams and 4 subsections in our section. I placed 3rd in the section.”
Just a few years later, he was on his way as a helluva referee.
More than 40 years later, he remembers one blown call when Charlie Bishop was the Oklee coach. “If it hadn’t been for Charlie, I probably would have quit. I remember John Cyr was wrestling, and I told Charlie that I really blew a call.” Charlie wasn’t a coach who ever screamed at a referee or his wrestlers. The consensus on Charlie, when he went into the Bartelma Hall of Fame, was that some opposing coaches assumed he was asleep during the matches. He was just that laid back.
Actually, Charlie had done his talking in the practice room.
And here was the Swede apologizing afterwards.
“Charlie, I really blew that call, and he goes, ‘Well, did it affect the individual match?’ and I said no.’ “Did it affect the dual meet?” and I said no.’ Then, don’t worry about it.” To this day, after 45 years of officiating, that incident stands out.
And he’s been coaching almost as long.
When he was coaching with Tom Gravelin in the 1980s, the Swede was an astute observer – especially during weigh-ins.
One Roseau wrestler, who was very tough when he was eligible, strolled into the weigh-ins after a several-week hiatus due to never handing in his assignments. “I see you’re eligible, Greg. Hand in all your coloring books on time?” Everyone laughed.
He can laugh now about officiating in Greenbush with its wildly partisan and vocal fans. “You know what it’s like to wrestle in that environment. I was lucky to get out of there without my tires being slashed. (Coach Doug) Dahl would never call me Swede. He always called me Ole. He’d wait until the crowd calmed down a little bit and he’d yell, ‘Ole’ and I’d look over and he’d throw his hands up in the air like I made a dumb call, and the crowd would go crazy. I just wanted to get out of there alive.”
That’s the beauty of wrestling in the Greenbush Swamp, the nickname for the Gators’ gym.
It’s a spectacle.
“And if your team won a couple of matches there, you felt pretty good about yourselves.”
Swede has sweet memories of the wrestling game. One time Tom Gravelin’s son, Collin, lined up against a gym wall at a Crookston tournament. It was a huge turnout, and Collin remarked to Coach Swede. “I don’t want to wrestle all of them.” Swede explained that he wouldn’t have to wrestle all of them.
Actually, Collin meant Oliver Ullman, maybe a fifth grader, who had no business being at a junior high tournament.
Afterward, Collin told Swede, “I told you I didn’t want to wrestle Ullman.” Swede laughs now. I thought he said all of them. Ollie was tougher than nails.”
Swede’s a legend.
He’s got a hard head, too. He could probably take a direct hit to his head with a bowling ball, and it would feel like a ping pong bouncing off of it.
But look out if it happens to a friend like fellow referee Bucky Lindberg, formerly of Fertile, Minnesota.
At the state tournament about 30 years ago, Swede and head coach Tom Gravelin were sitting with Bucky Lindberg when something bounced off Bucky’s head. About 15 rows up were three guys throwing various objects, which motivated Swede to pay them a visit. He double-timed up to the three blokes in their late teens or early twenties. Swede said, “Please don’t throw stuff. You hit a friend of mine.” The guy in the middle said, “What the f#&k is it to you?”
“I slapped him hard in the face. He was now paying attention. Then, I read him the riot act.” Shortly, security arrived, and Swede was asked to come along with the other three. “There were a couple of police officers waiting nearby. One of them asked, ‘Did you strike this individual?’ and I said I had.” The cop asked why and Alan “Swede” Olson explained that one of them had sworn rather inappropriately.
“You know, I could probably take you downtown.” Swede agreed that he most certainly could.
However, the cop had already sized up the other three and remarked, “Those three punks learned their lesson.”
When Gravelin and Swede walked back to their St. Paul hotel, Gravelin asked the cops how it was going that evening. One of them replied, “Some coach slapped a kid at the state tournament.” Nicely, Gravelin didn’t finger Swede as the chap who had put the fear of God in some chump with a stunning smack across the face.
