The Spokesman-Review : interns

Friday, May 25, 2007

Stef: Rare Display of Courage

Eugene, Ore. — Some of the top track and field athletes in the nation convened in Eugene, Ore. this weekend to compete in the NCAA West Regionals. Many of these athletes are legends in the making. Some, like Oregon's Rebekah Noble and Galen Rupp, are the names we'll be hearing at the Beijing Olympics next year.

But when I left the track this evening, the image that resonated in my head was not one of Rupp sprinting to the tape, arms raised in triumph, or of Stanford's Theresa McWalters' come from behind win in the Women's 5000m as she passed Brigham Young's Whitney McDonald with about 40 meters to go down the homestretch of the bell lap.

The image that stuck with me was one of Portland's Amie Dahnke, pale cheeks flushed, rail-thin body wavering as she half-jogged and half-stumbled over the finish line, almost two minutes after McWalters' first place finish.

To me, the fact that Dahnke had even finished was a miracle in itself.

With five laps to go in the 25-lap, 5000m race, Dahnke, had already fallen at least a half-lap behind everyone else. She was dead last by more than 100m, and every time she passed the pen where I was standing with all the journalists, it seemed to me as if she was looking wearier and wearier.

At the 4000m mark, I watched as Dahnke — a Spokane native who graduated from University High School in 2004 — fell farther and farther behind the pack, and I couldn't help but feel bad for her. She was running so slowly she seemed to practically shuffle. Her fists were clenched as she ran, and her face was set in a worried grimace. She no longer appeared to be able to run between the lines the delineated the first lane. Instead, she swayed and wavered into Lane 2, and looked as if she didn't even know she was there.

"I bet she's gonna drop out," I remarked to a fellow journalist. He agreed with me.

"She can't even stay between the lines anymore," he said.

We watched as Dahnke approached the far curve closest to the athletes' holding pen, to see if she would just stop running and walk off the track, just as I'd seen a couple of other laggards do in the men's 5,000m race fifteen minutes earlier.

But to my surprise, she kept going. Her steps were small and measured, and each time she passed the spot where I was standing, the pained expression on her face made it evident that she was struggling. But Dahnke kept running.

On the bell lap, McDonald and McWalters easily lapped Dahnke, and so did the rest of the pack.

My heart went out to Dahnke as she crossed the finish line where the other athletes stood around panting in exhaustion after having finished the race. And I thought she'd just stop and throw in the towel right there.

But once again, Dahnke kept going.

She shuffled past all the bent over atheletes. And it became evident that she was determined to complete the last lap even if it killed her.

I didn't see her come in because I'd turned my attention to the times being announced over the PA. But I did notice that she'd eventually clocked in at 17:52.78. To put that in context, McWalters finished the race in 16:04.92.

Upon to that point, my interest in Dahnke extended only as far as a mere fleeting respect for her tenacity in finishing that race. The magnitude of her courage didn't quite hit me until after I'd left Hayward Field and was walking past the athletes' cool-down fields to get home.

As I walked through the gate separating both fields, I caught sight of a tall, lanky figure decked in Portland's purple-and-white uniform, standing at one corner of the cool down fields crying.

Dahnke was sobbing. She was just standing there, holding her hands to her face and crying in a gut-wrenching manner that conveyed every ounce of the exhaustion and disappointment that I imagined she must have been feeling. One of her teammates came over and hugged her. And as I stood there watching Dahnke cry into that other girl's shoulder, I was suddenly struck by a much deeper respect for her.

As a sportswriter, my gut instinct is to always look out for the winner because I'm trained to believe that that's what matters Get the quote from the guy who wins because he's the one people want to read about in the paper tomorrow.

But at that moment it hit me that it must have been infinitely harder for Amie Dahnke to finish that race — to continue on that final lap knowing that everyone else was already done — than it had been for Galen Rupp to cruise to the tape triumphant.

