One-on-One with Official Cody Olson

OAKLAND, CA - The 2011-2012 college wrestling season started with a few new rule changes that are having an effect on dual meet outcomes, match scoring, and discussions about injury time outs.  We sat down with official Cody Olson to discuss those new rules, and also find out how a Big 8 Champion from Nebraska ends up being a highly respected NCAA official.

Cody O working a Stanford dual

First of all, how did you get involved in wrestling?
Olson: I had just moved to Fallon, Nevada and my science teacher was one of the wrestling coaches of Fallon little league wrestling, they needed a bigger guy to wrestle.  I started at 142 in the seventh grade.  Things went pretty well.  I remember in the first practice, I was thrown in with a guy that had wrestled for a couple of years, he was pretty strong and threw me around pretty good.  By the end of the season I was beating him and ended up beating him for the varsity spot 2 years later in high school.

Did you have any sports heroes while you were growing up?  Were any of them officials?
Olson: No, I didn’t have any officials or referees that were my hero.  I, don’t remember many of the officials from when I was wrestling. I wanted to be a football star, the player that I remember was John Hannah, he played for the Patriots as an offensive guard.  By coincidence he wrestled at Alabama.  I didn’t know that at the time.  Bear Bryant kept the wrestling program because Hannah wasn’t going to go there if he couldn’t wrestle.  (I don’t know if that is true but, what I have heard)  I also liked, Jack Lambert of the Steelers, Dave Casper of the Raiders, not that I would call them my heroes but I respected what they did the way they played.

You had a successful high school career in both California and Nevada, it seems more athletes from Nevada come to marquee tournaments in California these days, do you see any differences between the two states in intensity or style, or they pretty closely matched?
Olson: I think the states are fairly closely matched at the mid-levels. But California has so many more kids than Nevada, California has better athletes or I think that the cream rises to the top and you will find excellent kids in both states, that will compete, California has so many more kids to get those opportunities.

Starting the 125lb match at the 2011 All Star Meet

You were a Big 8 champion at Nebraska in the 80s, do you draw from that high-level experience for your officiating?
Olson: While officiating, I am thinking about what would I be doing trying to improve, how do I think I would be pushing? Or taking a shot, depending upon the situation? How hard is it to improve a situation or not to improve a situation?  Having been beat up on and having felt how hard it is to build a base when the guy has two legs in and is pounding on your head or having an underhook and knowing that you have to circle to stay in-bounds does help.  It all goes into the equation and comes out in the calls that I make.  Hopefully, the calls are consistent and fair.

At that time did you think your path in wrestling would take you to where you are today?
Olson: I was fortunate to get the opportunity to wrestle at a Division 1 school and earn an education. I was fortunate to graduate and be successful. I, had to work really hard. I loved being in the wrestling room, the practice and combat. My first year in college was tough, I got crushed many times. By my senior year, I did pretty well, just didn’t get it all put together for the NCAA tournament. That is why I respect those kids who are gifted and are able to become All-Americans. As far as refereeing goes, I graduated in 1989, moved to the Bay Area and worked. I moved back to my home area in 1994. My best friend told me that I had to get back involved in wrestling either as a coach or as an official. I didn’t have the time to coach, so I chose officiating. I figured I would go to a couple of meetings and ref a couple of matches, give some time back to the sport that helped me! I didn’t realize we were paid to officiate for 3-4 meets. I didn’t have any idea what officiating was about or where it would take me? I just wanted to do the best job I knew how to do. I was and still ask questions to the officials that we work with, what can I do to improve? How is my positioning? Was that the correct call? How are we calling this situation? Working to improve and be the best that I can be. Just like when I was wrestling, the only thing is it really isn’t work, because I just like being there. Enjoying the moment.

Cody covering the 2009 All-Star dual...

Congratulations on being selected to officiate the NCAAs this year, have you officiated there before, can you tell us about that experience?
Olson: Thank you. I have been fortunate to have worked 2 NCAA tournaments. It is very intense, it is humbling. Everyone that you are working with is an excellent official. The wrestling is excellent. As an official, you try to stay out of the way, let the wrestling happen and call what happens. The truly great officials you don’t notice, the focus should be on the wrestlers, and they make it look easy. It isn’t as easy as they make it look.

