To the handful of skaters who noticed him, Scott Olson was the bronzed and shirtless guy who sailed over the finish line of the North Shore Inline Marathon, his powerful physique posed in a playful arabesque.
Few of the thousands who attended last month's race in Duluth, the nation's largest gathering of inline skaters, realized that Olson was directly responsible for them being there. In 1979, he introduced Rollerblades, praised by Time magazine as one of the 100 coolest products of the 20th century, alongside computers, cell phones and Post-it notes.
Now 47 and living in a funky Waconia barn, the puckish Olson is preparing -- for a second time -- to unleash his next cool thing, the Rowbike. And the Skybike. Perhaps the Lunar Bed, and maybe Kong Pong, too.
Business disappointments, failures and betrayals have sometimes followed his playful innovations, but winning several multimillion-dollar settlements for Rollerblade royalties helped Olson regain his boyish optimism and fund his imaginative lifestyle.
"I got lucky," Olson said. "A lot of inventors never see any rewards."
Olson was almost one of them. In 1979, he was a young professional hockey player looking for a fun way to train in the off-season when he picked up another inventor's take on an inline skate. He bought the patent, tinkered in his parents' Bloomington basement to make it better, then used his plentiful charisma to hook friends and relatives on the new sport.
By 1985, Rollerblades were becoming an international hit, but the company's finances were a mess. Local investor and Minnesota Wild owner Robert Naegele Jr. took over the business and eventually bought out Olson, but not without ill feelings. Several court battles for royalties ultimately landed Olson millions in settlements.
But Olson -- or, as his friends call him, Olie, short for "Olie the goalie" -- hasn't spent much time feeling sorry for himself. He's kept himself biceps-deep innovating other fanciful products. Switch-Its, a combination inline/ice skate. A folding golf bag. Plastic penguin lawn ornaments. That Lunar bed thing.
"Olie is kind of the Steve Irwin of fitness," said his longtime friend Steve Arundel, an Eden Prairie aircraft parts broker who played bandy, a game similar to hockey, with Olson in the 1980s. "Anything creative and crazy that he can do, he'll do it."
Olson could be a poster-man for the value of vigorous physical activity. He flings his shirt off whenever feasible ("I hate to exercise with my clothes on," he said) and who could complain? He's as buff at 47 as he was at 17.
"Exercise is the central theme in Scott's life," said Rowbike user Dave Olson, a 60-year-old computer engineer who's become both friend and adviser to Scott. "He has this mission: He wants everyone to be healthy and fit and have fun doing it."
Dave Olson is himself a convert. The Bloomington man (who's no relation to Scott) was a self-described couch potato with a bad back when he started using a Rowbike four years ago. Now he's 50 pounds lighter, far more muscular, and has no back problems.
"The Rowbike is exercise; it isn't just a leisurely ride," said Dave Olson. "It's work, but it's fun."
Living his dream
When Scott Olson bought his home 14 years ago, he barely noticed the spacious and comfortable house that sits on the property. He's never lived in the house; he saw the massive classic barn and adjoining wetland pond and deemed both perfect.
He is at peace on this 40 acres, surrounded by fun, movement and nature. Soaring decks jut from the 40-foot-tall barn, overlooking a yard filled with oversized toys and a menagerie of animals. A friendly sheepdog greets guests, while a pair of miniature donkeys romp with the resident goat and llama. Colorful chickens are cooped for safety, but guinea hens, ducks and swans roam free.
"I always dreamt I'd be on a farm somewhere," Olson said, "away from the city, the people, the noise."
His father, a schoolteacher and carpenter, helped him turn the barn -- which came with 50 cows -- into habitable space. Olson added fanciful features to personalize the place: a tractor seat swing in the living area, a 40-foot climbing rope in his work space, gymnastic rings that hang from the rafters.
The barn initially was Olson's office and work space, but became his home, too, after his divorce several years ago. Olson said he and his ex-wife, Kerry Ciardelli-Olson, owner of Victory Antiques in Minneapolis, are still good friends and devoted parents to their daughter, Maddy. Now, the most important female in his life is his 11-year-old daughter. Maddy's name is painted on his truck, her photos dot every display shelf, her name punctuates conversations.
"He's a phenomenal father, a phenomenal teacher," said John Mellesmoen, a 26-year-old entrepreneur who considers Olson his mentor. "He teaches her about the environment, about life. He treats her with maturity and respect and she returns that. They have an amazing relationship."
Since Maddy came into his life, Olson said, he no longer has time to organize the all-night golf tournaments he was once famous for. But he always finds time for fun.
"Scott is completely happy with where he is," said Mellesmoen. "He enjoys every single minute. He surrounds himself with the things he loves in life. He's worked with some unscrupulous businesspeople in the past. That would have left most people very jaded, but he isn't."
Olson thinks he might like to write a book about the Rollerblade story one day, although he's reluctant to go back over painful memories.
"I have spent time living in the past, that's been a problem," he admits. "I've wasted time, but I wouldn't change anything."
He paused to reflect, then brightened.
"But I guess I don't like to live too far ahead, either," he said. "I keep having to pay full fare for plane tickets."
Darlene Prois firstname.lastname@example.org
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