A Walk In The Park

I am going to finish these Rio Paralympic recaps if it kills me. Best-case scenario, before the one-year anniversary of the Games. Worst-case scenario, before the next Games and another backlog of recaps. Dream big?

There's not a whole lot left I need to post about, but it's very important to me that I talk about Olympic park.

During the Games, the park was absolutely beautiful and full of people (despite all the worries about Paralympic ticketing and attendance). I can't even explain to you how excited I was to just make the walk from the main press center into the park, to pop into venues, to stroll around and soak up the atmosphere. But then the Games ended, and less than six months later the venues were in total disrepair. It breaks my heart. I have so many positive memories in those venues, in that city, and to see it all so decrepit already is devastating.

Deservedly so, everything you read about Rio and the Olympic park lately has been negative. But I'm going to take some time to rehash positive memories I experienced in these venues.

The Carioca Arenas


On one of our first days in Rio, the day before the opening ceremony, a few of us went for a walk in the empty park to try to get the lay of the land and see the sights. Our credentials got us into all venues, so we stopped into one of the Cariocas (three adjacent, semi-connected arenas) to explore. While we were there, we ran into two Olympic Broadcast Service volunteers who we ended up befriending. They showed us around, got us behind-the-scenes and explained how covering events would work in the press tribunes and mixed zones. (And we ended up running into them again at the opening ceremony!) It was such a pleasant encounter and is one of my favorite memories from the whole Games.


We'd gone to that particular Carioca (3, I believe) because one of our group was going to be covering judo there in the next day or two. I ended up going with her to one of the afternoon judo sessions and got to see my first medal ceremony -- there were zero U.S. athletes involved and I still cried. I also watched a friend of mine from my Olympic Training Center days, Dartanyon Crockett, win bronze! It was so exciting! And, yes, I cried some more!


Carioca 2 was the site of one of my favorite bizarre, spontaneous Games memories. On this particular day, a coworker and I went for a walk in Olympic park on a slower morning, again to see the sights and explore (and shop for souvenirs, natch). What we didn't account for was the weather: it was 99 degrees (and humid) that day. We weren't out there for very long before we realized we were very far from the press center and very, very hot. Like, seek-shelter-before-we-pass-out hot. We tried to get into the aquatics arena, but the morning session had just ended and they turned us away. So we headed for the Cariocas, thinking that at least one of them would be open. Carioca 2 was our savior. We sat in the air conditioning, guzzled press-issued water bottles and watched some boccia. These athletes are some of the most severely disabled at the Games, and it was really cool to see people who could barely move without assistance compete with a high degree of skill.


And Carioca 1 was the site of wheelchair rugby, aka murderball, aka one of the more violent sports you'll see. It's like able-bodied rugby: guys just brutally collide with each other. It's nuts, and so cool. Our guys won silver in a double-overtime nail-biter on the final day of competition.


Also, the outside of the Cariocas gave you that quintessential Games vibe:


And from the inside, you got views like this:



Rio Olympic Arena


The second stop on our tour led by the OBS volunteers, the Olympic Arena hosted wheelchair basketball. There was a closed practice going on while we were there, so we weren't allowed to stay very long or see very much. But it was an ~exclusive~ tour, so I was still geeked out to the max. I love me an empty arena!



The Tennis Center


The tennis stadium was beautiful from the outside, but I never made it inside. The outer courts, though, hold a special place in my heart, as this was where I got to see my first Paralympic action in person!



The Futures Arena


Goalball! Guys, goalball was probably my favorite discovery of the Games. It's a sport played exclusively by visually-impaired athletes -- there's no able-bodied equivalent -- and it's just... so cool. I was blown away. It's rare for me to discover a new sport nowadays, so sitting down in the Futures Arena with no idea what to expect and having those nonexistent expectations blown clear out of the water was insanely fun!



The Aquatic Stadium


Embarrassing confession: I totally failed at swimming during Rio. There was so much of it, two sessions every single day, so I'd get busy with work and just tell myself I'd go see some swimming another day. I had plenty of time to see some swimming! But on the last day of competition it hit me that, crap, I had completely failed to see any swimming! That night I had my heart set on seeing the women's sitting volleyball gold-medal match, but a coworker and I went to swimming in the 15-minute window we had before volleyball. It was a truly pitiful effort on my part, but I'll never forget those slightly stressy 15 minutes. We were checking the time constantly and got to see Jessica Long finally win her first gold of the Games... and by "got to see it," I mean it was the last race we stayed for and we literally booked it from the arena while Jessica was still crying on the pool deck after her win. Better than nothing, right?

 ^ That's Jessica winning!

And the only picture I got of this building is from the back at the shuttle stop? Man. I'm sorry, swimming. I took you for granted.

