An Interview with Vicki Michaelis:
“…I’m thinking of a Natalie Merchant song – there’s a line about the media stealing the glory of her story. I keep that in mind. While I wrote it, it’s not my story. My job is to go find another story and write that. That’s what I use to keep me humble. Hopefully I wrote it well enough but it’s not my story.
“There’s always another home run coming from a competitor – what is the Washington Post going to have tomorrow, or the New York Times the next day, or the LA Times on Sunday? The daily newspaper business is always about tomorrow, not yesterday. What have you done for me lately?”
Vicki Michaelis: Interviewed on June 4, 2008
Position: Olympics reporter, USA Today
Born: 1968, Windham, MN.
Education: Northwestern, 1991, BJ, MJ
Career: Palm Beach Post, 1991-95; Denver Post 95-00; USA Today 2000 –
Personal: married, one child
Favorite restaurant (home): Panzano’s, Denver “never had a bad meal there”
Favorite restaurant (away): The Boat Shed Café, southern island, New Zealand “everything was amazing – it’s built on a dock, you feel like you’re sitting on water”
Favorite hotel: Westin Bayshore, Vancouver “astounding views of the mountains and water, right next to Stanley Park, the best urban park I’ve seen and one of the world’s greatest places for a run.”
Vicki Michaelis, USA Today, May 14, 2008:
COLORADO SPRINGS — Kristie Marano and her daughter, Kayla, are playing a casual game of catch along a sidewalk near their apartment. Marano flips the ball high, and Kayla has to run for it. She comes up short, and the ball bounces on the sidewalk.
“You’re supposed to dive for those,” Marano says with a teasing smile. “It’ll make you tough.”
If it’s toughness she’s after, Kayla, 10, need look no further for a role model than her mom, a two-time wrestling world champion, nine-time national champion and Olympic hopeful in the 158.5-pound weight class.
For as much grit as Marano, 29, shows on the mat, Kayla probably won’t gain a true understanding of her mom’s resiliency until the day Marano decides her daughter is old enough to hear the story of how she delivered her into the world — in a bathtub in her parents’ home. By herself. “I need to try to find a way to ease it in — ‘This is how you can learn from my mistakes,'” she says.
A single mom with a part-time job in the garden department at The Home Depot (she is part of the chain’s program that provides full- time pay for part-time work to potential Olympians), Marano is juggling a full schedule to try, perhaps for the last time, to fill the gnawing void on her sports resume.
Marano was a junior world bronze medalist in judo when, three months before the Olympic trials for the 1996 Summer Games, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. The injury helped steer her toward wrestling, where she could wear a knee brace during competition.
Going into the U.S. trials for the 2004 Olympics, where women’s wrestling made its debut, Marano was No. 1 in the 138.75-pound weight class. The day before the trials began, she failed to make weight, by less than half a pound. She had to wrestle at 158.5 pounds but still nearly made it, narrowly losing in the final.
“It was definitely a crushing moment,” Marano says. “My initial reaction was to be like, ‘I’m done; I’m tired of this.’ But I realized that I didn’t come all this way — and I was only 25 — to just quit.”
When Marano travels to competitions, Kayla usually stays with other women on the U.S. wrestling team. Some of them will be competing against Marano at the June trials for an Olympic berth.
“With Kayla, it’s really easy to say yes,” says teammate Katie Downing, who beat Marano in the semifinals in last month’s national championships. “I’m sure Kayla gives her mom a lot harder time. But whenever she’s with us, she’s the easiest kid to watch ever. It’s been really cool, seeing her grow and change.”
However, the kinship does add complexity to winning matches against Marano.
“It’s hard,” Downing says, “not only because I’ve stepped in the way of her dreams but also the dreams of a 10-year-old girl that I also think is awesome.”
Most evenings, Kayla goes with her mom to the wrestling room at the U.S. Olympic Training Center for practice. Kayla, who started competing in peewee wrestling tournaments last year, sometimes joins in weightlifting or agility drills. She often reads, plays games or wrestles with the 7-year-old daughter of national team coach Terry Steiner.
Steiner lauds Marano for keeping Kayla as her top priority even as she makes another Olympic push. “We spend so much time and so much effort and so much energy striving toward a goal, sometimes we forget what’s important. I don’t think Kristie’s done that at all,” he says.
In 1998, when Marano was 19, wrestling was her epicenter. She already was a two-time world silver medalist in wrestling, the protegee of her dad, Conrad Stenglein. Stenglein was her coach, and she still lived at her parents’ home in Colonie, N.Y., just northwest of Albany.
