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A body in motion
By Jeff Kurowski

… remains in motion. The laws of physics speed a professor on ice – and, back in the classroom, his enthusiasm continues to boost his students’ experience.

Michael Olson (Physics)
Michael Olson (Physics)

Students in classes taught by Michael Olson (Physics) know about his passion for speedskating. They don’t have a choice, according to Olson.

“(Speedskating) is all applied physics, every bit of it,” says Olson. “I use speedskating problems and examples all the time. It’s all about force. It’s about moments of inertia. In speedskating, you are trying to maximize the momentum with each step. You seek the greatest force over the longest time. You want to keep the blade in full contact with the ice for the longest time possible.”

Olson is in his fourth season as a competitive speedskater. He discovered the sport during a quest to improve his physical fitness.

“I was the school fat kid growing up,” he says. “I struggled with my weight most of my life. I was able to get my nutrition under control through my diet, but I needed a physical activity. I got out my vintage 1991 roller blades and grabbed some ski poles.”

Olson took up inline skating for the exercise, and his training would evolve into competing in marathons. An inline skating colleague suggested speedskating as a complementary sport.

“Speedskating is an extremely safe sport,” says Olson. “It puts no significant stress on your joints. I’m in my mid-forties and there is no joint stress on my knees, hips or back. It’s great cardiovascular fitness and it’s a sport you can do year-round. I transition from the road to the ice. My inline racing season ends and the next week the ice season starts. I don’t have an off-season.”

The 1991 roller blades are long gone. “I wore them out,” he says. “In the summer, I will grind through two or three sets of wheels because I’m training for competitive skating.”

The sports are similar, but the surfaces create significant differences, he adds. “The ice is extremely unforgiving of sloppy technique where on the road, the wheels will skid, slide a little bit,” he explains. “You can get away with certain things on the road that you can’t get away with on the ice. The friction on the ice will slow you down or you will fall or catch the blade. Going down on the ice is a lot less painful than on the road.”

Olson trains short-track at the Cornerstone Community Ice Center in De Pere and skates long-track at the Petit National Ice Center in Milwaukee. His first experience at Petit­ ­– an open skate in January of 2009 – was one he will never forget.

“I was just going to skate some easy laps, just to be there and to experience it,” he says. “The ice at Petit is like glass. Ten minutes into my workout, a tall, lanky fellow comes out of the tunnel, puts his stuff down on the bench next to mine and peels off his hoodie to reveal the Olympic speed suit.”

Olson was joined on the ice by Olympic gold medalist and world champion Shani Davis, whom he describes as one of the nicest people he has ever met. “I always joke that never in the history of long-track speedskating have the two absolute opposite ends of the spectrum been on the ice at the same time.”

The moment brought back a memory from his childhood in Neenah. “It was 1976, I was nine years old and already overweight,” he says. “I wasn’t playing any sports. I remember watching on television Peter Mueller [Olympic champion] skate in Innsbruck. I remember thinking to myself how much I would love to do that. This was literally a 35-year deferred dream of the school fat kid. I was out there skating with the world champion. I was skating next to the best.”

Olson still considers himself a novice in the sport. He soaks up as much knowledge as possible from Shannon Holmes, coach of the Cornerstone program, and from other coaches and skaters.

“Sue Ellis [former Olympic speedskating coach], who does camps for us, calls the compromise of turnover speed and force ‘push and patience.’ It’s all applied physics,” says Olson. “Intellectually, the sport really appeals to me that way. There is also a certain aesthetic to it. Intellectually, as a physicist, I understand exactly what I need to do. When coaches speak of certain technical points, I’m translating that into physics terms. My mind knows what I need to do, but getting my body to go along is a different story.”

Inline and speedskating are not equipment-intensive sports, which also makes both good fits for the study of matter and motion in the physics classroom, explains Olson. “We can talk about inline in terms of friction, the wheel bearings,” he says. “There are certain things that hit me on the ice for use in the classroom. I suddenly find myself thinking, ‘Oh that’s perfect. I need to use that one.’ It’s such a clean application of physics. There is no equipment except the blades. There is nothing between you and the ice except the blades. Hit the turn just right with the correct balance and all of a sudden you’re off. You have to find that balance of turnover speed and push, and length and duration of the push. It relates directly to some of the things we talk about.”

