Olsen turned jail and drugs into winning story

Updated: October 31, 2013

By Sandy Stevens

Editor’s Note: The following column appeared in WIN, Volume 20, Issue 1 and printed Oct. 31, 2013.


Last year, Wheaton College’s unranked sophomore Dan Olsen — second string at the season’s start after missing three years of competition — became an NCAA Division III 184-pound All-American.

That surprised a lot of people.

But few knew that Dan had already battled much tougher foes: drug and alcohol addictions that landed him in prison.

“This is like any kind of addiction story,” said Dan, 23. “My (high school) freshman year, I started with pot and alcohol. Sophomore year, I started doing more. My junior year, I started experimenting with drugs like ecstasy, cocaine and prescription pills.

Dan Olsen (right)

Dan Olsen (right)

“Kind of all through high school, I was drifting away from the path, but I grew up in a very strong Christian household. Through eighth grade, I’d have been called ‘a good kid.’ ”

Dan and his brother, Matthew, 25, had wrestled most of their lives, encouraged by their dad, Scott, who competed for Wright Junior College and Northern Illinois University.

“All of us love wrestling and have that passion for the sport,” Dan said. “Our dad taught us about wrestling from the time we were little shavers.”

Matthew would serve as team captain and capture all-American academic honors at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

At 152 pounds his senor year at Jacobs High School in Algonquin, Ill., Dan qualified for the 2008 state tournament, but his destructive off-the-mat behavior continued.

His stunned parents tried reprimanding and grounding him.

“Of course, I denied it,” Dan said. “You think nobody notices.”

Eventually, he was smoking pot daily before school. “Near the end of my senior year, I’d wrestle high,” he said. “My coaches talked with me. I had many talks with many people, but it never really sunk in.”

Shortly before graduation, Dan and a friend skipped school and broke into homes in three counties, seeking money and goods to buy drugs. They were spotted; police surrounded the house and arrested the duo for residential burglary.

“My parents mortgaged our house to pay for bonds and a lawyer,” Dan said. “It hurt their lives, the emotional turmoil I put them through — but it still wasn’t enough to make me change.

“I went back to school, but I was still addicted. The want was there (for change), but I really didn’t have a significant change in behavior.”

Instead of several years in prison, Dan was sentenced to two years’ of intensive drug probation and community service. He did none of it.

By fall, he was working at a shoe store and shooting up heroin again. But in November 2008, he was arrested in Chicago for possession of a controlled substance. He spent four days in the Cook County jail before his parents paid a $150 bond.

He then entered a 30-day in-patient program.

“It wasn’t long enough to get me clean,” he recalled.

Assignment to a halfway house came next. But 10 days later, Dan began using again and the staff found needles in his locker.

“They kicked me out then and there,” he said.

As a result, he served 90 days in a county jail, which meant missing the prom of his girlfriend, Riley Butler.

The jail time was followed by a problem-free 90 days under house arrest, but then Dan stopped taking a drug inhibitor and started the heroin and drinking again.

That led to a fight at a coffee shop and — while three counties still held him on probation — an arrest for aggravated battery and the need for a public defender. This sentence: three months in a county jail and nine months in a central Illinois prison.

“It was a blessing in disguise,” Dan stressed. “Being away that long, away from all the junk, was what I needed. I started going to church on Sundays, joined a Bible study and began building a relationship with God after I drifted so far away.

“And there was a constant reiteration of how (those men) screwed up. One guy said, ‘Either you’re going to give up on having a good life or you’re going to fix what you’ve been doing wrong.’

“Honestly, each time I did want to change,” Dan explained, “and I feel like the majority of people are like that, but no matter how much you want it, it’s not going to fix itself.

“But I was blessed to be protected; I never got into fights. I feel like God put those men into my life. It was the right place for me.”

Released from prison Aug. 24, 2010, Dan attended a community college before enrolling at Wheaton College. He has received the college’s Charles Colson Scholarship for ex-offenders, administered by the Institute for Prison Ministries.

This month, PBS will interview Dan for a January program on the cyclical nature of convicts returning to prison and what the Christian community can do about it.

Dan stressed his gratitude for the constant support of his dad, a fireman; his mother Mary, a math teacher; his brother; his sister, Kristen; and Riley, now his fiancée.

“I’ve put them through a lot, and they’re a lot of the reason I haven’t gone back,” he said.

“(The past addictions) are part of my life, and I understand that, but I keep myself on guard. I can abstain from (undesirable) situations or people.”

Besides aiming for a national title, the Applied Health Science major is continuing to look ahead, after representing the U.S. in the World University Greco-Roman Games in Russia in July.

“I want to shoot for the Greco-Roman Olympics,” Dan said.