He’s not a pianist or a pushover. He’s blue-collar with immense hands like vise grips.
Get him talking about his favorite coaches, and he’s got his top lineup of actual characters, leading off with Charlie Bishop – the long-retired Oklee coach, the great Canadian Doug Dahl of Estavan, Saskatchewan, who wrestled for Bemidji State before migrating to Greenbush; and numerous Section 8A coaches. For example, there’s Jerry Cleveland, who’s a delightful character.
“I’d hate to run into Jerry coming out of a bar and him thinking I was up to mischief.”
The Swede misses nothing. He’s the old guy now at 66 except for Mr. Cleveland, the Staples farm kid, a state runner-up, and a lifetime ago a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient, who’s now an assistant wrestling coach for Staples-Motley at 74.
A SWEDE ENDING
He was still in high school when Steve Furuseth, who has an uncanny knack of bestowing nicknames, first spotted Swede. “I named him Popeye because of his arms. He has such big forearms. He looks a lot like Popeye, too. Just put a corncob pipe in his mouth and you couldn’t tell him apart from Popeye with a spinach can in his hand.” Furuseth was the head coach of the Roseau Rams in the 1970s. “Popeye was a small heavyweight and not quite good enough to be in the region finals. Good for third pretty much every time. He was tough.”
This spring, Swede mentioned his coaching philosophy. “To me, back in the day, it was about the two guys out on the mat. It wasn’t about the two guys sitting in the chairs. You did your best to get them to do their best, and you moved on. It’s so different now. If you go on TrackWrestling for the NYWA tournament and if the kid’s name is highlighted in blue and you click on it, there are kindergartners that are ranked in the nation.”
He added that’s why kids are choking at these tournaments. “Click on a name, and it shows that the kid is 40-0 and was last year’s state champ or All-World Greco World whatever. “These kids are scared to death and choke before they even get to that match. They can’t beat this kid. Years ago, it didn’t matter who the hell you were wrestling. You just went out there and saw what happened. They didn’t roll over and get pinned. They took it as a challenge and were going to do their best to beat the guy. Right now, it’s an absolute epidemic with all the information these kids get. They know they’re beat before they even get there.”
Remember Abbot and Costello?
Fosston head coach Tom Gravelin coached with Swede for years but never slapped him like Bud Abbot did to Lou Costello. “I spent more time trying to calm him down than my wrestlers. He was pretty intense. At section tournament time, you could fry an egg on his forehead.”
Steve Ricard, another Bartelma Hall of Famer, laughed at the mention of the Swede. He immediately recalled many years ago when Swede reffed a match between Paul Kuznik, a two-time state champ for Crookston, who put on a scoring demonstration of head snaps, ducks, and ankle picks in defeating his Fertile-Beltrami opponent. “He was so quick!”
And this is where the Swede comes in. Kuznik’s opponent got up after getting pinned and just smacked Kuznik’s hand and started walking off the mat. As Mr. Ricard remembers it, the losing wrestler didn’t shake hands properly.
Swede later recalled the incident. “So I applied the death grip. I don’t think I’ve ever squeezed a kid’s hand so hard. I damn near brought him to his knees.”
Steve was then a varsity Fertile-Beltrami wrestler. “The Swede ordered, ‘You shake this man’s hand like he has been afforded the courtesy of being a true champion. He deserves that.’ That’s an important lesson in sportsmanship,” said Ricard, who officiates at the annual Morris Tournament and watches Swede in action as the assistant Fosston-Bagley coach. “He’s very professional. He’s good for kids and just does a nice job. He’s very humble. He always sees the brighter side and is a good man, period.”
He’s a character too – the son of an infantryman and this remarkable woman, Phronie.
So, were you born Caesarean, Swede?
“No,” he laughed. “She kicked me out as fast as she could.”
He probably came out holding a can of spinach.