Holmes was not surprised to discover Olson’s area of study when he first joined the Cornerstone program. “He had a lot of questions,” she says. “Michael is so passionate and has such a love for the sport. He is a good student of the sport.”

A race from earlier this season stands out as a highlight for Olson. He fell during the final of the 1000 meters at a November meet in Wausau. “Contact happens; a few of us bumped into each other and I ended up going down,” he says. “I was able to get up quickly and reestablish my stride and settle back into my rhythm, which is something that I had not been able to do before that race. I finished fourth out of six, but that wasn’t the point. It was how I skated after I went down. Each race is a new experience. Each race I learn something new.

“Every moment is a pinch-me moment,” he adds. “Does it really matter how I finish? No, not really. I want to get better. I want to improve my time. I want to skate more efficiently, cleaner, smarter, all that. I want to improve, we all do, but in reality, any day on the ice is a good day.”

Future St. Norbert physics students should expect more speedskating examples in the classroom. Olson says he is just getting started.

“It has been life-changing for me to be able to do this,” he says. “There are skaters who compete into their 60s and 70s, even into their 80s. You skate with people of your same ability. If everything goes well, I’m looking at 40 good years in this sport.”

Game plan

A business professor manages a little ice time.

Joy Pahl (Business Administration)
Joy Pahl (Business Administration)

It’s not hard to understand why curling is the sport of choice for Joy Pahl (Business Administration). A specialist in strategic management and organizational behavior, our 2004 and 2006 Wisconsin Mixed Curling Champion says the sport she took up in 2002 is sometimes described as “chess on ice.”

Business strategists need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their company. They also need to accurately assess the opportunities and threats that exist in their business environment. In curling, this is exactly what we do.

As a skip [the anchor of the team], you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of each of your players so that you can plan the strategy of the game, and so that you can build the strategy of each end [section of play]. It is also best to understand the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of your opponent. If I know these tendencies, I will attempt to take advantage of this as I “call the game.” 

The ice itself is a major external force in decision-making. Different parts of a sheet of ice may curl different amounts, so you need to pay attention to how much the ice is curling. Skips who recognize the ice conditions accurately and early in a game are at an advantage. As the game progresses, however, the condition of the ice changes, so players need to adjust.

Similarly, business strategists need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their company. They also need to accurately assess their business environment, so that they can make decisions that leverage their firm’s strengths and shore up weaknesses, taking advantage of the opportunities that exist and mitigating the threats. Unlike in curling, however, business strategists face multiple competitors simultaneously and they face a great many more external forces. Nevertheless, there are numerous parallels.

Building a strong team through practice, communication, focus and encouragement is crucial. Strong teams win games and tournaments. Communication is crucial, just like in management. I always tell my students that when they become managers, they may be tempted to think that they don’t have time to go meet with an employee, or to make that phone call, or to hold that meeting. This is when they should remember, “Wait a minute, Joy Pahl told me that whenever I think this, I should realize that I don’t have time to do anything EXCEPT communicate with that employee!” Communication is always the most important thing that managers do. In curling, great teams don’t happen without it, and great shots cannot be made without it, because each shot requires all four members – one shooter, two sweepers and the skip –­ ­to act in concert.

March 22, 2012

Spring 2012 magazine

Web extra

Look here for web-exclusive content that expands on topics presented in the current issue
of St. Norbert College Magazine.

VideoThe Catholic context for higher education
College president, abbot and bishop bring perspectives from their three institutions.

VideoLet’s eat! First course
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St. Norbert College.

VideoFirst of a kind
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AudioOn Jesuits and Incans
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VideoA new species
Rebecca (Schmeisser) McKean ’04 (Geology) talks about the moment of discovery.

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A liberal arts education enriches opportunities in the corporate world.

GallerySanta Maria de la Vid
Celebrating the beauty of the abbey’s second daughter house.

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