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This article appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Champion magazine.
Lynchburg women’s soccer coach Todd Olsen has led his team to the NCAA Division III tournament in 10 of the last 12 years, including the national semifinals in 2009. But in addition to having an effect locally, Olsen is using soccer to make a difference in the world.
A soccer ball helps Todd Olsen win the trust of Ugandan children and change their lives.
In May, the full-time professor at Lynchburg made his sixth trip to the Gulu District of northern Uganda, where civil unrest has wreaked havoc on the people there for nearly 20 years. Olsen, who trained at the University of Pittsburgh and has a master’s degree in public health and a Ph.D. in epidemiology, certainly has the skill set for service. But as he tells it, he relies most on an inanimate object to improve people’s lives …
“It’s the ball. The ball is universal. Every kid knows what a ball is, and they just want to play. It doesn’t matter what color your teammate is; they just want to play. Language and culture and religion are irrelevant.
“Not only did my education prepare me for the public-health component of service, but also my coaching experience. I know what sport can do for people. You roll that ball out, and the kids come from everywhere. Once they start playing, you can start intervening and talking to them about health and taking care of themselves. Once you develop that trust with the kids, then the parents come on board. And once the parents trust you – especially the mothers – then you can start to effect change in their health.
“The key to service is those relationships – you have to be one-on-one, you have to be present and you have to engage. When you’re playing soccer, you have to be present and you have to engage.
“I am such a fan of athletics. It can literally change people’s lives. You think of the examples in America where sports may have gotten someone out of the slums or the ghetto and gave them a chance. But in Africa, it literally can save someone’s life.
“It’s that ball. If we can just get people to that ball, then we can introduce them to different services, develop relationships and change lives.”