That spring, Marano found out she was pregnant as the national championships approached.
With no morning sickness and only slight weight gain, she had no idea how far along the pregnancy was. She procrastinated telling her parents or seeing a doctor, thinking she had time.
In early April 1998, she won a University Nationals title. April 15, she woke to pain. She headed for the bathroom where, she says, “My instincts just took over.”
Kayla was born soon after in the bathtub. Stenglein, home from work with the flu, was in another room, unaware of the life- changing event taking place a few steps away. Her mom, Nancy, was at work.
“I don’t know how or where to begin on that one,” her dad says when asked about it. “Amazing, I guess, is the only word I can use to describe it.”
Marano was clear-headed enough to sterilize scissors with rubbing alcohol before cutting the umbilical cord and to tie it off with dental floss. But her thoughts were much too clouded to face her dad. “Everything that day is like, I don’t know, just like a blur,” she says.
At some point during the day her dad asked her to retrieve the family dog, which had gotten out of the yard. She did that. She also carried Kayla surreptitiously out of the house to get formula and diapers.
“I don’t even know to this day exactly what was in her mind,” says her dad, an Air Force veteran who introduced his daughter to judo when she was 5. “I was always pretty strict with her, and that might have been a part of it.”
Says Marano: “The main thing, I think, is that I didn’t trust myself enough to go to the people that invested all their time and efforts in me.”
Her parents knew she had missed weight at a recent tournament. When they saw the traces of the birth in the bathroom, they assumed she had a miscarriage. She was crying as she gave them the news. Her dad’s first reaction? “I gave her a hug,” he says.
Now Kayla, a gregarious girl with long, brown hair and her mom’s powder-blue eyes, is her grandmother’s “pride and joy,” Stenglein says.
Born at 6 pounds, 7 ounces, and healthy, she has “never been sick a day in her life,” he boasts.
As for his daughter, he says, “I always knew she was tough, but that was crazy.”
Ten days after Kayla was born, with her doctor’s OK, Marano wrestled in the national championships. En route to the title, she beat a woman against whom victory had eluded her in judo and wrestling — Sandy Bacher, a three-time Olympian in judo.
Marano married Kayla’s father, Chad Marano, but the union lasted less than two years. Her first world title came during that time, in 2000. The second came in 2003, the same year she moved to Colorado Springs to train.
A high point on this improbable journey could come in August. Kayla got a passport last Christmas so she could go to Beijing. “I think it would be really cool,” she says.
A softness settles over Marano’s face when she is asked about competing at the Olympics with Kayla in the crowd.
“It would mean the world to me,” she says. “She’s been with me for 10 years, and she’s taken everything, without even questioning anything that I’ve ever done.”
Q. How did you write the Kristie Marano story to maximize the drama?
A. I tried a pretty typical writer’s trick, which is to let people know at the beginning what’s to come but not everything – to draw them in. At USA Today we have to be efficient at that since there’s only so much space on the front. You have to draw them in before they make the jump. I also had some thought to not making it too over-dramatic. In talking to her and her dad it was just something that happened in the course of their life – for them it was only dramatic in retrospect, but it wasn’t so dramatic that day. I wanted to sense that as well. I didn’t want to let it overwhelm the story, and over-dramatize something that is dramatic on its face.
Q. You’re saying a story that good can tell itself?
A. Exactly. You pull back on too many adjectives and metaphors and let her and her dad tell it and put it out there. It’s dramatic enough on its own.
Q. Was it written anywhere else?
A. I had seen it four or five years ago in the Denver Post because I live in Denver and I get that paper every day. I’ve had it in my mind for several years now but had never gotten the chance to talk with her. I didn’t know how much detail she would go into or how much she would talk. Maybe it was something she wanted to move on from
Q. What was the interview like?
A. It took place at the Olympics media summit in Chicago. Some people are brought into a press conference, and some are available at a round table session, where reporters drift in and out of the interview. My intention was to get her by myself – she’s in Colorado Springs and I could have driven down anytime. At the round table session I was alone with her for 35 to 40 minutes. When other reporters drifted past we weren’t talking about the dramatic part – so I did most of the interview right there, and the follow-up work later.
Q. Did you prod her?
A. Not at all. She was very open about it. She is approachable and friendly and obviously doesn’t have qualms about speaking about this. Her only concern in what she will tell her daughter some day. I asked her about that and she said he hasn’t quite figured it out. She said, ‘How can I tell her in a way that she will understand where I was coming from and also if she’s ever in that position so that she can come to me and make it easier on herself?’ Other than that, she jumped right in. So many people around her know about it – her teammates all know – the wrestling world is such a tight circle. She is comfortable within her circle.
