sports

MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: Watching a Bulldog go for gold

“This is what it’s all about.”

That was my thought while I stood in the bowels of Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic Aquatics Stadium, peeking around a curtain to watch one of the most exciting races of the Summer Games’ first weekend.

I had been following a slew of local Olympians leading up to my assignment to Rio, but few impressed me quite like Chase Kalisz. I had read a Washington Post article that profiled his recovery from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an auto-immune disorder that forced doctors to induce Kalisz into a coma. Kalisz was eight at the time; by 18, he had developed into one of the top young competitive swimmers in the country. He signed on with the University of Georgia and proceeded to set school and NCAA records.

He continued his rocket-like rise this year, upsetting Ryan Lochte at the US Olympic Trials to qualify for the 2016 Summer Games. I interviewed him the day that I left for Rio; he seemed like a genuinely gracious person. But I found myself more moved by a previous interview, after he won at Trials, when he spoke of how much he had dreamed of this moment.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” he said with a grin that wouldn’t go away. “This is the one thing I’ve been wanting to do my entire life. This is been my dream since … it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted this bad.”

That quote told his story. It tells the story of so many athletes who compete in various races and meets that simply don’t approach the grandness of the Olympics. Kalisz would say after his Rio race that he felt less nervous at the Games than at Trials, because he almost felt more pressure to qualify for the Olympics than to medal at them.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Cleveland, graffiti, & Moneyball

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson says arbitration process keeps bad cops on police force (2/27/15, Cleveland Plain Dealer): As the city of Cleveland continues to face massive local and national scrutiny for the actions of its police force, its largest newspaper showed a great way this week of elevating the discussion with informative coverage.

The staff took what could have been a simple daily news story — the mayor holding a press conference and speaking out against the arbitration process on disciplined officers — and turned it into something deeper. In addition to the straightforward recap of the mayor’s comments, the newspaper focused on five specific arbitration cases and broke them down in a meaningful way.

News outlets are constantly looking for these kinds of “see for yourself” applications to major stories. The Plain Dealer included on its web site both summaries and the actual documents from the selected arbitration cases. This is empowering information for anyone who chooses to use it.

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Breen and Emrick are play-by-play’s finest

On the list of those who influence the outcome of major sporting events, Mike Breen and Mike Emrick rank low.

In fact, they don’t affect the outcome at all.

But they absolutely affect the enjoyment.

This is my favorite time of year of sports. Early June marks the championship rounds for the NBA and NHL, where Breen and Emrick, respectively, are the main play-by-play voices on TV.

They are both sportscasting icons.

But they operate in distinct ways, and each is the perfect broadcaster for his sport. (more…)

PODCAST EPISODE #18: Thomas Lake, senior writer, Sports Illustrated

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Last week I wrote a tribute to the amazing — and newly retired — Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith. I mentioned how I first read one of Smith’s famous long-form, back-of-the-magazine epics as a teenager; I then rediscovered him as a young journalist.

Turns out I wasn’t alone.

One of Smith’s successors at Sports Illustrated — and one of the finest heirs to his long-form legacy — had a similar experience and has reaped the benefits of a rewarding relationship with this sportswriting icon.

That young journalist is Thomas Lake.

His career has taken him from daily newspapers to regional magazines to, currently, the most prestigious sports magazine in the world. And roughly midway through that journey, Lake got a major assist from his future SI colleague.

Lake discusses Smith’s influence, his own work, and advice for young journalists on this episode of the Telling The Story podcast. (more…)

MY OLYMPICS JOURNEY: A tale of two Atlanta bosledders

The state of Georgia, with its scorching summers, may not seem like a hotbed of the bobsled.

And yet, in the past five years, the Peach State has produced two of America’s best.

Getting to know them has been a fascinating part of my Olympics journey.

I met Elana Meyers in 2009, months before she won the bronze medal in bobsled in the 2010 Winter Games. I followed her through the journey, from training in Lake Placid through her post-medal celebration in Vancouver. I interviewed family members and learned a great deal about her path to Olympic success.

But in the past four years, I have received a fuller picture.

Meyers is an active presence on Twitter and in the blogosphere. In fact, so are many of her teammates and fellow Olympians. And these athletes, unlike those in the major American sports, use their online platform to go into great detail about their lives.

And the lives of winter sports athletes are extremely atypical — and, some might say, full of contradictions.

First, consider this: Athletes like Meyers are professionals and among the best in the world at their sports. They shine on the world’s largest stage every four years; they receive access to some of the most advanced sporting equipment and technology; and they get to travel the world annually during their sports’ seasons.

