Note: to see the writing and reporting I’m referring to, head to http://www.fasterskier.com.
Last weekend I headed to Lenzerheide, Switzerland, for the opening three stages of the Tour de Ski. It’s just an easy two hours on the train and bus from Zurich, and I found a great airbnb in town. They were my first races of the season reporting on-the-ground for FasterSkier and I have to admit I’m not sure I was totally prepared. The first day was a sprint, which is basically the most hectic race from a reporting perspective, so I had my work cut out for me.
The first step is, of course, watching the race. Usually it’s nice to be out on the course, but in a sprint that’s impractical. The race is so short that if you are out on a hill you can’t get back in time to catch the athletes at the finish line. So I just watched the qualifier from the mixed zone and caught some athletes as they went by.
What is the mixed zone? It’s basically a gauntlet that athletes have to walk through before they can go back to their team trailers and changing huts. Athletes walk on one side of the fence and media line up on the other side. The first boxes on “our” side of the fence are reserved for TV and video, outlets like Norway’s NRK and Sweden’s Expressen. There’s also radio. After interminable interviews, the athletes reach “us”: the written press. If they are tired of talking about their races already (understandable) sometimes they just blow past us. If they stop, depending on the athlete, it can be a total media scrum (looking at you, Norwegians; I’m usually one of the only people trying to talk to Americans and Canadians, so if someone has a good day and suddenly everyone wants to talk to them, it’s sort of a shock to have to fight for minutes). As one of the few women there and one of the smaller people in general, I’ve gotten elbowed in the face a few times. I’m trying to get better about asserting myself.
In big events like World Championships and Olympics, the volunteers and officials are pretty militant about making athletes go through the mixed zone. At smaller World Cups this isn’t so much the case, so a few times athletes just grabbed their warm-ups from the bags that had been transported to the finish line and headed out for their cool-downs. I don’t blame them, but it meant that I had to hunt them down later at the wax trucks. I’m not technically supposed to go into the “team areas” (each different area of the venue has a separate accreditation category and normal journalists are only accredited for specifially media areas like the mixed zone and the press center) but in this case it worked out because the same lax attitude that let athletes skip the mixed zone allowed me to walk straight in where I should have been stopped.
Anyway… after the qualification I chatted with some athletes: Sophie Caldwell from the United States, who had a great qualification round, and the American and Canadian athletes who had missed the heats and were done for the day.
I ran back to the media center and quickly filed a short story about Sophie’s qualifier. There was less than an hour between when I finished talking to athletes and when the first quarterfinal started, so I worked quickly. I had also talked to Simi Hamilton about what pressure he was feeling after winning the race the last time a Tour de Ski stage came through, so I had to transcribe those two interviews, write the story, and list the results of all the North Americans in the qualifier. We quickly pulled a picture of Sophie from the qualifying round. I posted the story and ran back to the mixed zone just as the heats started.
Immediately, things were confusing. Sophie had a tough round and finished in fourth. She could move on as a lucky loser, but it depended on how the later quarterfinal heats went. If she was out I didn’t want to miss talking to her; but if she was in, she needed to be focusing on recovery. I also didn’t want to be insensitive or insulting by saying, “hey, if you don’t move on, can you come back?” Then it would sound like I was doubting her, and she was probably already not thrilled with how things had gone. I’m not sure what exactly I said as she walked by, but it was slightly awkward. Later, she ended up making it all the way to the final and I talked to her after that.
For most of the others, it was clear by the time they came through the mixed zone after a quarterfinal or semifinal heat whether they had made the next round or not. So I did more interviews. They usually take just two to five minutes. A hard thing is to keep watching the heat that is taking place, so you know what’s going on, while paying attention to the interview you are in the midst of conducting. Luckily, athletes usually want to watch their teammates, so I was able to watch some of the exciting heats on the big screen after all.
I made some poor choices in terms of clothing and got super cold while interviewing athletes. It had been sunny and warm and gorgeous, but the thing about the Alps is that the mountains are steep and once the sun goes behind them the temperature drops precipitously. I wasn’t prepared for this. Not for the first time, my iPhone was shaking as I held it out to record. U.S. sprinter Andy Newell took pity on me and gave me his parka, which was super nice of him. At first I didn’t want to take it because it was too awkward, but I was really cold and so eventually I did, and it helped immensely.
A few fun facts about this:
(1) The interaction happened at the end of my interview with Andy. Gerry Furseth had to transcribe this and he left it in the transcription, me saying, “Yeah, I’m fucking freezing!” I will try to be more professional in the future.
