Heading into the 2016 Rio Olympics, you wrote about the depression Allison Schmitt experienced after the 2012 London Games, and what she has done to seek help and eventually share her story. How do you approach the reporting for such an intensely personal and challenging subject like an athlete's mental health?
I've wanted to write about post-Olympic depression for a long time. Athletes reference it a lot, and there are stories about it around every Games, but I found most of those pieces dealt in generalities and were very predictable. The suicides of Olympic athletes I've covered have made me heartsick. I wanted to drill deep into one athlete's story in a way that could touch others.
I didn't know much about Allison except that she'd won a bunch of medals at London 2012 and trained with Michael Phelps. I'd been around her only in large group situations where she always seemed guarded. I was very surprised at the content of the initial interviews she did with the Associated Press and The Baltimore Sun in the spring-summer of 2015, after her cousin's suicide. I covered the Pan American Games in Toronto that July and watched her demeanor on the pool deck. She seemed more open.
Sometimes I go on pure intuition when I approach someone to be a central figure in a story, and this was one of those times. I spoke to Allison briefly at Pan Ams, and made her agency, Octagon, aware of what I wanted to do. Then I arranged a casual meeting alone with her at USA Swimming's annual awards dinner in November (where she received an award for her advocacy). We spent about 15 or 20 minutes together, and I was very clear about what I had in mind: I wanted to go beyond where she had gone in other interviews and would ask her to revisit some painful times in detail. I also told her I'd like to see her in a couple of different environments over the next few months, and talked about timing for posting the story. I think that transparency helped me build trust with Allison. She was fully on board from the start.
I also was able to introduce myself to Allison's father, Ralph, and her aunt, Amy Bocian, at that dinner. Having the family's confidence and commitment was crucial. I spent time with Ralph and Gail Schmitt and their oldest daughter Kirsten at home in Michigan in February 2016. On that same visit, Allison made an appearance before a large gathering of high school athletes. Her words that day were raw and moving.
Allison and I sat down one-on-one in Arizona (her training base) in mid-April. It was as intense an interview as I've ever done, but we were both ready. She went straight to some of the most difficult parts of her journey. Shortly afterward, I spent an evening with Amy and Tim Bocian at their home in the Pittsburgh area. I re-interviewed Amy and Allison at the Olympic trials in Omaha. I can't say enough about the courage of everyone concerned to delve into some very rough topics.
The key to this reporting process -- a year from start to finish -- was that I had time to build slowly and not just start slinging intimate questions at people
You bring such empathy to your feature writing, and you're also adept at crafting sharp analysis off the news. How do you strike the balance between those impulses?
I'm a very restless writer and one of the ways I keep myself happy is by roving between analysis, feature work and investigative reporting. They do overlap. Every great feature requires some basic investigative skills. Every great investigation requires the feature-y skill of getting people to open up. Both require good analysis, and good analysis requires good reporting. The biggest adaptation for me has been writing strong opinion on individuals and entities I cover. I was brought up old-school in journalism and conditioned not to do that because it can burn bridges. On the other hand, I'm at a point in my career where I feel as if I have a lot to offer in the way of cumulative observation.
You wrote about how some Olympians have had to wait for their medals while performance-enhancing drug cases are resolved. Where did that story begin and how did you see it unfold?
I was searching for an original way to approach the impact of doping and the dysfunction in the current anti-doping bureaucracy. An Olympic medal is going to be in the first line of an athlete's resume and the first line of their obituary. For most of them, a medal, depending on the color of that medal, can have a significant economic impact. Yet the quasi-legal system often allows re-allocation of medals to get held up in the pipeline for years even when there's a doping bust at the competition. Re-testing is a great deterrent on paper, and it absolutely should be done, but there's no transparency about the way it's done -- which sports are tested, which nations, which athletes, when and why. By the time the rightful medalist gets "upgraded,'' financial and emotional benefits have evaporated, the athlete who cheated has reaped the spoils, and there's no mechanism for compensation. Everyone keys on the podium ceremony. I knew these athletes' stories would be accessible both to people who follow doping issues closely and people who don't.
The foundation of the story had to be data-driven, and there was no accurate information clearinghouse or list of medals that had been stripped. I envisioned a user-friendly graphic that would give people, in one glance, an idea of how many athletes had been denied their moment. Investigations editor Chris Buckle worked with our research staff to make that happen. We started months before the piece ran, and it was incredibly labor-intensive. We picked the year 2000 as a starting point because that roughly corresponds with the founding of the World Anti-Doping Agency and the current system of anti-doping jurisprudence.
I knew there were some strong personal stories out there that had visual storytelling potential as well, and that led to collaboration with Outside the Lines and my frequent reporting partner T.J. Quinn. He and producer Andy Lockett focused on two athletes -- Canadian cross-country skier Beckie Scott and American shot-putter Adam Nelson -- and I broadened the lens to others in my digital piece. It was important to me to include non-U.S. athletes in the story. I didn't want it to have a nationalistic tone, because there are plenty of American athletes who have been caught doping, sometimes years after the fact.
I was happy with the piece. Unfortunately, I don't see a solution to this issue coming any time soon.
You have covered almost every sport and event around the world. What was the most challenging and why?
They all have their own challenges. The Olympics are exhausting, and the last two -- in Sochi and Rio -- had some arduous aspects, and the interview "mixed zone'' is not an ideal workspace, but we get to sleep in the same bed every night. World Cups (and World Cup qualifiers) feature interesting travel and stadium situations. I once covered a qualifier in Jamaica where we were seated at a table on the track around the pitch with no electricity or monitors, and we would caucus after every shot or important sequence to decide what had happened. Fortunately it was a day game and we could go back to the hotel to write. I've covered the Tour de France 12 times - eight of those start to finish and four of them solo -- and nothing is as logistically difficult as driving yourself around a three-week bike race. Endurance sports as a whole are an interesting category because you cannot see everything that happens in a marathon or a triathlon or a bike race or a 10-kilometer open water swim, and you have to stitch together a lot of the narrative from various interviews afterwards. I've always liked that. No matter what the working conditions are, if you have strong relationships going in from your pre-reporting, and decent access, you can do your job.
How did covering the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings affect you?
I was locked down in a hotel near the finish line for several hours and of course felt the same anxiety, horror and sorrow as anyone who was there. But on the day, that was mixed with my intense frustration that I couldn't get out and report from the street. I had to breathe, compose myself, think about what I COULD do from where I was and stay away from speculating on things I couldn't see, which is a pretty important lesson for any reporter. That initial experience drove me to find other ways to tell meaningful marathon-related stories for days, weeks, months and years afterwards. It also reconnected me with family in the area who were at the race and personally affected.
I spent a lot of time in Boston earlier in my life. I still love the city and cherish my memories, but it's a place of reflection for me now in a way that it was not before. When I go back, I make a point of retracing my steps from race day and thinking about loss, generosity, heroism, achievement and gratitude.
Plus-1: "The best advice I ever got was _____________."
"Show me, don't tell me.'' I think of it nearly every time I write a longform piece.