Olson honored for women's sports work

The former U administrator will receive the NACWAA’s lifetime achievement award.
October 08, 2012
Correction: A previous version of this story credited the wrong person for donating $900,000 to fund University of Minnesota’s soccer facility, Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium. Deborah Olson made the donation.

Donna Olson didn’t have the opportunity to play college sports when she was young.

So she spent her entire professional career creating opportunities for other women to experience what she never did.

Olson, a former University of Minnesota senior athletics administrator, will be honored Monday by the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators.

She is one of three recipients of the NACWAA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Olson added varsity sports and helped get stadiums built at the University. She retired from Gophers athletics in 2001 after 16 years. Her career spanned more than 40 years.

In a phone interview Friday, Olson said Patti Phillips, NACWAA’s CEO, called her with the news. She said she was “surprised and thrilled.”

Laura Lewis, director of marketing for NACWAA, said selection for the award comes from a peer nomination. This year, a subcommittee of five association members presented the names to the board of directors.

Former women’s AD Chris Voelz, who worked with Olson for 13 years at Minnesota and received the award last year, is a member of the subcommittee.

Lewis said former Gophers senior associate AD Regina Sullivan formally nominated Olson.

In an email, Sullivan said Olson was “the glue that kept things together behind the scenes.” Olson helped manage the operations of the women’s athletics department, strategized for the future and mentored coaches, staff and student-athletes.

“Her contributions are invaluable,” Sullivan said. “She helped leave a lasting legacy of a strong women’s athletics program that has enabled our teams to continue to have the successes and resources that they have today.”

Voelz will introduce Olson at a luncheon ceremony, part of the NACWAA’s National Convention in Kansas City, Mo.

The national conference is an annual two-day event that focuses on the current state of women’s athletics. The lifetime achievement award began in 1998.

Voelz said Olson cared about and understood the student-athlete. She also knew what it took to get things done for the department.

“We were a great twosome,” Voelz said. “We both cared about managing the integrity of the department.”

The two worked side by side to raise money and bring several new facilities to the University, including the Aquatic Center, the Sports Pavilion, Ridder Arena and Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

Voelz said Olson brought something to every meeting and remembered the human element — recognizing staff birthdays and important milestones for coaches.

Olson served as a tournament manager for the NCAA and Big Ten championships hosted by the University.

Additionally, she helped soccer, ice hockey and rowing become varsity sports.

Olson said it’s interesting her career is being recognized at the same time as Title IX, which, like her career, began 40 years ago and requires gender equity in all educational programs that receive federal funding.

She said she enjoyed being a part of the Title IX era in women’s sports. Her goal was to provide opportunities for other women both on and off the playing field.

Throughout her career, Olson said, she watched young, shy freshman women become leaders at meetings later in college. She said it was important for women to grow throughout their four years in college and later as professionals.

“That was great to watch,” she said.

Before coming to Minnesota, Olson served as associate AD at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Voelz said that at the University, Olson “wanted to support, not lead” and was loyal to her position.

More than a decade since her retirement, her work is still respected at Minnesota and throughout the Big Ten Conference.

“Anyone who worked with her in the Big Ten remembers Donna Olson,” Voelz said. “And that’s not common for a No. 2 person.”

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