Mel Olson’s remarkable life celebrated by community members

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Connor Vanderweyst/The Sun Tribune - KBSN broadcaster Jim Nielsen speaks at the lectern while former Moses Lake High School wrestling coach Dick Deane moves to place Mel Olson’s shoes in the middle of the Chiefs gym Thursday at a celebration of life for Olson. It is a tradition in wrestling to place a retired wrestler’s shoes in the center of the mat.

MOSES LAKE — Jon Lane posed two rhetorical questions during his address at Mel Olson's celebration of life.

How many athletes did Olson impact?

How many coaches did Olson impact?

The true number will never be known, but both questions can be summed up with one answer: countless.

Around 100 people gathered in the Moses Lake High School gymnasium to pay their respects to Olson one more time. Decades of memorabilia lined a table that greeted guests at the entrance, ending in a most familiar headset.

“You can't live in Moses Lake for 57 years and not know who Mel Olson was and not recognize that name when you heard it and that voice when he was announcing games,” Moses Lake mayor Karen Liebrecht said. “I would ask do you know Mel? And people would say, yeah, he was my coach and yeah, he was my teacher. And there's one gentleman that even said yeah, he taught me how to juggle. How unique is that?”

Olson certainly was unique.

The former army captain received a purple heart and was inducted into four different hall of fames. Olson taught himself Japanese and was a cheerleading captain at Washington State University, two things that illustrate a fraction of what Olson accomplished in his 89 years. Everything deserved his full passion.

At the end of Liebrecht's address, a plaque was presented to Olson's wife, Vicki, that commemorated July 26, 2018 as Mel and Vicki Olson Day.

The afternoon continued with speakers sharing their favorite Olson anecdotes — like when Gary Frey attempted to inject some professional moves into one of Olson's wrestling units.

“That's not the way we wrestle here in Moses Lake,” Frey said of Olson's admonishment.

Moses Lake certainly knows wrestling and Olson knew it better than most. Wrestling was one of Olson's vehicles as a coach and also made him the most unique broadcaster in the state. Olson kept the Columbia Basin informed on what happened on the mat, in addition to basketball and football, for 50 years.

The state wrestling tournament is in late February, an uncertain time for traveling over Snoqualmie Pass to the Tacoma Dome. But there was always one certainty: that Mel and Vicki Olson would be at the Dome to relay the action over the airwaves.

“I recall listening to that match (at the state tournament) and his inspiration, his passion for those two matches — I went back in the house, changed, went on a run and said, man, one of these days I want this guy to be able to announce one of my finals matches,” current MLHS head wrestling coach Jaime Garza previously told the Herald. “He was able to bring it every time. I really do commend him for the work that he put in and his ability to craft such a wonderful message over the radio as if you were there.”

Outside of athletics, Mel Olson helped upward of 2,000 people in the Japanese Agricultural Training Program (JATP) at Big Bend Community College. Condolences were truly offered from across the world as Japanese members of JATP sung a rendition of one of Olson's favorite songs, Kampai, with an accompanied note at the end of the video.

In a final act of remembrance, Dick Deane walked Olson's shoes and placed the pair in the center of the Chiefs gym; it is tradition for retired wrestlers to place their shoes in the center of the mat.

“There were a whole bunch of us that were impacted by Mel and how he coached, his style,” Lane said.

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