Olympic Dreams

April 16, 2012

By Lucy Nicholson

Sweaty burly men in photographers’ vests that haven’t been washed for days. Packed together, jostling for position. Tempers flaring in many tongues, monopods and lenses bumping against bodies – photographing Olympic athletes can be less than glamorous.

REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

It’s an enviable front row seat to the largest sporting spectacle on earth, but there’s not much opportunity for photographers to chat to athletes, or to find many unique shooting vantage points.

So when the opportunity came to photograph Olympic athletes training in and around LA last week as part of our coverage of the build-up to the 2012 Games in London, I jumped right in, literally.

First stop found me bobbing in a pool as platform diver Haley Ishimatsu plunged 10 meters and barely made a splash next to me.

My waterproof camera housing gave me the freedom to get close to Ishimatsu, but it was so buoyant I had a hard time staying at the bottom of the diving pit.

I’d only ever used the housing weighted at the bottom of a swimming pool during races. I wore fins, but without scuba gear and diving weights, I had to anticipate when she was about to make her dive, take a deep breath, and paddle to the bottom of the pool.

It was surprisingly hard. I would push down to submerge the air-filled box, and kick my legs furiously. I only had a couple of seconds when I hit the bottom to turn around and compose the shot before I came floating to the surface, gasping for air. I was using a 15mm fisheye lens on a Canon Mark IV, so I had to swim close to where she was likely to land without getting hit.

I asked Ishimatsu if I could mount a remote camera on the diving board, and she said I could shoot from there. The 10 meter platform was wide, and she always stepped towards one side, so I lay on my stomach hanging over the edge on the opposite side.

I practiced holding my breath again, swimming beneath Janet Evans, who won three gold medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics as a 17-year-old prodigy, and is looking to qualify for the London Olympics as a 40-year-old mother of two. Like all the athletes I photographed, she was so intensely focused during her workout, she seemed to barely notice me struggling to stay under water with my floating camera.

After the swimming and diving, I imagined I would be well prepared for shooting water polo. But when I jumped in with the U.S. men’s water polo team, I realized why they were so much more muscular than other aquatic athletes.

Keeping up with them as they scrimmaged was less about lung capacity, and more about constantly pedaling my legs to stay in place in the deep water, and then kicking them harder to rise out of the water to take a photo.

It was an exhausting leg workout, and I would have been sunk without fins. I swam in the pool for short periods and then photographed them from the deck, mounting a GoPro HD camera on the top of the goal with a magic arm at one point to shoot stills at 2 second intervals. I also set it to shoot a short clip of video for Sandra Stojanovic for Reuters TV.

The team kept on kicking, tackling, and powering shots at the goal for two hours without appearing tired.

Back on land, seeing track star Allyson Felix run around a track with recreational joggers plodding around the oval, was like watching a cheetah overtake a herd of wildebeest.

She exploded out of the starting block, head down, arms powering furiously. Then after this initial spurt, she looked up and let her graceful, lengthy stride take over.

“Clear lane 4, clear lane 4,” coach Bobby Kersee yelled at a struggling jogger, who looked over his shoulder as if he were about to be hit by a speeding motorbike.

After 200 meters Felix pulled up and then walked very slowly in the lane back to the starting block. The joggers huffed and puffed their way past, until she repeated her extreme interval drill.

When she sat to stretch the serene precision of her workout gave way to a chatty, warm personality. She said she’d been listening to Jay-Z during her warmup run, and explained how she used a softball to massage her hip flexors.

Sprint track cyclist Kevin Mansker played to our photographers’ worst instincts in letting us get really close to the action. “Lay in the middle of the track if you like,” he encouraged TV cameraperson Sandra and me. “I’ll just ride around you.” Mansker moved faster than the others, circling the oval and blazing just inches from our lenses.

Southern California’s temperate climate is a big draw for athletes training, and nothing conjures up a picture of the state better than a sandy beach.

The pristine sand of Manhattan Beach is a big draw for beach volleyball players. I went to photograph U.S. Olympic gold medalists Kerri Walsh and Misty May, and found them sparring with the Chinese and German teams.

I lay on the sand under the net and watched them dive and lunge with an intensity that began to draw a crowd.

According to the sports adage, training is 90% physical, 10% mental whereas racing is 10% physical, 90% mental. Medals aren’t won solely on race day in front of the huge Olympic crowd, but during the lonely hours upon hours of training.

It was a privilege to witness a small part of that process.

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