Within Olympic park, I never made inside the velodrome or the Maria Lenk Aquatics Center (though that one wasn't in use during the Paralympics). But I'll include one more venue that was just down the road from the park.

Riocentro Pavilion


The home of sitting volleyball! I used to intern at USA Volleyball so I was beyond excited to get over to Riocentro and watch some sitting. I went at least twice: the first time, the U.S. women lost to reigning gold medalist China, 3-2; and the second time, the gold-medal match, the U.S. women crushed China 3-0 to win gold. That place was LOUD! And it was a temporary venue, so the stands would literally shake when the crowd got rowdy enough.

I'll never forget that gold-medal match. We all thought it would be a nail-biter, but the first two sets weren't even close. It was an utter blowout. My coworkers and I kept shooting each other stunned looks; we couldn't believe what we were seeing. It was easily one of the greatest sports experiences I've ever had.

 On Mondays, we wear green. ;)

And hey, y'know how I said we left swimming while Jessica Long was crying on the pool deck after she won gold? I was on Getty Images during the volleyball medal ceremony, and...


Whoops?

The Park


And finally, I couldn't leave out some scenes from within Olympic park itself! 


The first three pictures are from before the Games began, hence why it's so empty. Once the gates were open, it was crowded every day.

So don't let all the sad stories tell the whole story. Olympic park was beautiful and lively and it'll have a special place in my heart forever.

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Without A Paddle

Objects at rest tend to stay at rest; objects in motion tend to stay in motion; and Darcis that have slight blogging momentum tend to bang out a bunch of posts all of a sudden after barely picking up the proverbial pen for the better part of a year.

That's how it works, right?

In any case, howdy ho and welcome to my quickest second-post turnaround since, what, 2015? Yikes. Blogging was so much easier when I was unemployed.

Moving on! How 'bout some more Rio Paralympic things?

We have a bad habit in the United States of getting into a "gold medal or bust" mentality, when nothing else is good enough. Silver and bronze may be somewhat acceptable, but if there's no medal involved, it's either a gargantuan disappointment or nobody cares about said team/athlete/sport. It's a shame, really. I'm guilty of it myself, but it's important to remember that not every athlete needs to medal to accomplish something great.

That being said, several days after I attended paratriathlon, I was sent to paracanoe to cover athletes that had very slim medal hopes. And I had no idea what to expect.


The event was held at Lagoa Stadium, which was the Olympic rowing venue. The media workroom was up in this sort of tower they have there, which provided plenty of shade and lots of indoor space -- I'm very pale, so this was a welcome relief! And I'd never covered a water sport like this before, so I was fascinated to learn how the mixed zone and press access worked: there was an area on land that the athletes would be coming through, but there were also some floating pontoons that they'd pull up next to. Volunteers would let selected media personnel down to the pontoons, where you could sit or kneel and chat with the athletes while they're still in their boat. How cool!


Paracanoe made its Paralympic debut in Rio, so it's still very much a growing sport and the competitive fields were pretty small. We had three women competing, each in a different classification. The top two boats from each five-boat heat would move on directly to the finals, while everyone else had to race semifinals, from which the top four boats of the six advance. So only two boats from each class wouldn't advance to the final.

Our first athlete, Ann Yoshida, capsized in her semifinal, so she didn't finish and didn't advance. I headed down to the pontoons pretty apprehensively, worried about talking to her when she was angry or upset. But she was... great. Very disappointed, obviously, but very appreciative of the whole experience and happy to have been there at all.

I was pretty shocked. But in the two mornings I spent at the Lagoa, that was the overwhelming theme: total joy at simply being there.

#JustParalympicsThings

The finals were the next day, and our remaining two athletes made it through to compete: Kelly Allen and Alana Nichols. Alana is essentially Paralympic royalty; she'd won Paralympic medals in wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing already. So she's a big deal, but was not expected to medal in paracanoe.

Her race was first, and she finished seventh out of eight. I was kind of bummed, and again, I was a little worried about how this interview was going to go. I had some time to stew with my worry while waiting to talk to her, because NBC's crew beat me there. So I waited patiently while Carl Lewis did his interview. (Yep. I got to hover awkwardly off-camera while Carl Lewis interviewed an athlete. It was amazing.)

Once Carl Lewis (!!!!!!!) was done, it was my turn to ask Alana a few questions. She was wonderful and gracious, and got to telling me about her morning. She said she was out on the water at 6:15 am and it was so beautiful and she was so grateful to be there that she cried. And as she's telling me this very touching, personal story, she started getting choked up! Holy cow. That's a moment I'll never forget: six-time Paralympic medalist Alana Nichols got emotional talking to me about how grateful she was for her medal-less Rio Paralympic experience. (And then she thanked me for "all the coverage." I love the Paralympics, man.)