(2) Wearing a U.S. Ski Team parka led to one of the Swiss reporters asking if I was the U.S. press attaché and if I could get him a chat with Simi Hamilton. The U.S. does not have a press attaché at these events and I am definitely just a journalist, but Simi is nice and accessible so I just pointed the guy in his direction.
(3) Those parkas are SUPER WARM! If you are in the market for a super sweet parka, this is it.
After that, it was back to the media center. I didn’t take any photos of this media center, but here are a few I have from past World Cup trips. Here’s the one in Oslo before a biathlon competition, with the famous drummers lining up to enter the stadium. These tables are equipped with lots of outlets and by the time the race is over will be packed with journalists shoulder to shoulder (or computer to computer… with lots of paper start lists, camera equipment, and cups of coffee scattered everywhere).
In Lenzerheide, there are few permanent buildings so the media center was less substantial – a big tent with a floor put down and heating inside. There were probably 50 or more of us working in there and it was perfectly pleasant and adequate. I started working immediately after grabbing a cup of coffee from the media center’s food table. That meant deciding how we would divide up our coverage – how many stories to write about each race, what the narrative is, what athletes’ quotes go in which story.
Soon, though, the press conference began. The podium finishers, once they are done with TV and print media in the mixed zone, come into the media center for a press conference run by the international federation (FIS for skiing or IBU for biathlon). It’s really handy that the press conference is held in the media center where we are already working because it means we’re much less likely to accidentally miss it!
(That said, FIS now doesn’t always do press conferences – specifically, not on the last day at each venue during the Tour de Ski, and sometimes in Davos they haven’t had them either. This is a huge pain in the butt for me. Of all the journalists, FasterSkier staff are probably responsible for talking to the most athletes – we check in with almost every North American in every race, and also need quotes from the podium finishers if they are not American or Canadian [which is most of the time]. Most others only talk to the top one or two finishers from their country in each race – we have two countries to cover, not to mention that most readers want to hear from each of their local heroes! It takes a long time to talk to all the North Americans and so sometimes we miss international athletes as they walk through the mixed zone at the same time. Knowing that the podium finishers will be in a press conference is huge, and I dislike it a lot when there’s not press conference.)
After the press conference, it’s back to work. On a sprint day everyone finishes at more or less the same time, so there’s one press conference and then the other. On a distance racing day, if the women go first, at this point there might be just an hour or 45 minutes before the men’s race. I usually try to really quickly write a story about the most important thing (to our readers) that happened – either running a story about a North American who did particularly well, or writing a recap of how the race played out at the front. It’s a sprint to get it done and frequently it needs proofreading by someone else as I run back outside, but it makes things so much easier later, when you have one more race under your belt and are even more tired, to know that one story is already out of the way.
Why does it matter psychologically to have one story already published? On a day where there is a women’s and a men’s race both (so, all days for regular skiing World Cups; most but not all days for biathlon World Cups; and only a few days at Championships and Olympics) we might produce four stories: one about the winners of the women’s race, one about the winners of the men’s race, and two more. That could either be a story about Americans and a story about Canadians, or a story about North American men and one about North American women. Four is a lot of stories.
In Lenzerheide I was really lucky because there was little else going on in the nordic world. No biathlon World Cups, no NorAms in Canada. Only on the last day, Sunday, did U.S. National Championships start. Usually our small staff is trying to cover both World Cup circuits and any domestic racing all at the same time. If I’m at a biathlon World Cup alone, that means that maybe I end up writing all four stories, start to finish, including taking the photos, sorting through them, doing and transcribing my own interviews, and then writing. I remember nights in Ruhpolding where I’d stay up until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. writing and then have to wake up and do it all over again. Some of those later stories are decidedly NOT GOOD.
Since nothing else was going on, though, I had a lot of help, both on the ground in terms of some volunteers and remotely. Alex Kochon, the head honcho for our FasterSkier reporting team, would help me go through the process of deciding what the stories should be and then took on one of them herself each day. We also had help from Jason Albert in Bend, who wrote one story each day. Jason and Gerry Furseth (a Canadian helper) were also total heroes and transcribed a lot of the interviews I did. Listening to your own interviews is bad enough (I hate the sound of my voice and some mannerisms I’ve unfortunately developed when interviewing), but transcribing someone else’s is ten times worse because you don’t know what was talked about. Since you don’t know what’s coming, you’re more likely to have to listen to the same section several times.
Thanks Jason and Gerry, and I hope you never have to listen to my stupid voice, bad interview questions, and awkward laughter again… but probably you will.
I also had a helper to sort through photos, which was huge. When you have hundreds or thousands of photos, picking out a few to go with your story and then cropping or editing it appropriately takes a surprising amount of time.