Q. How did she wrestle just a week or two before she had the baby?
A. We’re starting to see more and more Lisa Leslies or Lindsay Davenports or some women on the US soccer team do it. They are elite athletes – their bodies can take bouncing back from pregnancy. She was young at the time – that also helps. It is amazing, likely not something any doctor would recommend. Clearly, her body and her baby were able to take it.
Q. Can you imagine that kind of delivery?
A. Coming from a woman who spent 24 hours at the hospital trying to make it happen, no, I can’t. But I understand her mentality about it because I think most or all women who have delivered children say you reach a point where you accept whatever pain there is because of the inevitability of it.
One editor asked me how her father could not have heard her screaming. I didn’t actually ask her but I have to assume she didn’t. That’s a Hollywood depiction of birth. Certainly some women do scream, but not all. You get to a level of ‘let’s just do this’. Somebody with the mentality of a wrestler or an elite athlete – like Michael Jordan in the NBA finals when he played with horrible stomach flu – they just set aside the discomfort and say ‘let’s get it done’. It’s more possible for an elite athlete to do that than someone who doesn’t have the mental discipline.
Elite athletes heal faster from injury – we know that. But it’s still impressive when they come back so quickly from pregnancy. I’m a runner – not good, but I do run a lot – and I tried to train for a marathon six months after I had my son. I had an IT Band problem I never had before. They said they weren’t sure why but maybe my hips had expanded during pregnancy and my IT Band was out of whack. I wasn’t able to take the strain of marathon training at that time.
When I see women back on the basketball court or soccer field or wrestling mat so soon it’s really impressive. There’s probably a whole area of medical study you could do to see how women do this.
Someone else on the AWSM (Association for Women in Sports Media) board, Joanne Gerstner (Detroit News), did a nice story that looked at some wider issues of female athletes, particularly pregnancy, what it all means and whether coaches are equipped to know what they can and can’t do, as well as the doctors and the women themselves. They’re so used to being invincible – and then this happens – do they know what they can and can’t do?
All we have is anecdotal evidence of who has done it and excelled. How many haven’t done it whose stories haven’t been told? We don’t hear about them. If you write about them two years later you say ‘she took a year off after having a child’, and then you get a Paula Radcliffe coming back a few months after having a child and winning a marathon. It could be a very interesting study to do.
Q. Response to your story?
A. A lot of people just said ‘wow’. It is rather shocking. Giving birth at home, at her parents’ house, she didn’t really know, and it didn’t seem to disrupt her wrestling schedule or her success. People said ‘wow’.
Q. How do go back to hitting singles after a home run like that?
A. You mean a 12-inch feature. It’s nice. You feel better about what you’re doing for a while. But I’m thinking of a Natalie Merchant song – there’s a line about the media stealing the glory of her story. I keep that in mind. While I wrote it, it’s not my story. My job is to go find another story and write that. That’s what I use to keep me humble. Hopefully I wrote it well enough but it’s not my story.
There’s always another home run coming from a competitor – what is the Washington Post going to have tomorrow, or the New York Times the next day, or the LA Times on Sunday? The daily newspaper business is always about tomorrow, not yesterday. What have you done for me lately?
Q. Do you feel pressure in your job?
A. I’ve been in the business since ’91 – I had a variety of different beats from high school and college football to the NBA to the Olympics. The Olympics is a lot easier to deal with because the world only pays attention every two years. You get pressure from editors but not so much from readers. The NBA beat is every day. For the Olympics you want to shine – it’s my time to shine – that’s when people are paying attention. Not to say I don’t do a good job in between, but it does keep things in perspective, as opposed to the NBA, where you can’t gear up because you don’t have the energy to, except maybe during the playoffs – except that no team I covered made the playoffs. Of the beats I’ve had this is the easiest one because it’s so cyclical, as opposed to being every day topical.
Q. What are your thoughts as you get ready for Beijing?
A. I don’t get much time to think. We’re one of three media outlets that predict every medal that will be won – USA Today, Sports Illustrated, and Associated Press. I am the Mel Kiper of the Olympics – I have to predict. I’ve already warned my husband and my son – I’ve got the trials to cover. I’m looking forward to August 8 because then I’ll know the medal projections are done and I can go back to writing daily stories.
