Alumni Feature: Mark Olsonawski 1999
Within seconds of the game-starting countdown, a goal was scored in the hockey game between a national Russian team and the University of Minnesota Crookston. There was commotion in the arena as it was packed with the loyal supporters of these players. One of the individuals in this facility, Mark Olsonawski 1999, was left awestruck by the “electric” energy in the room. At the time, Olsonawski was a recruit from Hallock, Minn., visiting UMN Crookston as a potential player for the university hockey team. He recalls watching the game and seeing the Golden Eagles win by one goal after a good fight with the opposing team. It was the unmatched skill of the players and the indescribable feeling of excitement when entering the full arena that drew Olsonawski to the university. The packed arena would soon become the place he would spend much of his time for the next four years of his collegiate journey as a student athlete.
“Crookston, in essence, gave me the opportunity to compete in athletics beyond the level of high school, which was a tremendous blessing because it really continued to build my self-worth through the fact that you had to overcome a lot.”
Olsonawski, an avid high school hockey and football player, had small-town roots. He was raised on a farm near Hallock by his mother and father, who instilled a strong faith in him early on in his life. As a self-described “homebody,” he desired to stay close to home wherever his life took him. Once he approached the end of his high school journey and looked toward his postsecondary education, this was a consideration he kept in mind. He dreamed of returning to his family farm after college and taking over the management role from his father. UMN Crookston offered a plant industries management major, which correlated well with this aspiration. Because UMN Crookston was close to home, provided a major that propelled him toward his future plans, and had an opportunity for him to participate in collegiate athletics, Olsonawski was thrilled to continue his education as a Golden Eagle.
The year 1995 marked a new chapter in Olsonawski’s life. He stepped foot on campus for the first time as a freshman while beginning his career as a college athlete. During this year, head hockey coach Scott Oliver assumed the role of head football coach for the university. From the moment Coach Oliver recruited Olsonawski to play hockey for the Golden Eagles, he saw great potential in Olsonawski as an athlete. Oliver asked this young recruit if he would have any desire being a two sport athlete, and despite initially having his eyes set on playing hockey, Olsonawski was ready to join the football team. He quickly donned his maroon and gold jersey with lucky number seven prominently displayed. Olsonawski remembers looking up to his two linemen teammates and roommates, Gregory “Tiny” Nathan 1998 and Benjamin Lindquist 1999. As a wide receiver on the team, who would later play as running back, Olsonawski utilized his teammates’ sizes to make challenging hidden plays.
Because they were the first students on campus at the start of every school year, the football team would make McCall Hall their home for the weeks leading up to the semester. Olsonawski recalls the blazing heat of Crookston summers taking a toll on the players both outside on the field and inside the residential halls. Their summer schedule consisted of morning and afternoon practices, with the latter being the toughest to withstand. Aside from typical conditioning that went along with practice, there was another large feat required of the team. Every player desired to be in the “350s Club” in which membership was granted only to those who could run one lap (350 yards) around the football field within a minute after five repetitions. In the unwavering sun as well as the exhaustion that set in after a long day of practices, Olsonawksi, a four-time member of the “350s Club,” and his teammates would truly feel the heat.
Even though these athletes were often pushed to the brink during their time on the field, the relationships they created and the achievements they shared made it all worthwhile. Olsonawski and his friend, Donnie Schmiedeberg 1996 and 1997, created a close friendship while playing football alongside one another at UMN Crookston. They first met during their high school years competing on rival football teams. Switching from rivals to teammates was seamless as Schmiedeberg, Olsonawski’s upperclassman roommate, always looked out for the new Golden Eagle. The two friends even made a weekly trip to Dairy Queen for a quick cookie dough blizzard to bulk up for the season. Although they did not know it yet, the weekly consumption of these blizzards foreshadowed one of the most important games in Olsonawski’s athletic career.
