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Reflections from Rio, a year removed

Debra Morgan, Renee Chou and Jeff Gravley in Rio

Aug, 19 2017, 1:41 PM

This time last year, the 2016 Summer Olympics were in full swing. Six months from now, the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang will be, too. But WRAL's very own Jeff Gravley, Renee Chou and Debra Morgan won't soon forget their unique experience covering the games in Rio.

What do you remember as being MOST different from home? What was most familiar?

RC: Most different:

1) The landscape. Mountains in nearly every direction. Watching the sun come up over the mountains every morning was a soothing ritual for me. It really was a breathtaking place.
2) The water. We were strongly advised not to drink from the tap, so we only drank bottled beverages. We even used bottled water to brush our teeth! But we all stayed healthy!
3) Spraying yourself constantly with bug repellent because of Zika concerns.
4) Hearing so many different languages spoken around you.

Most familiar: the weather! Felt like springtime in North Carolina without as much humidity.

DM: Most different from home, yet one of the coolest parts of the trip -- all the different languages you heard around you. It never was hard to communicate, though! Most familiar? Probably the patriotism. We were surrounded by the universal feeling of pride for your country. The Argentinians would sing their national song and it echoed as they walking through the park -- what an incredible sight and sound!  Plus, it seemed as though we were never far from home. We met folks from North Carolina, even specifically the Triangle, almost daily!

What were technical challenges?

JG: First and foremost, we can't shoot any Olympic action, which makes it very challenging to feature some of our local athletes. But we figured out ways to meet with the athletes at the village for interviews then use a very limited, daily amount of Olympic video provided by NBC. Working with NBC was an incredible bonus. Little did we know going into the games that NBC will bring as many gold medalists to the NBC compound for brief interviews. Um, no, the USA basketball team didn't swing by but we were able to get access to the American team after their gold medal win the final day of the Olympics.

RC: Our initial challenge was just getting to Rio! One cancelled flight because of weather completely changed our itinerary, which involved sleeping a night at the Miami airport, then going to another country (Montevideo, Uruguay!), and finally flying into Rio -- without our checked bags, which arrived 2 days later! (The lesson: always, always pack essentials in your carry-on, and enough clothes for 3-4 days, which I did.) We didn't know what to expect with phone capabilities but it turns out we did not have to switch out our SIM cards and our phones worked fine in Rio! NBC handled our live shots. I remember one morning there was a power outage so I had to “call in” my report. Other than that, the satellite live shots worked smoothly, as did sending in our video for the most part.

DM: We were standing by ready to go for one of our evening live shots from Olympic Park with beautiful weather in Rio and Raleigh, but a thunderstorm in CHARLOTTE knocked us off the air! The signal had to go from Rio to Charlotte before the folks at WRAL could see us and a thunderstorm made the signal go to black. And, speaking of weather and challenges, our first flight out of Raleigh to even start our trip to Rio was cancelled. Long story short, we ended up spending the night in the Miami airport, flying to Montevideo (yes, we had to look it up!) in South America where we spent another night, then finally to Rio two days later. Our luggage, however, seemed to enjoy Montevideo so much it spent a few extra days there!  The beginning of the trip was quite a challenge to say the least. I did learn you must pack a change of clothes and a toothbrush in your carry-on!

How did you adapt to getting around and sleeping very little?

JG: I never like to talk about how tiring some of these events can be because I know there are MANY people out there who have much more physically taxing jobs than mine. You run on adrenaline and the Olympic spirit during the games but after it ends, the fatigue of three long weeks hits you like a freight train. But I wouldn't trade it one bit.

RC: Definitely bring COMFORTABLE walking shoes! You wind up doing so much walking. We stayed mostly in Olympic Park, and although there were shuttles, getting from Point A to Point B involved covering a lot of ground. From venue to venue to the hotel, to the shuttle stops, to the NBC filing center -- the distances were quite far apart. Photographer Ed Wilson and I were a team -- he wears a FitBit, and most days we would log 20,000 to 30,000 steps a day. Lack of sleep wasn't so bad. Your adrenaline pulls you through for much of it because it's exciting to be there and witness history! The time difference worked in our favor, with Rio being one hour ahead of Raleigh time. For a 6am live shot, it would be 7am Rio time -- that's sleeping in for me! There was always something to do, see, or go cover, and that made the time pass quickly.

DM: You know ahead of time assignments like this mean little sleep! I'm not a coffee drinker but Photographer Keith Baker unveiled the world of a frappe to me and I was hooked. That caffeine jolt definitely helped. All-in-all, the adrenaline of the thrill of being at the Olympics was more than enough to keep me going.

What was most fun, amazing, memorable?

JG: I don't know what my next Olympic experience will be like, but I do know it can't duplicate the newness and unknown of my first in Rio.

RC: Sitting inside the gymnastics stadium watching Simone Biles and Aly Raisman compete in the individual All-Around, then hearing the US national anthem play and see them standing on the medal stands. You can't help but feel a bit emotional, and so proud to be an American. Also, interviewing Team USA medalists like Kathleen Baker, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel and Laurie Hernandez. Plus, seeing Rio's famed sights -- Christ the Redeemer, Lapa Neighborhood and Copacabana Beach.

We worked under the NBC umbrella and seeing the network produce the Olympic telecasts, the number of people it takes and the logistical setup to make it happen day in and day out in a foreign country is nothing short of extraordinary.

DM: It's hard to choose just one moment that would be the most amazing. Being in the stands with NC State swimmer Ryan Held's family and coaches as Held swam in the relay with Michael Phelps and they won the gold is probably right at the top. It was very emotional to be with them as they saw him have such an accomplishment on a world stage. Seeing Duke diver Abby Johnston with her family, jumping up and down with excitement when she made the semifinals, was a similar experience.

In general, I'm so honored to have had the opportunity to interview many of the athletes shortly after they had won their medals. Their names were not household names before the Olympics; they were underdogs such as Helen Maroulis and Sarah Robles who came away with gold. I did happen to interview Ryan Lochte just hours before his arrest in Rio. At the time I talked with him, he still talked about keeping his colorful hair for a while. It went away the next day.

reporter : Renee Chou, Jeff Gravley, Debra Morgan
web_editor : Lauren Brownlow