Dahnke had staggered in so far behind the rest of the field that her result had already ceased to matter. She didn't have to finish that race. But she did anyway, regardless of the fact that she looked dangerously close to passing out throughout the last two laps.

She finished even though it took her just about everything she had.

And that to me is the stuff that real champions are made off.

When I got home, I Googled her and realized that her post-race breakdown probably resulted from acute disappointment. A month ago, Dahnke had run that very same race in 16:51.55.

My greatest regret is that I didn't stop to talk to her this afternoon. I just kept on going. Because as I stood there watching her collapse in disappointment, I decided that I didn't need that story. Not then. Women's track is not my beat, and Dahnke is not a Duck, so there was no reason to put her in our paper anyway. I decided that after that draining race she'd earned her right to some sort of privacy.

But I was touched by her courage nonetheless.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Stef: AWSM Day 3

Originally written, Sunday, May 20, 2007

Growing up, when I told my mother that I wanted to write sports for a living one day, she looked at me skeptically and said that's great honey, but you're going to be working in a man's world.

On some level I've always known that. But in my career thus far, I've been fortunate enough to have worked with men who've been nothing supportive of me, regardless of my gender.

So it was definitely an eye-opener to hear the stories told by some of the pioneering women in the field whom I met over the course of this weekend.

When Margaret Koy Kistler first started writing sports for a Texas daily newspaper in the 1940s, she had to wait on the verdict of a local school board meeting that would decide whether or not she would be allowed into the locker room of the local high school team.

Other women talked about taking flak from players, who spoke disrespectfully to them because of their gender, and still others talked about their struggle to prove themselves in a male-dominated field, and how disheartening it was to never see another woman's byline in the sports section of the paper.

This weekend made me count my blessings. It made me realize that I owe the ease through which I am advancing in my chosen field to so many women who've paved the way for me. To borrow a cycling metaphor, I'm riding on the back wheel of these women who've been pulling for my generation for so many years.

Listening to their stories inspired me and made me grateful for everything they've done to advance women in this business. It serves as motivation because now the way I see it, regardless of the challenges to come in my career, nothing is really insurmountable, and I'm not going to face anything that other women haven't faced and overcome before. I can walk right into a locker room or press box without having to worry about petitioning to the school board. And I owe it all to my predecessors.

So it was an amazing experience to meet people like Christine Brennan — whose columns I've read and enjoyed for years — Margaret Koy Kistler, Jody Conradt, Kristin Huckshorn and Julie Ward, and to realize that obstacles aside, they found a way to succeed in this business.

Stef: AWSM Day 2

Originally written, Saturday, May 19, 2007

Today I met Michelle Kaufman, who has my dream job. Michelle is the Olympics and tennis beat writer for the Miami Herald. She hosted a panel with Darryl Seibel, the Chief Communications Officer for the US Olympic Committee and they talked about balancing the needs of media with the needs of public relations professional and the athletes and coaches whom they serve.

That was interesting in itself, because it was nice to find out that there are media relations people on this planet who are committed to helping journalists do their job — as opposed to those who function more as the athletes' bodyguard, which ends up impeding communication instead of enhancing it.

One of the things I've always wrestled with in my dealings with the media thus far is the question of when it's okay to go around the PR guy, and whether this will impact future relations between the journalist and said PR guy. So it was good to hear Seibel speak up for journalists and admit that there are situations where the journalist is justified in trying to find a way around the PR people.

Michelle Kaufman then regaled us with tales of the Olympics and talked about finding that one story that sets you apart from all the rest of the drabble that's coming through on the wires and from every one of the other 6 million journalists around.

Her advice: You can't cover the ENTIRE Olympic games on your own, so don't even bother to try. Instead, pick an event for the day and stick with it. You don't want to go hammer away at the big storylines that the AP writers are obligated to pick up, you want to milk the human interest angle and find that diamond in the rough — the offbeat story about the Cuban athletes packing shopping carts full of electronics at an appliance store in Greece and shipping all that stuff back to relatives in Cuba because they can't shop like that back home, or the story about the lone Ethiopian cross country skiier who finished dead last but with his sense of pride intact.