During Olsonawski’s junior year, the football team was struck with a blizzard warning on the first day of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) playoff qualifying games against Minot State University. The mix of football cleats and wet snow left the football field destroyed for the following few weeks. According to Olsonawski, the second qualifying game against the University of Mary was less of a football game and more of a “mud wrestling match.” Undeterred by the weather and field conditions, the Golden Eagles were victorious and earned a trip to Butte, Mont., for the NAIA playoffs. Although the team did not advance through the playoffs as they had hoped, Olsonawski was able to celebrate this massive athletic achievement as well as his 21st birthday alongside his teammates.
For some students, Crookston is only one stop of their lifelong journey. Olsonawski, on the other hand, continued to have ties to the area after he walked across the commencement stage. His previous dream of going back to work at his family farm was complicated by the agricultural conditions at the time. His father was still managing the farm, so Olsonawski decided to explore a new path for his future. A familiar hometown face, Jim Ingeman, worked as the president of Crookston National Bank and in 1999, offered Olsonawski a position at the financial institution. During the two years he worked for the bank, his passion for sports continued to be lived out. His previous role of student athlete at UMN Crookston shifted to a coaching role as he worked as the Golden Eagle football coach and hockey coach for one transitional season.
Following in his same desire to dream big, Olsonawski later relocated to the Fargo-Moorhead area and began an online business in conjunction with a new credit analyst position for US Bank. His entrepreneurial endeavors reconnected him with a former teammate, Shawn Wood 1999. The friendship they began years prior in the UMN Crookston weight room was strengthened while working with one another. Olsonawski explains the lessons he learned as an athlete at UMN Crookston influenced each of his professional experiences. “I truly took a lot of my sports experience and have just carried that mindset and that mentality with me into my work and my business world today.” Lessons such as hard work and pushing yourself even when it may seem impossible were impactful in his career.
The start of the new millennium not only marked a change in Olsonawski’s professional life, but in his personal life as well. After years of dating as college athletes from different universities, Olsonawski married the love of his life, Andi, in 2002. Coming from neighboring cities in northern Minn., the two had similar understandings of the world around them. In 2004, they became parents for the first time and raised four children together: three sons and one daughter. In 2015, the Olsonawski family was delivered life-altering news. Andi was diagnosed with a grade IV glioblastoma, commonly known as brain cancer. She passed away in June 2020. Navigating life on his own has been a challenge, but, as a man of faith, Olsonawski leans into his spiritual journey to help him raise his family. In her memory, Olsonawski began awarding scholarships at her former high school and college as well as their children’s high school. In addition, he sponsored a move-in in Andi’s honor with the non-profit, DownHome, which seeks to “furnish living spaces for those coming out of homelessness.”
One way the community has shown support for Olsonawski and his family is through their participation in the annual Mark Olsonawski Scholarship Golf Tournament. Beginning a few years after Olsonawski’s graduation from UMN Crookston, the Mark Olsonawski Scholarship has aimed to offset post-secondary costs for a student living in northwestern Minnesota while competing as a college athlete at the University of Minnesota Crookston. The scholarship is awarded to a student participating in the club hockey program. Thus, the golf tournament was created to raise funds for this scholarship and help future generations of college athletes achieve success in their academics and athletics. In his hometown of Hallock, this golf tournament attracts friends, family, classmates, alumni, and those within the community looking for a fun way to support Olsonawski and the scholarship. Olsonawski mentions that “it means a lot” to see all of the people attend each year.
Just as Olsonawski watched his first Golden Eagle hockey game clock ticking down with a large dream in mind, he continues to approach every second of his life with the same amount of enthusiasm. He currently works in pharmaceutical sales for Sanofi and part-time with his online business. His children are growing up quickly, and he enjoys seeing them experience life in their own sports and hobbies. They often take fishing and hunting trips while also mixing in golf or hockey from time to time. Although his life has changed dramatically since his time at UMN Crookston, Olsonawski has stayed true to his values of faith, hard work, and persistence. “Crookston, in essence, gave me the opportunity to compete in athletics beyond the level of high school, which was a tremendous blessing because it really continued to build my self-worth through the fact that you had to overcome a lot.” His Golden Eagle jersey may be retired, but his perseverance never will.
Olsonawski’s Favorite Summer Activity: Golfing with his kids and fishing for bass on the lake.
Written for the Summer 2022 Torchlight e-Newsletter.