This is what a rockstar looks like.

Kelly's race was next, and she finished eighth of eight. But rather than being disappointed, she was practically glowing when she pulled up to the pontoons. She was, and I quote, "overwhelmed with joy." She was thrilled to have just made the final and helped the sport make its Paralympic debut.

I was FLOORED by what a positive experience paracanoe was, both for the athletes and for me! I was so energized by their enthusiasm (which was extra great because this was when I started to get sick), and it was such a cool perspective to get.

Sometimes it's not about medals. It's about the journey, and taking the time to be grateful and cry out on the lake at 6:15 in the morning.

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Paratriathlon and Patriotism

At this rate I'll still be recapping my Rio experiences on the one-year anniversary of the Games. That's... fine, right?         ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In any case, today I thought I'd start diving into the events I attended as a pseudo-press officer: paratriathlon and paracanoe. My job had me essentially acting as web manager, so for most of the events I attended, I was there as a spectator while working on other things. But for those two sports, I was there specifically to produce some sort of content around the event. I wasn't really a press officer, but I was something to that effect.

My first sojourn out from behind my laptop was to women's paratriathlon. The triathlons were held at Copacabana -- not too shabby a venue, huh? -- and the media center was up at the top of Fort Copacabana. Luckily I had a travel companion in Joe, one of the U.S. Paralympics photographers who had attended the men's paratriathlons the day before, otherwise I have no earthly idea how I would've found my way up there. The #views were worth the struggle, though.


I was there to help the actual press officer from USA Triathlon, Cassandra, cover the races. She wanted me to be on the course taking pictures to live tweet, and then help record athlete interviews in the mixed zone once the races ended.

Not a bad place to start a triathlon.

Paralympic sports have a number of different classes for different impairments; so blind athletes compete against blind athletes, athletes missing a limb compete against other athletes missing the same limb, etc. That means there are multiple triathlons for each gender, whereas in the Olympics there's one women's triathlon and one men's triathlon. If I remember correctly, there were three women's races, and two of them started about five minutes apart. It was incredibly hectic trying to a) take good photos, b) figure out who was who and in what class, c) come up with good copy, and d) do all of that in a few seconds and tweet it out to the world. It also felt like it was 100 degrees, so there was a whole lot of sweat involved. But I think I held my own pretty well (and one of the athletes' husbands asked for the original file of one of the pictures I tweeted, so I'll take that as a very high compliment)!

As both races progressed, Cassandra and I parked ourselves at the finish line. U.S. paratriathletes are easily some of the best in the world so we were expected to win numerous medals, and all in a very short amount of time. The first classification finished and it was a U.S. athlete, Grace Norman, who won gold. Cassandra handled that on Twitter before running over to meet her in the mixed zone, leaving me in charge of the other classification.

That's how I found myself crammed up against a metal barrier at the finish line of a U.S. podium sweep on September 11th.

I mean...


Guys.


I will never forget frantically snapping pictures, sweat dripping down my back (TMI?), thinking to myself, "DON'T CRY. YOU'RE WORKING. YOU CAN CRY LATER."

Then I ran to the mixed zone to find out what winning a Paralympic medal on 9/11 meant to the first female American soldier to lose a limb in active combat. (GUYS.)


And THEN came the medal ceremonies, and as much as I had hoped to one day hear the U.S. national anthem at a medal ceremony, I'd never gotten so bold as to dream about a podium sweep.


Holy cow.

After many hours of sweat and grime (like, I cannot reiterate to you enough just how gross I was), we returned to the media center to work for an hour or so. I helped Cassandra get some stuff onto USA Triathlon's website, and when we were done we took an Uber back to the MPC. Or, well, we tried to. Our driver didn't speak English and the area around Olympic Park was unaccessible to unmarked vehicles. So, uh, he drove around fruitlessly for awhile as Joe tried to communicate in part Portuguese, part Spanish, part English and part mime. We must've been in that Uber for an hour and a half, and this poor driver almost ran out of gas trying to drop us off. But even though none of us could understand each other, we were all cracking up at the absurdity of the whole thing, and he eventually got close enough to a nearby hotel that he could drop us off basically on the side of the road. So we trekked to the MPC to get back to work.

Later that night we were able to take the 10:30 p.m. bus back to the hotel, so all told that ended up being a 15-hour workday. I'm looking at my journal entry for that day, written at probably 1 a.m., and there are several times near the end that my handwriting gets all flat and lazy and veers off the line: I was literally falling asleep on my notebook.

Working in sports: definitely not glamorous. But man, what a day.
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