Q. Which are the hardest events to pick?
A. Sailing and equestrian – based on my ignorance. I haven’t covered those a lot to make my own educated guesses. Swimming is easy because I’ve covered it a lot and know where to go to find the fastest times. Generally I do as much research as I can and then turn to someone who is an expert and willing to go on background. I’ll go through my picks and they’ll tell me if I made a major error, like that horse has a splinter or something. Some of it is admittedly dartboard throwing.
Q. Will someone compare your success rate with the others?
A. They always do. In Salt Lake City the US won 34 medals which was more than ever before. Then they went to Turin with some of the same people on the team, and more depth in some events, and it was tempting to predict them to win in the 30s again or even the 40s. AP predicted in the 40s – we came out with 29. I was even nervous with that because the US historically doesn’t do well in the winter on foreign soil. They ended up in the mid-20s.
Some website that tracks these things came out with how we had all over-inflated our picks and were all homers. There was an e-mail exchange with my editors and they acknowledged that we hadn’t gone overboard. These things are tracked in the industry. My editors like to track it.
Once I get this whole list done we’ll predict how many golds China will win. That will be a closely watched race – the golds for China and the US. We’ll come out with a story predicting China will or will not win the gold medal race, which will be widely read. That’s one reason we do the picks – it makes me an expert on almost everything going in. I can advise the editors on what table tennis stories to watch for, though it’s not generally something you would watch in the US.
Q. How big is the USA Today coverage team?
A. We sent about 80 people to Athens, including IT support staff and editors. I think it will be fewer this time, due to economics or lack of credentials.
Q. Will you cover the political angles?
A. Probably not. We have a couple of correspondents in Asia – one right in Beijing. They’ll handle most of that. This year they split my beat – I’m focused mostly on sports, athletes and evens. Another woman, Janet Lloyd, is doing coverage of the IOC and USOC. She’ll probably do more politics than I will. I’ll be recording Michael Phelps’ every breath.
Q. Have you been to Beijing?
A. Once – in the fall of 2006. It was mostly a work visit, but I did enjoy the sites. I went to the Great Wall, one of the outer-lying access points. I spent a little time at the Forbidden City and at Tiananmen Square. That historical event is seared in my head – it happened on my 21st birthday. Students across the world were being shot and here I am waking up with a headache from my 21st birthday. It was a seminal moment – I began to try to think of myself as a global citizen and pay attention to things like this. I went to sunrise at Tiananmen Square – it’s amazing how many people amass as the sun rises and the guards come out. I picked a random day – not a day you would expect a lot of people, but there were.
In terms of Olympics venues I’m sure it will look much differently than when I was there. It was pretty clear they were ahead of schedule and things would be exactly as they said – I’m expecting an efficiently run Olympics.
Q. Who were your writing influences?
A. Edna Buchanan, who wrote for the Miami Herald. I was a big fan when I was in college. She came to Northwestern to speak and I tripped all over myself trying to talk to her. When I described Kristie giving birth I tried to do it like she would have. Edna was on the crime beat – there were weird and dramatic things on that beat. She wrote in a very straightforward style – here it is, I’m telling you just what happened. She kept it spare, yet structured it so perfectly so that you got the drama without her having to embellish.
Q. Any sportswriters?
A. I didn’t intend to be a sportswriter. I wasn’t reading a lot of sports. My sportswriting career is a complete accident.
Q. How so?
A. My first job was at the Palm Beach Post, after I had interned there. The only job they had was a copy editor in features, really a sub-section to features, primarily puff pieces. It was my first job – life was pretty good – but my goal was to write and not be an editor. I saw that if I stayed too long I would make my way up the copy desk, so I bugged them to let me write, and I was doing things about the latest beach chairs on my own time.
Then the bureau job in Okeechobee opened up. I took it because I was willing to do anything to be a writer even if it meant being in this isolated place. Two days later they shut the Okeechobee bureau. The next thing that opened was covering high school sports. The managing editor said he had started as a high school writer – how do you say no to that? I went to the library and checked out book on sports I would be covering. I spent my time on the sidelines running alongside the officials – they explained everything to me as the game went along. I had a baptism by fire.
Q. What media do you read to keep up?
A. I have a bookmark subtitle – daily Olympic checks – with everything from the New York Times to espn.com to cnn.si to the Washington Post – the outlets the do the best Olympics coverage. Every morning I scan the wires. I get a Google alert that sends me whatever it finds on coverage every day – it sends my cool stories from Pakistan. I make sure I scan everything I can – you never know where a story will come from. If I hadn’t scanned the Denver Post a long time ago I would have missed the story on Kristie. That’s what I read for my job. In terms of staying informed I read USA Today, New York Times website, the Denver Post and I’m an avid listener of NPR.
