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World record bondsman
Former Olympic pole vaulter becomes bail bond expert
Camille Vandendriessche, Assistant Copy Editor
Issue date: 2/20/09 Section: Sports
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Olson poses with his pole, wearing a USA warm-up suit.
On an ordinary October afternoon, Billy Olson received a call at his house. On the phone, one of his co-workers at Billy Olson Bail Bond told him he just saw the man they had been looking for, a customer who had not showed up in court.
Olson jumped in his car, drove to the convenience store where the fugitive was seen and started to run after him.
"We were running in alleys and jumping over fences," Olson said. "I finally stopped him and talked to him for about 30 minutes."
For a fugitive, being chased by Olson must be the worst scenario ever. Indeed, before he started to work as a bondsman, Olson was a world-class athlete who used to jump over bars instead of fences.
An Abilene native, Olson is a former Abilene High and ACU pole vaulter who set 11 indoor world records between 1982 and 1986. In 1983, he became the first man in the world to ever clear 19 feet indoors.
Olson peaked Feb. 2, 1986, in East Rutherford, N.J., with a jump over 19 feet 5 1/2 inches, which still stands as the 11th best indoor jump in the world.
Olson has represented the United States at least once in every major international competition, including a 12th place at the 1988 Olympics. He brought a lot of publicity to Abilene Christian and attracted many great athletes to the track program, said Garner Roberts, ACU sports information director from 1973 to 1998.
Roberts said he received lots of calls for interviews, mails and requests for information and photographs. The national television, newspapers and magazines, like Sports Illustrated and Track and Field News, came to Abilene to report about the pole vaulter, he said.
"Billy created worldwide attention," Roberts said. "He was a PR major; he was very cooperative, and he was good at interviews. He was a good representative for the city of Abilene."
Almost 20 years after the end of his athletic career, he is still admired by the new generation of Wildcat pole vaulters.
"He was amazing," said Stephen Toler, junior exercise science from Cisco and ACU pole vaulter. "We still watch videos of him. As crazy as it was, he could have been even better with a better [takeoff]."
Olson already was a successful vaulter in high school. During his junior and senior years, he trained regularly with Don W. Hood, ACU head track and field coach from 1977 to 1988 and coach of nine Wildcat Olympians.
During his senior year at Abilene High, Olson set the state record with a jump of 15-10 and decided to go to Baylor University on a full scholarship. However, he transferred to ACU during the first semester at midterm because Baylor's pole vault program was not competitive.
"I should have guessed that it was not very good, since my record in high school was better than the school record there," Olson said.
The duo of Hood and Olson rapidly propelled Olson into the nation's elite. Over his four years of eligibility, Olson won every single NAIA indoor and outdoor title and every Lone Star Conference championship.
The tall, slender Olson was popular for his vaulting prowess and for his looks too; his funny goggles masked a pair of endless, blue eyes, and when he ran, his long, blond, wavy hair looked like a wild yellow mane.
"His hair was everywhere," said Jeff Withrow, who attended ACU with Olson. "[Olson] was different from other students; he was wild and crazy."
Dr. Charlie Marler, professor emeritus and senior faculty member of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department, was Olson's teacher in the Communication Law class.
"Billy was the local guy; all of us watched him emerge in high school," Marler said. "He was this tall, skinny, lanky kid with blond hair, who did not have the muscular size of an adult but had already broken all high school records."
Marler said Hood's pioneering knowledge of pole vault helped Olson exploit his talent, and the rivalry with Brad Pursley pushed him to excel.
"Billy was a star; he was the star of our team," said David Hess, ACU strength and conditioning coach, who threw the javelin in 1978 and played baseball in 1979 for ACU. "He could have played football; he was the receiver type of guy. We would just sit back and watch him compete. People loved to watch him vault."
Olson thrilled the crowd, and his success attracted talented vaulters to ACU, such as Brad Pursley, former U.S. record holder; Tim Bright, a three-time Olympian; Dale Jenkins, Division II National Championship record holder; Steve Thaxton, Division II national champion in 1986 and Cam Miller, an 1988 Olympic trials qualifier. All jumped more than 18 feet.
Pursley, who still holds the school and conference outdoor record with 18-10.25, came to ACU two years after Olson. The Merkel's native said Olson took him under his wing, and he quickly improved at Olson's contact, winning three individual national titles.
After their collegiate career, Olson and Pursley continued to train in Abilene under Hood's direction, competing together on the professional circuit as well as at both 1984 and 1988 Olympic Trials.
Pursley retired in 1988 to coach track at Texas Tech for 10 years and in 1999 he began his own construction company.
Olson retired one year after Pursley and began a shoe business with a couple of former Olympians. They visited manufactures in Taiwan and South Korea, but it did not work out.
"We did not have the means," Olson said. "I came back to Abilene and started to work here."
In 1991, Olson took over the bail bond business that his father, a former police officer, had founded 13 years before in Abilene. The next year, Olson also began his own bail bond company, Billy Olson Bail Bond, which he still owns today.
In 2005, Pursley joined Olson at Billy Olson Bail Bond.
"We stayed friends throughout the years," Pursley said.
