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leaving a legacy of perfection
Missoula Sentinel senior Ristine Olson is poised to become the second girl ever to win four straight Class AA state tennis titles and the second girl in any class to go undefeated throughout her high school career. With divisionals beginning Thursday, her record is 88-0.
Photo by TOM BAUER of the Missoulian

Ristine Olson may be the best prep player Montana has seen

Ristine Olson might be on the verge of making high school history, but things haven't always been like this. Believe it or not, there was a time when Ristine wasn't very good at tennis.

A short time.

It was 1994 and Ristine was nine years old. She had grown up watching her parents play the game. They had been hitting balls to her as long as she could remember. She had taken some lessons, but not many. The first few organized tennis outings of Ristine Olson's life, she lost every match she played.

Thinking about it now Ristine and mother Sue Olson exchange glances and smiles. They can joke about it now. Losing must seem like a very distant memory to Ristine.

"She just couldn't serve," Sue says of Ristine's early bouts with the game. "She just didn't have the strength to get the ball in on her serve. I think that's what really held her back at first. But she's always been kind of a natural."

It's true. Ristine wasn't losing tennis matches for long. She kept after that serve. Soon she had a blistering line-drive to go with her natural footwork and excellent hand-eye coordination. Despite the early frustrations, she was hooked on tennis.

"I loved it," Ristine says. "I didn't play too much to where I got burned out. I stuck with it because I loved it so much. I've been playing ever since."

By the time she was 12, Ristine won a singles title in her age group at the Intermountain Tennis Association Junior Sectional in Denver. She went to Great Falls and coasted to a win in the open division against high school and college-age players. She won the under 16 and 18 titles at the Western Montana Open. She was nationally ranked. Newspaper clippings compared her to Martina Hingis and Tiger Woods.

Ristine was just getting warmed-up.

Now a senior at Missoula Sentinel, she's never lost a high school tennis match. Ristine is poised to become just the second Montana prep player to go undefeated through four years. Her record stands at 88-0. At the end of this month, barring injury or an epic upset, she'll join Billings West's Rochelle Auer (1993-96) as the only girls to win four straight Class AA state titles.

Simply put, she's the best player the state has ever seen. But to let Ristine tell it, it's no big deal.

"I don't think of myself as a huge, dominating player," she says. "It's not like that. I'm just another player out there playing everyone else, trying to win."

Forget for a second that, at the high school level, Ristine is a huge, dominant player. Take away all the championships. Take away all the accolades and the superlatives that have been showered on her since before middle school. The most impressive thing about Ristine is … well, Ristine. In an age when the cliched image is of pampered, arrogant and incorrigible star athletes, Ristine sees herself as just an ordinary kid.

She's played against the best amateur players in the country and, more than anything else, it's taught her to just be herself.

"When I go to some national tournaments, the attitudes are obvious. Some of the attitudes I've seen are horrid," Ristine says. "People cheat. People are so obsessed with the game that they let that take over. There's no fun in it. I just never want to be like that."

The modesty seems natural for her. She can't help it. It's how she was raised. Ristine has literally been on a tennis court since before she was born. In the early '80s, Sue Olson won the Montana Open singles championship while pregnant with Ristine's older brother Braden. Two years later she played in a state doubles tournament while pregnant with Ristine.

"She got exposed to it really young," Sue jokes.

She won the singles title in the Montana Open at age 13, defeating the top two University of Montana players.

As both Olson kids grew and progressed, Sue and husband Craig Olson, the tennis coach at Sentinel, monitored Braden's and Ristine's success as well as their attitudes.

"I always told my kids that if they threw their rackets, I'd pull them off the court," Sue says.

Ristine says it was no empty threat.

"She would," Ristine says. "They've definitely enforced that since we were young. We've seen it. People chuck their rackets and whatever. They've always told us it's not that big of a deal. You miss a shot, move on to the next point, get over it."

The Olson parents must have done something right. In May of 2000, Braden and Ristine became the first brother and sister to win the boys' and girls' AA singles titles in the same year. The next year, they did it again. Braden now plays at Montana State. Ristine says Braden's influence was instrumental in making her the player she is today.

"It was awesome that we both played," she says. "We could just go out and hit around. We weren't really competitive with each other, we never fought on the court. It was normally more fun than anything."

Early on there was talk that Ristine might split Montana for an exclusive Sun Belt tennis academy. The move never materialized. She remained at Sentinel and, aside from rewriting the tennis record book, was the leading scorer on the Spartans' girls' basketball team. She says she's glad she stayed, and in retrospect, she wouldn't give up her high school years for anything.

"I went to a couple of summer academies and I wasn't really a fan of them," she says. "They play like five hours a day, they don't really have a life."

How dominant is Ristine these days? A few weeks back she played a friendly match against long-time friend and current boys' AA state champ Jake Childress of Missoula Hellgate. Witnesses say Ristine won in straight sets, though Ristine swears up and down that Jake wasn't giving it his all.

"It was like a practice match and I don't think he was playing his best tennis," she says. "I'm pretty sure he could split sets if he wanted to. I think he needed to be somewhere or something."

Next year Ristine will begin her college tennis career at the University of Texas in Austin. She made recruiting trips to four schools, but when Texas coach Jeff Moore made his own trip to Missoula, she said she knew her future was as a Longhorn.

"The coach was amazing," she says. "He was a really nice guy and I got along well with every girl on the team. That atmosphere there was amazing, the athletics there are huge."

In Austin, Ristine will room with Bozeman track standout Carlee Clark, who's also committed to UT. The pair met each other at this year's girls state basketball tournament and decided to be roommates. Ristine says it will help her to have a bit of Montana so close to her.

"I was excited because I was so scared, like, what if the roommate doesn't like me?" Ristine says. "At least now I'll know someone else."

The Olson parents are excited for their daughter's success, but Sue says it might not be so easy to have Ristine living in another time zone.

"It'll be a real change for both Craig and myself," Sue says. "We've been involved in so many activities throughout both Ristine and Braden's high school careers … It's going to be tough being so far away. But she's worked really hard to get where she is and I think she deserves everything that's come to her. We're really proud of her."

Ristine admits she's eyeing a professional career in tennis, but seems more concerned with figuring out a college major first. She mentions that she's eyeing journalism, but is still a long way from making a final decision.

"I think it would be cool to see how far I could take it (tennis)," she says. "I'd like to have a pretty successful college playing career. I'd also like to figure out what to study in college. I guess that's a goal."

However far tennis takes Ristine, whether it be to Austin, a professional career or simply the Montana state high school record book, it's clear that she's already come a long way from that 9-year-old girl with the shaky serve and that brief, very brief, losing streak.

Chad Dundas can be reached at 523-5265 or by e-mail at sportsdesk@missoulian.com.

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