The star of the number one ranked NCAA Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball team going into March Madness. The cover of Sports Illustrated. A mention by the president of the United States.
These were just a few of the many highlights over the past weeks for Kelly Olynyk, the South Kamloops Secondary School graduate who went on play for the Spokane, Washington State-based basketball powerhouse Gonzaga.
But the story really starts here in Revelstoke.
I had the honour of meeting up with members of the extended Olynyk family in Revelstoke on Mar. 23 to watch national coverage of the Spokane Bulldogs versus Witchita State Shockers game. The highlight of the third round NCAA matchup was 21-year-old Kelly Olynyk, a seven-foot centre. The junior led the Western Conference team to the top ranking in the US.
Anyone who’s been in Revelstoke for a while knows Sam Olynyk. If you’ve been here for a few years, you’ll know him as a dedicated Revelstoke Rotary Club member who sports a Rotary jacket noting his 50 years of service (“It cost me $50,000,” he jokes). If you’ve been here for longer, you might know he went to work at the sawmills as a boy, was a founder of the original Downie Street Sawmill, helped build the Mica Dam, worked as the Revelstoke coroner for about a quarter of a century, and even sat as a judge for many years. He worked his way into all these positions despite a very limited formal education. He welcomes me to come watch the game with the family.
The teams tip off in Salt Lake City, Utah as we watch the game from Ed and Deborah Wozniak’s home in Southside (Deborah’s maiden name is Olynyk). About eight family members cheer on their relative.
Sam Olynyk explains he helped the family catch the athletics bug. He was a big baseball player and curler, and even came close to a provincial curling championship. “I can still see the rock sliding through the house,” he said of a missed shot that kept his team out of the B.C. finals many years ago.
PHOTO: Kelly’s father Ken Olynyk, right, led the Revelstoke Secondary School class of 1970 to many team wins, and earned the top B.C. high school athlete award that year. He went on to make a career in basketball, serving as University of Toronto head basketball coach, and is now Director of Athletics and Recreation at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.
Many family members took up sports over the years, including Revelstoke Secondary School sports star Ken Olynyk, who graduated in 1970. Ken Olynyk cleaned up that year, leading the volleyball team to a provincial win and the basketball team to the provincial finals. He won the B.C. high school athlete of the year award for 1970 and, through coincidence, attended a banquet along with Queen Elizabeth II, who was touring B.C. and attended the awards ceremony.
Ken Olynyk went on to play basketball for Simon Fraser University Clan and eventually settled into a career as head coach of the University of Toronto men’s basketball team for about 13 seasons, where he also coached the national junior men’s program. In 2003, he became the Director of Athletics and Recreation at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.
The Revelstoke native has been a deep influence in Kelly’s career, and even takes time out to coach his daughter Maya’s senior high school team.
Sam Olynyk explained some family history. Mike Olynyk arrived in Revelstoke in 1911, after first arriving in Canada in 1905 from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Along with many other Ukranian families, they settled to live and farm on the now-flooded flats along the Columbia River south of Revelstoke. Many residents here have blood ties to the old local family.
Over pizza and pie, we watch the Bulldogs struggle against the Shockers. They chip away at their Witchita opponents’ lead and get ahead briefly in the second half.
Olynyk leads the team with 26 points – many of them coming from the foul line; the Shockers have no good answers for the seven-foot power forward and revert to fouling him. Kelly also brought down nine boards.
Fellow Canuck Bulldog Kevin Pangos also has an inspired game, scoring 19 points.
Down the stretch, the Shockers drain seven three-point shots without a miss and pull away again.
The final few minutes of the close game have the usual basketball clock-stopping dramatics, but the sense is no amount of intentional fouls and shots from behind the arc will bring the Zags back.
In the lose-one-and-you’re-done format, the Bulldogs are out, a big upset in the third round.
Back in Revelstoke, family members speculate about what it will mean. Kelly is still a junior and has another year of NCAA eligibility. But there’s always the NBA draft in June. Olynyk could declare his eligibility this year, with many speculating the power forward could go in the first round.