Now, consider this: Athletes like Meyers often have to work part-time jobs to raise money for extra gear. They have a six-month off-season in which many study at online universities for their degrees. They rarely receive endorsements, have to hunt for sponsors, and, except for the Olympics, toil in anonymity despite their elite level of competition.

Perhaps that’s why athletes like Meyers put themselves out there online. They offer a window to anyone who is interested into their truly unique existences.

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PODCAST EPISODE #9: Tomas Rios, paid-lance sportswriter

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Full disclosure #1: A month ago, I had never heard of Tomas Rios.

Full disclosure #2: I invited him to appear on my podcast off the strength of one article — a piece he wrote last month called “A Brief History of Bad Sports Writing”.

Full disclosure #3: I was very impressed with the result.

In the article, Rios takes aim at the “hot take” brand of journalism that has, he says, infested the sports media landscape. He traces it back to its evolutionary roots, bringing the reader on a journey from Grantland Rice to Dick Young to various modern-day writers, whom Rios willfully calls out by name.

Rios is my guest on Episode 9 of the Telling The Story podcast. We go deep into the discussion of modern sports journalism, and he holds back just as little in our podcast as he does in the article. Rios and I don’t agree on everything, but I admire the critical way in which he views the field, his work included.

But I also delve into another subject with the 29-year-old, whose work has also appeared on the Slate and Deadspin web sites, among others:

He talk about life as a freelancer.

Rios is a self-described “paid-lance sports writer” — that is to say, he is a freelance writer who no longer works for free. He began his career writing mainly about combat sports (UFC, MMA, etc.) and did so regularly until he found himself in a verbal showdown with comedian and UFC announcer Joe Rogan.

Or, as Rios puts it, “[Rogan] went on some crazy psychotic online rant and used some homophobic slurs against me and used his pull behind the scenes to cost me some work.”

Rios left the writing scene for a while but came back more determined. He says he has become an infinitely better writer today, and he says he has finally reached a point where he can give up his day job and actually make a living as a freelance writer.

His — like that of every freelancer, I suppose — is a unique story. It is worth hearing, especially for young writers trying to forge their own career path.

Among Rios’ other notable sound bites from the podcast:

  • On the influence of the “hot take”: “More and more reporting is failing to put things into the proper context. [It’s] putting them inside of these narratives that are easily digestible and allow us to make judgments about the people involved.”
  • On finding your voice as a writer: “I really don’t think about the audience very much. In my earlier writing, I felt like I had to pull back on what I wanted to say a little bit … and now, I just try to write as organically as I can.”
  • On his advice for young writers: “One thing they should be looking for in terms of their writing is good editing.”

Listen to the podcast at the top of the page or download it and listen to it later. And subscribe to the podcast – and rate and review it – on iTunes!

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Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at matt@tellingthestoryblog.com.

PODCAST PREVIEW: Tomas Rios: Hot takes are “the most ubiquitous form of sportswriting”

This episode of the Telling The Story podcast requires a bit of reading in advance.

Several weeks ago, a freelance sportswriter named Tomas Rios — who generally writes about MMA, UFC, and combat sports — unveiled a piece for Pacific Standard magazine called “A Brief History of Bad Sports Writing”.

Check it out.

In the article, Rios essentially takes several legends of sportswriting history to task, criticizing the early 20th-century likes of Grantland Rice for deifying athletes and the mid-century likes of Dick Young for holding athletes to unfairly high standards.

How have those legends affected today’s sportswriting? Says Rios, it has plagued the medium with a disease called the “hot take” — namely based on the judging and moralizing of athletes’ off-the-field decisions.

“What you end up with now in sportswriting is,” Rios says, “because writers have seen that it will land you that feature columnist’s spot, they start to mimic it. And all of a sudden it’s become the most ubiquitous form of sportswriting.”

I invited Rios to be my guest on the podcast this week because I found his article both thorough and passionate; he provided well-thought analysis in a genre that often lacks it. I figured I would bring him on for an even deeper conversation.

Rios did not disappoint.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring sports, maps, and bratwurst

Every week, I shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

When I first started this blog, I felt nervous about this particular segment.

Would I be able to find “3 Great Stories” every week? Stories that would offer me a new perspective on a familiar subject? Stories that would hit me emotionally as well as informationally? Stories that I would want to share even if I did not write a weekly column about them?

(In the first installment of this segment, you may recall, I only found two great stories.)

As this blog rolls into its seventh month, I am no longer nervous.

In fact, writing this segment is now one of my favorite parts of the week.

I have developed a process and rhythm for finding and absorbing great content. I subscribe to various RSS feeds and bookmark stories that pique my interest. I try to read and watch whatever I can during the week, but knowing how busy I often feel, I typically wind up waiting until the weekend to look at the bulk of the stories.

I love that part.

I love sitting down at my computer, clicking on story after story — print, video, audio, and otherwise — and taking them all in.

Between our busy schedules, our dwindling attention spans, and our penchant for the quick and brief over the measured and deep, we often now have to work to find great storytelling. But amidst the flood of information bombarding our minds, I am constantly flooded by powerful stories.

And I appreciate that such storytelling is still out there, in abundance, waiting to be seen.

Man and Superman (9/6/13, The New Yorker): For all the attention Malcolm Gladwell gets for his books, I still tend to prefer him in small doses.

At least, doses smaller than books.

In this case, Gladwell submits another powerful thinker about the blurred lines of athletic doping. He examines our castigation of Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong amidst our reverence for Kenyan runners, who Gladwell finds are genetically predisposed to succeeding at the sport, and Tommy John, who thrived in Major League baseball largely thanks to bionics. At what point does science end and cheating begin?

I, for one, believe cheating begins once somebody breaks a rule. But Gladwell takes on the rules themselves. In doing so, he offers a beautiful example of how to cover a current news story with in-depth, well researched perspective.

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Beep baseball, and my two minutes of blindness

It had been a frustrating morning.

Back in May I was made aware of a baseball team in my home city of Atlanta that played every Saturday during the spring. The team was special for a powerful reason: each of its players was deeply visually impaired, if not completely blind.

At the time I anticipated a tremendously moving story, but I could not find a day to shoot it before their season ended. However, I was told, the team — named the Atlanta Eclipse — would be a part of a truly special event in late July: the World Series of beep baseball.

(The sport is called “beep baseball” because the ball beeps, so that the players can hear it.)

I then learned that the World Series would feature 19 teams from around the country, as well as the defending world champions from Taiwan. Beyond that, it would be held in Columbus, Ga., a mere 90-minute drive from Atlanta.

I got excited. The story, I felt, had great potential; I would simply have to cool my heels for two months until the Series arrived.

But now, nearly two months later, I was frustrated.

I had arranged to shoot a practice several weeks before the Series, but the day beforehand I learned that a majority of the players would be unable to attend, for various reasons. I showed up on a rainy Saturday morning to find just three players — along with their aides and the team’s volunteers and coaches.

Because of that, and because of the weather, I did not have much to shoot. I got whatever video I could, but I knew it would pale in comparison to what I would see at the World Series.

Hence the frustration. No one was to blame, but I found myself spending valuable weekend hours on a shoot that had produced disappointingly little.

So I decided to play.

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3 GREAT STORIES: Starring Huey Lewis, ham radios, & a top chef

Every week, I will shine the spotlight on some of the best storytelling in the business and offer my comments. “3 Great Stories of the Week” will post every Monday at 8 AM.

The following three stories are great examples of where craft meets character.

So often, without a good character or human element, a story simply does not feel relatable. We, as viewers and readers, tend to require connection on a personal level to the stories we enjoy.

A great storyteller knows how to use the proper tools to illuminate that connection.

The three examples below come in different formats: print and TV, long-form and short-form, with narration and without. Each journalist profiles a unique individual or group — but makes his story more powerful with some sophisticated crafting.

Huey Lewis’ old, weird America (6/25/13, Grantland.com): Author Steven Hyden wastes little time pointing out what becomes relatively obvious about the famous singer Huey Lewis:

His career is basically a time capsule.

Lewis gives an interview to Hyden while promoting the 30th anniversary re-release of his highest-selling album, Sports. (Lest we forget, in the 80’s you could release a #1 album with a title like Sports.) Hyden muses about how Lewis (A) “unchanged from the handsome, confidently smirking cool-dad figure,” (B) “consciously or not makes his living by constructing a public version of himself that hasn’t existed since the original Knight Rider was canceled,” and (C) “represents an archetype that is not only absent from the pop charts, it’s one that is nearly impossible for a young person to imagine ever being popular.”

Hyden interjects his own memories and revelations into the story, which is a wise move. The Huey Lewis story is one of nostalgia, and we like to share our nostalgia. Hyden does a beautiful job of toeing the line; he provides some personal color, allowing us as readers to reminisce communally, while never overdoing it to the point where he might take the spotlight away from Lewis.

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