All that resonated with me because I've always figured that sportswriting isn't about the stats and numbers, it's about stories about people. And the best way to do that is to fly under the radar and keep your eyes open , right?

Stef: AWSM Day 1

Originally written, Friday, May 18, 2007 (also published in The Oregon Daily Emerald, Tuesday, May 22, 2007)

Until very recently, I'd always scoffed at the legitimacy of NASCAR - a sport that I'd long associated with beer-gulping, pot-bellied hicks waving the Confederate flag, and drivers who drove stock cars because they'd probably never be able to cut it in the European-dominated world of F1 racing, the real motorsport.

As of this moment, I hereby rescind all snide comments.

I spent the weekend in Dallas at the Association for Women in Sports Media's (AWSM) 2007 National Convention.

One of the planned activities was a ride in a specially outfitted stock car: four laps around the Texas Motor Speedway at 160 mph.

My roommate for the convention - a bona fide NASCAR fan from Philadelphia who could match driver to car by numbers alone (apparently Dale Earnhardt Jr. drives the No. 8 Budweiser-sponsored car, and Casey Mears drives the No. 25 National Guard-sponsored car) could hardly contain her excitement. I simply shrugged and said whatever, it'd be a fun little roller coaster, but nothing more awe-inducing than a romp on the Indiana Jones Adventure Ride at Disneyland.

I take that back.

We got to the track and everyone donned firesuits and helmets. I sauntered up the the replica No. 11 FedEx car (usually piloted by Denny Hamlin, who is currently fourth in the standings, my roommate chirped. OK, someone's a little obsessed.)

With my broken left collarbone, it took some effort before I finally managed to crawl through the open window on the front passenger side of the car. I got into my bucket seat and strapped in.

At this point, the experience conjured up visions of astronauts and space shuttles. My body and the bucket seat molded together. This, I thought, must be what it feels like to strap into a seat preparing to blast into space.

The driver climbed in through the window on the driver's side, pulled on his helmet and grinned at me, "You done this before?"

"Uh uh," I shook my head, cheeks squished by the helmet.

"Well, hang on."

Nonchalance aside, I got really excited when all 10 cars revved their engines together.

Then we were off. My driver slid us into third place behind the first two cars, and as we rounded the first curve, it seemed to me that we were veering so close to the side wall that if I'd stuck my hand out the open window, I could have touched it.

But that was not an option because we were already roaring along at 140mph.

The drivers put on a good show, darting from side to side, and every time another car came within a few feet of ours, I cringed and thought we were going to crash.

We quickly maxed out at 160mph, and being the speed demon that I am, I felt myself grinning like an idiot as we whizzed along so fast that I was pinned back in my bucket seat.

I soon lost track of how many laps we'd done. So I blinked in disbelief when my driver took both hands off the wheel to pull his helmet off his head while maintaining the ridiculous speed we were going at.

"Dude, I don't want to die!" I wanted to say when he wedged his knee under the steering wheel and steered like that as he reached up to clip the helmet to a hook in the ceiling.

Just as I was about to grab the wheel and steer for myself, I saw the end in sight, and we came cruising to a halt.

As I clambered out of the car, I'd gained a newfound respect for all NASCAR drivers. Jostling for position and weaving between cars at 160 mph takes a whole lot more skill and quick reflexes than I ever imagined. And anyone who can make those bulky looking machines dart around like Reggie Bush going through a pack of defenders is a champ in my book.

Stef: AWSM Convention 2007

Last weekend, I attended the Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM's) 2007 Convention in Dallas. In return for some sponsor money, I agreed to blog about the event for the Spokesman, but because I couldn't get on the Internet all weekend at the Hotel, I ended up journalling my thoughts with pen-and-paper instead, and will post all those entries on this blog today.

I had an amazing time and learned a lot from some really inspiring women.


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