World may change; great stories don't

LONDON -- Sixteen years went by between Olympic Summer Games for me. I covered my first in Atlanta and my second here. In between, there were four Winter Games and other gigs that tugged at my sleeve and kept me away from Sydney, Athens and Beijing: A fellowship at Stanford University, the Tour de France and Grand Slam tennis events.

In the meantime, I also covered three men's soccer World Cups and that singular women's tournament hosted by the United States in 1999. I always felt connected to international sport and wrote plenty of features about athletes in Olympic sports, but missing the Summer Games made me feel as if I were a political reporter who traveled with a presidential campaign and then watched election returns on television.

The work sports writers do at an event like the Olympics has completely changed in tone and pace and medium since 1996, when I worked for the Chicago Tribune and thought I was working hard if I filed a couple of stories a day. Whether our stories appear on a web-based outlet or a company that still rolls ink on newsprint, we are all hostages to immediacy now. We blog and tweet and chat and talk on camera for television and the Internet. If we're lucky, as I am, we also have a moment or two to write something reflective.

But the actual reporting I did leading up to the Olympics felt the same as it did 16 years ago in many ways. We're still writing about the people, not the X's and O's of sports that don't cross most people's consciousness more than once every four years.

I still try to identify top athletes I think will be interesting conversationalists -- my top priority -- and book as much time as I can with them in the places where they're most comfortable. I talk to their parents, partners and former and current coaches. I get completely engrossed in their stories, and then try to step back and write objectively. It's an interesting tightrope to walk.

  • Marathoner Desiree Davila sat with me over breakfast in Rochester Hills, Mich., this past January and told me what it was like to push the pace at Olympic trials, knowing her best friend wouldn't be able to keep up. In March, I handed her a copy of a Joan Didion essay she liked and asked her to mark her favorite passages. "Have you read 'Blue Nights?'" she asked me, referring to Didion's searing narrative about her daughter's death. I hadn't. I did.

  • Danell Leyva, the buoyant Cuban-born, Miami-based gymnast, showed me his original art and cooked chicken and rice for me in his family's kitchen. He recited the list of entertainers who have won the Oscar, Emmy, Grammy and Tony awards to me and told me he wanted to be one of them.

  • Tyler Clary took me off-road trucking on Big Bear Mountain, forcing me to set aside my fear of heights for the sake of the story, and talked about what it was like to be stuck in line behind the two best swimmers in the world. I took a picture of him from the back, gazing out over a valley where paragliders were riding the thermals like oversized birds of prey, and realized again how much of elite sports is self-belief.

  • I sat with Allyson Felix in a hotel lobby in Philadelphia the day after the Penn Relays. We were already comfortable with each other, having spent a couple of days together in her Los Angeles home the previous spring. I joked with her about using an image of Jamaica's Veronica Campbell-Brown, who had twice edged her for gold in the Olympic 200-meter final, as a dart board. Felix laughed and said Campbell-Brown was too nice not to like. She was focused on the result, not the person. "I don't think I ever really got over it," Felix said. "I think that I don't want to."

  • While Alex Meyer made coffee for me in his basement apartment in Cambridge, Mass., I looked around and saw a sticker on his refrigerator that said "FC -- Live The Dash." I knew "FC" stood for Fran Crippen, the teammate and mentor lost so tragically and unnecessarily in an open water swimming race, but the other phrase was new to me. Meyer matter-of-factly explained it meant making the most of the dash between one's year of birth and year of death. It was a powerful sentiment from someone who has lingered at a friend's gravesite more than once.

    This year, for the first time since Atlanta, I got to see in person how it all came out.

    Davila tweaked something in training a month before the Games and almost pulled out of the marathon. She started, but was only able to gut out one 2.2-mile lap. She intends to continue competing.

    After a disappointing team competition, Leyva recovered in the individual final with a come-from-behind bronze and said he was "happy, but not satisfied." He's 20, and began talking about the 2016 Rio Games before he even walked out of the arena.

    Clary won a gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke and said he had put his ambition to be a professional race car driver on hold.

    Felix won a gold medal in the 200, validating the 10 years she spent refining her considerable natural talent, and two more in the relays. She will take some time to decide what's next.

    Meyer faded from the front of the pack to 10th late in the open water race in the Serpentine and spoke flatly of his disappointment. I'd be surprised if he doesn't come back for more.

    We Olympic writers take breaks from these stories -- sometimes very long ones -- and then pick up the thread again. In the best-case scenario, that's what helps us look at them with fresh eyes every four years.

    In Atlanta, I was vaguely aware that a skinny 17-year-old girl named Kim Rhode had won a shooting gold medal. Two weeks ago in London -- or more precisely, in Woolwich, at a range set up outside the Royal Artillery Barracks -- I saw her hit 99 of 100 skeet targets for a world record and an Olympic gold medal. It was her fifth straight Summer Games.

    I sat next to a colleague and tweeted play-by-play of Rhode's final round in a sport I don't follow regularly and would know nothing about were it not for talking to her and being charmed by her down-to-earth personality.

    Afterward, I felt the same as I always do. I can't wait to see what she does next.