Can you actually have fun at that tournament, or is it intense the entire time?
Olson: The fun, is being with your friends and sharing the tournament with them. Being in the moment. The tournament itself is intense and you are focused on each match, the time, score, getting it correct. It is the intensity that makes it fun, that it is important to the kids, the coaches, the fans!! It is really important at that time.

Each official is putting together bits of information from a story that is being told on the mat to make a call consistently.” —NCAA Official Cody Olson


There have been a couple rules changes recently, most significant are the new stalling rules and injury time outs. Starting with the stalling rules, are you in favor of the rule as it reads?

Olson: I am generally in favor of the changes. I think they are promoting wrestling in the center of the mat. The kids seem to be working harder to stay in the middle and wrestle, this is a good thing for the sport. The injury timeouts, has cut down on the number of timeouts taken and I think this is a good thing.

Will this help you make tough fleeing the mat calls?
Olson: The criteria, has been set that if a wrestler kicks out of bounds in the neutral position that is stalling. As the ability level of the wrestlers goes up I think you will find them staying in the middle of the mat and fighting harder not to give up position. The fleeing calls I think will go down. Already this season, it seems that the kids are staying in and fighting harder not to go out of bounds.

...And making the cover of WIN Magazine that month.

Is it proving to be difficult to call consistently across the floor for all officials or is it expected to have growing pains since it’s a new and significant rule change?
Olson: Wrestling officials use judgement, this is different than just applying a rule. There are so many things that go into making a stalling call or judgement call. There is a combination of elements that happen, it isn’t just one thing. Generally, a match is like a story, what has been happening up to that time? Have both men been in the middle of the mat being aggressive? Has one of them been putting himself in danger, taking shots and working to improve his situation?  Has one been defensive and not engaging in offensive behavior? Is one taking a step backwards and then shooting to be aggressive? What are the feet doing? Is he in position to attempt to take the opponent down to the mat, or does he have to give up an advantage to improve? Can the bottom guy work up or does the top guy have both legs in and won’t let him improve? Each situation has a story to tell and it is up to the official to interpret the story and determine if it makes sense. You have a coach who is seeing his side of the story, (he is fighting for his wrestler) and you have the crowd that is seeing their (they want their kid to win) side of the story and they might be missing what is going on with the story. I don’t know if this make sense to you, but each official is putting together bits of information from a story that is being told on the mat to make a call consistently.

During a match you were officiating recently a coach yelled out to you, “Do not reward just a push-out.”  Did you hear that, and do you have a response to it now?  Is this new rule just one step closer to a “push-out for a point rule” like what we see in freestyle and greco?
Olson: I don’t remember hearing this.  This is similar to the story above.  As an official I am trying to put the pieces together. Did the guy back to the edge? Is he being dominated, and is he trying to work? Is he trying to circle?  If he is being dominated by the other guy can he do anything in the middle? What are those pieces telling us?

[Editor's Note: after discussing this with the coach who yelled the line above, he explained that given the new rule he didn't want to see wrestlers blindly pushing opponents off the mat as a way to score a stalling point, especially if that wrestler is blocking and not being aggressive otherwise.]

With the new injury time-out rule, since incidental injuries would likely be called as official’s time, and the safety of the kids is your number one priority, is it right to put more responsibility in the official’s hands.  Is that a good thing, or unfair to the official who has more on his plate and is probably not a trained medic?
Olson: At this time we have what we are given. To do our best to protect a kid, but not slow wrestling down. I think this new rule has been good and will be good for the sport.

Thank you Cody, is there anything else you would like to add?
Olson: Thank you for the work that you do in helping promote the sport that I have loved for 25 years. It takes a lot of love and sweat equity to make this sport work. When it works and everything moves smoothly, it is such a good thing to be a part of. So thank you for your energy.