Ten months ago, as my senior classmates at Bowdoin College were frantically dashing off job application forms to the far corners of the United States, I met up with a potential employer for a different kind of interview: a rollerski workout.
For those not in the know, rollerskiing is akin to rollerblading with poles, and it's the training method preferred by cross-country skiers. That May afternoon, I was headed out for an hour with Topher Sabot, the owner of FasterSkier, a cross-country skiing news Web site.
Our meeting led to a job offer that, while low-paying, came with a number of perks. Foremost among them was a bed for me to sleep in during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver—something I'd been dreaming about for years. Through the summer and fall, I reported on the minutiae of the sport—from training camps to technique—in anticipation of the racing season. Then, in December, two months before the start of the Games, I lucked into a reporter's credential, which would give me full and free access to nearly every Olympic competition.
All of this explains how I found myself in a conference room with a pencil and notebook at the Main Press Center in Vancouver on February 12th, watching from 50 feet away as IOC President Jacques Rogge struggled to account for the death of a Georgian luger. There I sat, among 200 reporters and 40 video cameras (yeah, I counted)—in thrall of the momentousness of the circumstances and humbled to be there. And it was only the first day.
I had taken the bus that morning to Vancouver from Whistler—the location of the cross-country ski races, as well as where Topher and I were staying—because I'd managed to nab a ticket to the opening ceremonies. Between that display, and the press conference earlier, I was both awestruck and starstruck.
That feeling dissipated as soon as I arrived at the races to find dozens of journalists from big media outlets ready to pounce on the beats that I'd so diligently cultivated throughout the last year. I'd e-mailed and called these athletes at their early-season races in Europe, withstood single-digit temperatures as one of the few journalists at national championships in Alaska in January, and now I couldn't get a word in edgewise. The mainstream reporters would interrupt me, soaking up valuable time after races by asking questions that fit their own narratives, which were usually broad and overarching rather than focused on the details. Those types of stories made sense for the broader public, most of whom could barely tell a ski from a pole, but I had a responsibility to keep our few-thousand hardcore fans in the loop.
By the end of the first week, I had my feet back under me, and had devised a few techniques for getting the full stories, as well as those crucial embellishing details. First, I'd discovered that the post-race interviews with athletes were usually useless. Many had been through media training (which taught them to say as little as possible in as many words as possible), and all of them had better things to do than to stand around in their sweaty clothes talking to reporters.
The best sources were those on the sidelines, especially those who weren't as busy, like coaches or support staff. At other events, it was sometimes hard to tell who was who, but at the Olympics, everyone had to wear a gaudy plastic credential that clearly stated their name, nationality, and occupation. That helped me track down Patrik Noak, the Swiss team doctor, who gave me one of the best details I got for a story at the Games. A few minutes after one of his team's skiers, Dario Cologna, had won the men's 15 kilometer freestyle race, I stumbled upon Noak, who told me that Cologna had been so cool the morning of the race that he showed up 10 minutes late for his warm-up—he wanted to see his Swiss countrymen finish their alpine runs on TV.
The other good way to get information was from foreign journalists. Since we weren't competing with them, the Scandinavian reporters were usually willing to keep us in the loop about their countries' teams. (Norway and Sweden are the two big powerhouses.) And fortunately, unlike the Russians, they all spoke English. We got tidbits from them ranging from rumors about illness and injury to bizarre anecdotes about drug tests and urine samples.
These tricks went a long way towards getting me the material I needed. But they also could not substitute for experience and boots on the ground, which was what the rest of the American media had over us. Two hours after the races ended, as Topher and I were just finishing up our interviews and sitting down to write, we would see the first reports already popping up online. Other outlets got interviews and stories from officials that I hadn't even thought to consider. We kept fighting back though, cranking out our articles on deadline, working our own sources, even eavesdropping on other reporters' conversations (only when necessary—I swear).
This competitive atmosphere was unlike anything I'd experienced earlier in the winter, when I'd often be the only journalist working for an English-speaking audience. But as frustrating as it was to get scooped, the back-and-forth pushed me to learn every single day. Working side-by-side with hardened veterans, I could see exactly how they went about their work and getting their information. Once I'd filed my own reports, I could go online and peruse a dozen other stories on the same race—giving me a window into how those reporters had arranged that information. It was an incredible opportunity, a front row seat at the World Series of Journalism. Except I wasn't in the stands—I was a participant. I'm already plotting my trip to Sochi for the next Olympics in 2014.
Nathaniel Herz is the associate editor of FasterSkier.com, a news website for cross country skiing, biathlon, and nordic combined. He has also worked as a reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a non-profit watchdog journalism organization based in Hallowell.