By Swimming World special correspondent Pam Roberts
BERLIN, Germany, August 12. IN 1999, roughly three months after my 17th birthday, I sat in my bedroom in Berlin one summer afternoon and looked at the blank pages of a big blue notebook, with pens and glue and a lot of photos in front of me. And then I started to write. A few days later the book was full of reports, memories and anecdotes of an entire season of the local soccer team of Berlin and I thought to myself, “It would be so cool if I could do something like that in the future.”
That future started in early 2013 when I saw something on Twitter. Swimming World was asking for people who would like to do some correspondent work for the company. “Why not?” I thought and sent them a tweet, saying I would love to give it a try. It didn’t take long to get a reply from Jason Marsteller, master of all things social media at Swimming World, and then the ball was rolling. In late April I did my first gig for Swimming World when I covered two days of the German nationals. And I must have done something right, because Jason gave me the go-ahead to apply for media credentials at the world championships, a meet I was planning to attend anyway as a spectator. And then, on May 16, I got an e-mail from the accreditation office at worlds, telling me when and where to pick up my media pass.
Now cue to July 28. I was no longer in my bedroom, but in Barcelona, Spain. In front of me wasn’t a blank notebook and there were no pens, glue or photos. In front of me was Elizabeth Beisel from Team USA and the Florida Gators. She had just finished her preliminary heat of the 200 IM at the FINA World Championships and I was talking to her. I was nervous and I stuttered and I probably did not make a lot of sense (sorry about that, Elizabeth). It barely took a minute. After that one minute, it felt like the world came crashing down on me. I looked around myself and I saw a lot of people and I was surrounded by a lot of different languages. TV screens were showing swimming and split times. All things that had been there all along, but suddenly they did seem to be a lot more there. And somehow, I was in the middle of all of it and nobody sent me away because of a yellow laminate around my neck.
That was the first time of many where I thought to myself, “Wow, I am really here and I am really doing this.” “Here” being the mixed zone at an international swim meet and “this” being part of the group of journalists there.
The entire first day is still a huge blur to me. I grew up in the middle of Berlin as the kid of a musician. I am used to a lot of noise and a lot of chaos and standing in front of one or the other famous person while keeping my cool. But nothing quite prepared me for what I was about to do for the next eight days in Barcelona. Something I learned the hard way when, just a few hours after I had talked to Elizabeth Beisel, the American men’s 4×100 free relay was standing in front of me after winning silver in their final, a team that included Anthony Ervin and Ryan Lochte, hands down my two favorite swimmers. I did the expected: I choked. I didn’t say a word. I couldn’t. My mind was blank and my mouth refused to work on its own (something it usually really likes to do). Thankfully I was not by myself and other journalists fired off their questions, covering up my painfully obvious level of inexperience.
Needless to say, I was embarrassed. Way to show my rookie status and make everyone wonder how on earth I got a media pass. But I remembered something one of my teachers said to me when I was in school – “Make as many mistakes as you want, but don’t make the same mistake twice.” And I listened to her. I didn’t choke again and sent my mouth back to work.
After that, things got easier. I still asked myself on an hourly basis when someone would call my bluff and figure out that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. A feeling that never fully went away for the entire eight days, if I’m being completely honest. But I figured out a way to work around it – breathe and find something to focus on. And it worked. I still felt completely overwhelmed all the time, but I managed to put it behind me and get the job done. After all, Jeff Commings and Jason from Swimming World believed in me, something not a lot of people tend to do, and disappointing them was never part of my plan. And really, it isn’t that difficult to not let your nerves get the better of you for one minute every other time.
Once I got over that initial shock and two-second panic, I loved being in the mixed zone. I loved watching the Chinese and Japanese journalists almost making the barrier fall forward because they were all leaning against it when one of their own was being interviewed. I got to talk to other journalists from all over the world and got a look at their perspective of things (most were good, some others not so much). The volunteers in the mixed zone were really nice and helpful and it was great to feed off their excitement (and it felt comforting to see other people who looked about as overwhelmed as I felt sometimes).
Interviewing the swimmers became part of what I did every day and it’s the biggest lie of the year when I say that I didn’t enjoy every second of it. I loved it. Thanks to the wonderful help of the press liaisons of Team USA, I got the chance to talk to athletes I had never even imagined I’d see up close, never mind fresh out of the pool, standing in front of me, answering my questions. Everyone was always patient and forthcoming and great to talk to, but the athletes I enjoyed talking to the most were Breeja Larson, Natalie Coughlin, Tony Ervin, David Plummer, Matt Grevers, Tom Luchsinger, Jimmy Feigen, Conor Dwyer and Ryan Lochte.
Some days were more frustrating than others. The organization of the press conferences was a little different. The athletes who had won a medal were going to the press conferences right after the medal ceremonies, even when there will still races going on. A lot than less than a handful of journalists were at the press conferences, because the action was happening elsewhere. Sleep was something I didn’t do a lot and there was only one out of the eight days of competition where I actually managed to eat three meals a day. Both things I am more or less used to, but it is a different thing when you’re running on adrenaline because of all the things that are happening around you.
My personal highlight was the finals session competition day six, otherwise known as the day of Ryan Lochte’s triple. After day one, that was probably the only day I spent in a big blur of a mixture of awe and excitement. I managed to watch all of Ryan’s races from the stands and in the end I just remained floored by the things I had witnessed and it was great to see him after the 4×200 free relay and just say, “Congratulations, you survived.” (Yes, I did say that.).
Of course there aren’t just moments of winning and happiness and excitement. Even though all I know of the athletes was the part they allowed me to see in the one or two minutes I spent talking to them in the mixed zone, looking into their faces or just seeing them walk past after a race that didn’t go went well still struck me and I just wanted to give them a big hug every single time. Talking to Nathan Adrian, Matt Grevers and Ryan Lochte after that disqualification in the 4×100 medley relay were probably the toughest five minutes I had in all those eight days.
All in all, the eight days of swimming at the world championships in Barcelona were clearly the best eight days I had in years, maybe ever. I’m not trying to run a pity party, but I never felt as accepted as I did in those eight days. I felt like I belonged for the first time in my life. The love and support and encouragement I received from others, either in person or through Twitter made me want to tear up regularly. Each and every single person I interacted with during those eight days has enriched my life in a way I didn’t think was even possible. So if you are reading this right now, I want you to know that you were part of me living the dream, living my dream, and making it a reality for eight days and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart.