Clarification appended: Sept. 10, 2012.
Days into the new school year, it’s likely some sort of tolerance threshold has already been crossed when it comes to finding new and exciting ways to say, “I worked a lot and hung around with some old kids from high school.”
Perhaps if a friend was to mention they had a friendly chat with Michael Phelps, or if they said they had received free tickets to the Olympic opening ceremonies, it might be enough to capture someone’s attention span for more than just a fleeting moment.
As it happens, five Penn State students from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism had those opportunities, as well as a variety of others, when they were asked to aid the United States Olympic Committee in covering the London Olympic Games.
Students Emily Kaplan (senior-journalism), Jeff Lowe (senior-broadcast journalism), Christine Newby, Class of 2012, Audrey Snyder, Class of 2012 and Virginia Harrison (graduate-media studies) spent three weeks in London covering everything from beach volleyball to track and field. Harrison, Kaplan, Newby and Snyder all previously were on The Daily Collegian staff.
They were accompanied by Malcolm Moran, knight chair in sports journalism and society for the College of Communications, who mainly served as a supervisor and preliminary editor of the students’ work before it was sent to the USOC.
With each of the five reporters being involved in journalism in some capacity, they were first approached by Moran, who had spoken with the USOC about allowing the students to cover the 2011 Pan American games in Guadalajara, Mexico from State College.
“Initially I just asked,” Moran said, who first purposed the idea of covering the Pan American games with the ultimate goal of reaching the Olympics to Doug Anderson, dean of the College of Communications.
“He was so supportive from the very beginning, since the college would be covering the cost of sending each of the students to London. He became an instrumental part of our effort to reach the London games,” he said.
Covering the 2011 Pan American Games eventually proved to be the real test for the five reporters, Moran said.
The students were only able to conduct phone and Skype interviews for their articles because the games took place in the middle of October. Since they were required to remain in State College for the duration of the competition, they needed to balance the coverage of the Pan Am games with their studies.
“This was a very difficult thing to ask of them, and when the students performed as well as they did, it reinforced the idea with the USOC that this was a group capable of handling the Olympics,” Moran said.
As a result, Penn State was the only North American university asked by the USOC to send students to help aid their communications staff at the Olympic Games. According to Moran, the only other students sent to work with the USOC staff came from the University of East London.
While at the games, the student’s primary responsibility was updating the USOC’s digital newsletter called the USA Daily, which was sent to all athletes, sponsors and anyone else that had subscribed to or was associated with the USOC during the games.
Updating this newsletter required the students to do everything from writing preview stories of the different events, to attending press conferences, to reporting on the medals won by Team USA.
Additionally, many of the students were able to spend their extra time freelancing for various newspapers back in the United States.
“You start to think when you’re able to write these stories for such major news organizations that this is not a bad byline to have,” said Kaplan, who worked part time for the Philadelphia Inquirer while in London.
Another responsibility the students had was to recap each of the events Team USA was not expected to medal in. Kaplan, who spent one day covering Taekwondo, said that sometimes the smaller events were more exciting to watch than the more popular ones dominated by the Americans, such as swimming and basketball.
“It was actually a lot of fun to go to the little events,” Kaplan said. “It was just so captivating to know that these athletes trained for years to have an opportunity to compete here, and to see them living that out live, it was really something amazing.”
That is not to say the students did not have an opportunity to watch and speak with some of the superstars of Team USA.
Lowe said some of his most memorable experiences were watching the women’s gymnastics team win gold and speaking with swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.
“It was so interesting to talk their personal rivalries with both of them,” Lowe said. “At the same time, it was very strange since they were on the same team.”
Audrey Snyder said the event she will remember the most was watching Jamaica’s Usain Bolt win the 100-meter dash.
“The atmosphere for that race was so incredible,” she said. “I just remember how right before the gun went off, you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone was waiting for him to run.”
For Christine Newby, her moment came early. It was when she received her ticket to the opening ceremonies –– which normally would have cost an average of $2,500–– for free.
“I didn’t know we were going until three hours before. We had to go get tickets from the media center, and once I got it, I was holding it in my hand and I just thought, ‘Oh my God, this is real,’” Newby said.
For all their work, the five reporters had little time to explore the city of London. Yet Harrison said this did not keep them from getting a taste of the culture produced by the London Games.
“You could feel how much the British cared for their athletes,” Harrison said. “To hear the crowd cheering whenever the British won a medal gave me the chills.”
Another way the five reporters were able to take in a bit of London’s character was by going to see some of the beach volleyball matches. Among the five, this venue seemed to be the clear favorite mainly due to its adjacency to Buckingham Palace.
“It was one of the coolest places. Since it was right in the heart of London, you could really get a feel for the city,” Lowe said.
Now that the Olympics are over, Moran has had some time to reflect.
“Ours is the only program to send students to the BCS, the NCAA Final Four and the Olympics,” he said. “That is definitely something we can be proud of.”
Moran has also not ruled out the possibility of attempting to send more students to cover the games in Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics, though he said it is an extremely difficult prospect due to scheduling conflicts, since the games take place in February, during the school year.
A more realistic possibility at the moment is sending students to the next Pan American Games, which take place in Toronto in 2015.
Whatever future opportunities Penn State students may have, Kaplan is thankful she and her peers were at least given the chance.
“It was awesome,” she said. “Coming back, you just have a feeling like: Now what? Nothing is going to top this.”
An earlier version of this article left out information about one student’s affiliation with the Collegian. Virginia Harrison (graduate-media studies) is a former Collegian staff member. The Daily Collegian apologizes for this error.