On the sprint day things took a long time and I didn’t leave the venue until after 8 p.m. I think that the grocery store was closed by the time I got back to the town of Lenzerheide, so it was good for my hunger levels that I had eaten a lot of snacks in the media center. Probably not so good for my health though as candy bars and hot chocolate have dubious nutritional value…. no regrets.
After reporting all day and, that first day, writing three stories of my own, I was exhausted. I had written more than 3,000 words, under time pressure, and tried to make sure they were good ones. It takes a lot out of you. Doing a race weekend or a long series like a Championships is like being in college and having a major take-home exam every single night. And it adds up. Over the course of two weeks at the Olympics in 2014, I wrote something like 55,000 words, or the length of The Wind In The Willows.
So exhaustion? That’s what reporting for FasterSkier is like.
Luckily, reporting can also be really fun. In the distance races on Saturday and Sunday I got out on the course to watch. Who doesn’t want to be here? Watching races still often gives me goosebumps and rushes of adrenaline at the finish. Being there in person is a total experience.
Being with buddies, I also took advantage of some things that I usually don’t – namely, events organized for the media. In this case it was a dinner organized at the Panoramarestaurant Rothorngipfel on Saturday night. We all took the gondola up; unfortunately it was sort of stormy and socked in that night so we did not get views from either the gondola or the restaurant, which is 2865 meters (9400 feet) high. But it was a really nice dinner and I got to meet some other media people as well as learning more about Lenzerheide from the organizers. That makes it sound like they forced us to listen to publicity, which is partly true, but I have really enjoyed skiing in Lenzerheide since I moved to Switzerland so I was actually very interested. They are aiming to host biathlon World Cups in the future and now have both a paved rollerski loop around their range and a snowmaking loop for early-season skiing. It will be interesting to see how things go in Lenzerheide, and I hope they succeed.
We soaked up the atmosphere. It was unique as usually I sleep on people’s couches and spend as little money as possible on these trips. We have a minuscule budget compared to major news outlets. Not a single FasterSkier employee makes their full living out of this work. To be able to keep more money as salary, we try to spend as little as possible when we are on the road. So to be a bit more high class was a treat. (To be clear, we did not pay for the dinner… thanks Lenzerheide folks!)
It was fun to have JoJo Baldus around. He is in Europe on a gap year before college, aiming to ski all the WorldLoppet races. In between races, he’s helping out FasterSkier – very generously, as I made clear many times that we can’t really pay him! Luckily he seems to be having fun. He doesn’t have any reporting experience but is very enthusiastic and asks all the right questions. He tried to learn some interviewing techniques from me, but since I have zero formal training I don’t know how helpful I was. JoJo is also a great guy to hang out with, so it was a blast!
I crammed in as many interviews as I could, publishing some on Monday when the Tour de Ski had a rest day. My theory is that when I am on the ground, I might as well take every five- or ten-minute chat that I can and somehow, we will turn it all into content.
But I have to say, even with all the help, it made me exhausted. The most fun trips are when we have a few reporters along, because the people who work with FasterSkier are fantastic, each and every one of them. My first trip was to Oslo World Championships in 2011 with Topher Sabot, Matt Voisin, and Nat Herz. It was so much fun! Then I went to biathlon World Championships in 2012 by myself. It was also fun, but a lot more work and with nobody to sympathize with. Trips to the Olympics in 2014 with Alex and Nat, and to skiing World Championships in 2015 with Alex and Lander, were highlights.
As I look towards this year’s biathlon World Championships in Oslo, I’m excited because, well, World Championships! Oslo! Biathlon! Fun! But I have to admit that I’m dreading doing all the work myself. There will be other racing going on, like the FIS Ski Tour Canada, so it won’t be like this Lenzerheide weekend where I could simply send interviews off to our other staff to transcribe, or expect some of the writing to get done by them as well.
Sometimes what gets me through is going skiing, and this was also true in Lenzerheide. Mostly we skied on a loop in town, but after the races finished on Sunday and volunteers took the stadium apart with amazing efficiency, we went out for a ski on the World Cup course. It was hard. But it was magical and fun. I love ripping downhills and World Cup courses deliver in ways that trails designed for tourists do not. I was pretty worked over by the time we had done a few laps though – the uphills are for real!
(In this case, the long uphill out of the stadium was great, really skiable, and would be fun to push in a race. The steep uphill out at the edge though, before the athletes zoomed down to lap through the stadium? Not so fun.)
It was a great weekend, but a lot of work. Now, time for me to be back at my “normal” job, doing science.