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.


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...


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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It's Lit!: the Rio 2016 Paralympic Opening Ceremony

Reasons to journal when you travel:

1. You can look back on your adventures in some detail whenever you want!

2. You can wait six months to blog about your adventures because the details have been preserved for you.

Ha, whoops. I was in Rio more than six months ago and I'm only now sitting down to continue blogging about it. But I finally gave this ol' blog the facelift it so desperately needed (and I'm in love with it), and it totally re-motivated me. So here we are!

I won't dedicate a post to every single day I spent or event I attended in Rio. But the opening ceremony definitely warrants its own post because, hello, bucket list! And my journal entry for that day begins as follows:

"Today was so long but so good and my ears are ringing and I'm exhausted but so jazzed."

So that kind of sums up a day I'd been waiting for my entire life!

To get a little longer in the tooth, each country's delegation at the Games got a pre-determined number of press tickets for the ceremony, and we had enough for staff to use. So I laid claim to one without thinking twice!

Actually, that's a lie. I did end up thinking twice about it that afternoon. Since we had press tickets, we were going to be sitting at tabled seats in the stadium, which meant that we would be able to work. One of my daily duties was to send out a sort of newsletter after all events had concluded each day, and that night I'd be doing it for the first time. As the afternoon wore on I was getting nervous about putting it together at an event, and by myself (my boss wasn't going to the ceremony). I literally had to talk myself out of bailing and remind myself that I'd regret it forever if I didn't go because of nerves. Thankfully that self pep-talk worked! (Related: that happens to me before just about every amazing major life event I've ever had. I panic and briefly think about bailing, and then it turns out to be one of the best things I ever did. So that moment of fear has turned into a pretty good omen for me! Go figure.)

The group of us that ended up going to the ceremony together was entirely Games newbies. Everyone that had worked a Games before stayed behind, and everyone that had never worked a Games before wanted to go. I still find that pretty amusing, but I 100% guarantee that, should I be lucky enough to work more Games in the future, I will go to every ceremony I have the opportunity to go to. But it was actually really cool to go with other people who were also experiencing everything for the first time. We all matched each others' enthusiasm which, as someone who was extremely enthusiastic about literally everything, I greatly appreciated. :)

So bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!

Immediately upon getting there, we wandered around taking pictures of things. At one point in the stadium, we ran into two Olympic Broadcast Service employees that had given some of us a tour of one of the Olympic Park venues the day before (so cool!) and gave pins to some volunteers. I'd been asked for pins numerous times since arriving and this was the first time I'd had any to give, so seeing a girl clutching one and saying "preciosa!" after I gave it to her was really great. You hear about pin trading at Games, but it was another thing entirely to actually experience it!

That guy is my hero.

As for the ceremony itself, it was... flawless? perfect? life-changing? To quote from my journal again (how self-aggrandizing is that?!), "there's a human element to the Paralympics that's so special, and I'm so happy this ceremony tapped into that and ended up being so beautiful."

I also handily compiled a list of moments/things that made me teary-eyed:

+ The parade of nations was led by the team of refugee athletes.

+ The Paralympic flag was carried out into the stadium by eight pairs of disabled kids with their parents; the parents were each wearing this sort of contraption that held their kid to them, so these kids that couldn't walk could feel as though they were walking. When they finished with the flag, they all waved to the crowd and the place went NUTS.

+ One of the torch bearers was an older woman that walked with difficulty and a cane. She fell as she was walking with the torch but was helped up and finished her leg unassisted. And again, the place was going nuts.

+ Team USA's entrance. (I mean, obviously.)

+ The lighting of the cauldron.

+ As each delegation marched into the stadium, they carried a giant puzzle piece. The pieces were all put together to eventually form a giant, beating human heart in the middle of the stadium. It was SO COOL and so symbolic and holy cow do I live for that stuff.

A man in a wheelchair rolled down that incline and catapulted through the "O"!
 If you squint, you can kind of see that this is Team USA.
 It's lit!
I made an attempt at a ceremony selfie. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And that work I was so stressed about? Totally a non-issue, despite being slightly overwhelming. I wrote a story about the ceremony, put the newsletter together (with some help from a fellow ceremony-goer, ironically, and lots of emails with my boss) and still managed to thoroughly enjoy myself. The downside of having to do the newsletter is that I was the last person working that night (and every other night), but luckily the group I was with was willing to wait a significant amount of time after the ceremony for me to finish up.

By the time I was done, the stadium was basically empty. But as we were leaving, we somehow ended up in an elevator with one of the handful of other people still there. And this happened:

He had me smushed against the back wall, his backpack basically up my nose. A coworker tried to sneak a picture of it, and the flash went off. LOL, beautiful.

And then we took a couple of media shuttles back to our hotel and, despite it being an extremely late night and knowing it would be an early morning, I cracked my journal open and hoo boy am I glad I did!

The full ceremony is on YouTube. You should watch it (yes, you). It's wonderful and I still can't quite believe I was there in person and I'm going to treasure this experience for the rest of my life.

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