During the first six months, Pursley and Olson worked 12 hours a day every day because they wanted the agency to get as many contracts as possible, Pursley said. When Pursley worked from 6 a.m.-6 p.m., Olson worked from 6 p.m.-a.m, and vice versa.
"It was pretty hard," Pursley said. "But we were never in debt."
Abilene Bail Bond now has five employees and works 24/7, including holidays. The agency is located on Treadaway and South 27th and is marked by a large sign with a pole vaulter on it.
Bail bond companies sign bonds for people who are arrested, so they can get out of jail until the day of their trial. Companies are reimbursed when the defendants go to court and in return ask them to pay a percentage of the bond.
Abilene Bail Bond takes a 15 percent fee on each bail bond, Olson said.
Pursley said at work he and Olson balance each other, and it is one of the reasons for their success.
"Billy and I are sort of opposite," Pursley said. "He is very detail-oriented and fairly organized, and I am kind of an old country boy. He is pretty intense, and I'm pretty laid back."
Olson said he is a worrywart and Pursley does not really worry.
"He takes the office wherever he goes," Pursley said. "Sometimes he gets obsessed with work, which was also true in our athletic days. Billy was consumed by being the best in the world. When I was an athlete, I did not take it as seriously as he did, and it's the same in business. But we both work very hard."
In college, Olson and Pursley would finish first and second most of the time. The competition between the two was ferocious not only at track meets but also at practice.
"Every day was a fight," Hood said. "That's what made [Olson] so good."
In the fall, all the vaulters trained like decathletes, practicing up to three events each day, Hood said. Besides pole vault, they practiced long jump, high jump, shot put and hurdles.
Hood said they lifted weights five days a week, did a lot of running with poles and did gymnastics, trampoline, underwater vaulting and hill runs every week. Some weeks, they would not even take a day off, Hood said.
"Sometimes, they would call me on Sunday afternoon to vault," Hood said. "Even in the summer, they called me to go out to the track and vault."
Olson's technique was not flawless, but his tremendous speed made him jump so high, Hood said.
"[Billy] was the most competitive person â€¦ in the world," Hood said. "He would compete for everything, even for who would spit the farthest!"
Olson competed professionally until 1989, when the last of many injuries, a stress fracture on his left leg, convinced him to hang up his spikes.
"It was time; I was pretty beat up," Olson said about his pole vault retirement at age 31.
Olson said he did not miss the frenzy of his pole vault career and especially not the travels; carrying poles on every trip was very difficult.
Olson said after his track career it felt natural to come back to Abilene, his hometown, where his parents live.
Olson said time has flown by fast since he began to work as a bondsman 17 years ago. He usually works at night from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., as his father did.
"Billy has worked at night for a long time," Pursley said. "I think he doesn't mind this solitary lifestyle; nobody bothers him."
Olson said he gets lots of work at night because that is when many people get arrested and bail bonds are signed.
"I get a call from the jail by a relative, a friend or somebody in jail," Olson said. "I get them out of jail and take them home or wherever they want. I am not afraid of hot topics. I try to talk to people; that's what my father did. When they get in trouble, some people don't know anything at all. I explain the situation; we find out what they are in jail for and work out an agreement."
Olson said Abilene Bail Bond currently has about 900 people on bond. The risk that several defendants do not show up in court and therefore that their bail is not reimbursed to the company makes the job stressful, Pursley said.
"You can lose a lot of money," Olson said. "I've got people on $30, $40 and $50,000 [bonds]."
Olson said only a small number does not show up in court.
"I end up chasing them," he said. "I've had a number of bad experiences, but I have never gotten into a fight."
Olson said he likes the interaction with the customers.
"I like my job, but I don't like the hours," Olson said. "It's not like pole vaulting; I loved it."
On a pole vault runway, Olson feared nothing but is afraid of heights in real life, he said.
"I liked every bit of [vaulting]," Olson said. "I loved the speed, going up so fast. Brad [Pursley] used to say that it's like a ride at the fair. I was never afraid of it, but I know a lot of guys were. I had a good awareness of where I was in the air."
In The Road to Los Angeles, a television show about the 1984 Olympics, Olson told the reporter about his reputation of a "wild and crazy guy".
"A lot of my buddies looked at me that way, 'Give it to Billy, he will do anything,'" Olson said.
Olson said during his career he traveled to mainly countries of Europe and Asia, where he spent most summers. While still in college, Olson was often competing far away from Texas, which caused him to miss class a lot during the spring.
During his senior year in 1982, Olson had a conflict with a professor about his absences and did not complete his last semester of college. Olson was ranked No. 1 in the world, but he never obtained his bachelor's degree.
"I was making good grades and I did the work, but I just could not attend class," Olson said.
Marler said he tried to help Olson graduate, but things did not work out.
"Billy was a very confident student," Marler said. "He was very articulate and outgoing."
Olson and his wife Stephanie have a six-year-old daughter, Maddi; he said not many people know about his pole vaulting career any more.
"Only older people," he said. "It goes away."
However, he still gets people's attention when he goes to the mall, he said.
When he was a jumper, he could overhear people talk about his exploits as a world-class pole vaulter. He said now they still talk about him, but as the bail bondsman.