(SMG thanks Vicki Michaelis for her cooperation)
USA Softball starts farewell tour, campaign ; Sport fights to stay in Games
14 February 2008
© 2008 USA Today. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.
The U.S. women’s softball team begins a 62-game, cross-country trek next week that softball aficionados should view as rock ‘n’ roll fans do the Van Halen reunion tour with David Lee Roth.
Last chance to see them together.
In 2005, the International Olympic Committee voted softball and baseball off the Olympic program for the 2012 Summer Games. The IOC could vote them back in for 2016. Or not.
That makes the USA’s Bound 4 Beijing tour, which begins Tuesday in Tucson against the University of Arizona, part preparation for this summer’s Olympics, part farewell and part campaign.
“We’re almost taking it as a way of saying, ‘Hey, look at what you’re going to be missing,'” pitcher Lisa Fernandez says.
International Softball Federation President Don Porter needs no reminders. He keeps a box on his desk filled with hundreds of letters and printed e-mails from young softball players exhorting him to do what he can to restore the sport’s Olympic status.
“That’s why we’ve got to get this back in,” Porter says.
The U.S. team, which has won all three Olympic gold medals awarded in the sport, carries a sense of urgency as well.
“I think the challenge for us is going to be to make a statement – – we obviously have so much to prove, and we’re so passionate about this sport remaining in the Olympic Games — but to not lose sight of what we’re trying to do at the Olympic Games,” U.S. outfielder Jessica Mendoza says.
Softball’s time as an Olympic sport is relatively short. It was introduced at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
A decade later, the number of NCAA Division I softball teams in the USA has grown (to 277 in 2007 from 222 in 1997), as has the number of youth teams (to 86,049 in 2007 from 73,567 in 1995). Mike Candrea, the U.S. Olympic coach and University of Arizona head coach, expects such growth to be affected when softball is no longer in the Olympics.
“I think it will trickle all the way down,” he says.
An effort by IOC President Jacques Rogge to make room for new Olympic sports without expanding the program put softball and baseball on the chopping block.
In 2005, IOC members voted 52-52, with one abstention, to cut softball from the program after the 2008 Games. Softball needed a majority vote to stay. Baseball was also voted out, by a 54-50 count. They were the first sports cut from the Olympics since polo in 1936.
None of the new sports under consideration at the time, a list that included golf and rugby, garnered enough votes to be added.
That left the door open for softball and baseball to regain their Olympic status. The IOC will consider the Summer Games program again in October 2009.
In the next 20 months, softball officials, players and supporters must work to reverse IOC members’ views on two primary factors that led to the sport’s ouster:
*A perceived tie-in with baseball.
IOC members “bundled” baseball and softball, U.S. IOC member Anita DeFrantz says, and baseball got the boot primarily because of doping concerns and the lack of an agreement with Major League Baseball to send the world’s best players to the Olympics.
Softball has no doping clouds hanging over it, and the best players compete in the Games.
“I’m not trying to bash the IOC by any means,” Mendoza says, “but if they’re going to be making decisions as far as eliminating and keeping people’s dreams in and out of the Olympic Games, it frustrates me that they don’t have the research.”
Porter travels the world to educate IOC members about softball. He also has asked national federations worldwide that govern both softball and baseball to split into separate organizations.
“Many of the IOC members on a number of occasions, including President Rogge, have told me we need to keep our distance from baseball,” Porter says.
*Not enough participation globally.
In the three Olympics that softball has been contested, four countries have won medals: the USA, Australia, China and Japan. That fed an argument that softball doesn’t have enough talent worldwide to merit Olympic status.
The ISF is working to put down roots in places where softball traditionally hasn’t been played — the Middle East, Africa and Europe — by donating equipment and hosting coaching clinics.
Since the 2004 Olympics, Mendoza has delivered equipment and conducted clinics in countries including Brazil, Czech Republic and South Africa. She worries the progress to spread the sport will slow without the Olympics.
“That disappoints me more than anything,” she says.
For six more months, as they travel around the USA and then to Beijing, the U.S. players will have ready-made audiences for their message. After that, it gets harder, but even more urgent.
“I’m going to continue to do what I can,” Fernandez says, “in order to get it back where it needs to be or where it deserves to be — and that’s as an Olympic sport.”
PHOTO, Color, 2004 photo by Eileen Blass, USA TODAY