Keep your head on a swivel.
That's a good piece of advice for avoiding a blindside hit while playing a contact sport like football or lacrosse.
It is also appropriate for sports writers and photographers who cover track and field championship meets.
There might not be a more difficult assignment in our line of work. As an analogy, imagine going to a huge music festival where several of your favorite acts are performing simultaneously in different parts of the same venue. You want to see all of them, but doing so is physically impossible.
Same with reporters and photographers who draw a track and field assignment. There is so much activity to take in that it's easy to miss something. News-Post sports writer Greg Swatek, who is as good as any reporter at covering track, says it "is like watching 20 TVs at the same time and trying to keep tabs on what is happening on each."
An example I like to use is from 2001, my first full spring as a sports reporter here. That May, I headed to UMBC for the three-day state meet that was filled with myriad local winners. The final day was winding down as I was writing in the press box, believing I had details and quotes from all pertinent parties. That's when I heard the the announcer intone, "Catoctin's Catherine Olsen is in front."
I looked up in time to see Olsen unexpectedly win the Class 1A 800-meter run.
I grabbed my notebook and hurried down the bleacher steps in search of our newest champion.
But I lost her among a sea of spectators, athletes and officials in the maze of the stadium, where roped off areas and restricted access made it hard for media to contact athletes (I will save my disdain for the MPSSAA for another column). We basically have to stalk athletes and snag them before they blend into the crowd once their events ended.
After Olsen ran away with her state title, I had no chance of catching her.
Finding a stray champion at a state meet can be as challenging as sneaking a bag of Chipotle past a gaggle of salivating teenagers. Teams set up camp somewhere on the premises and, if you're lucky, at outdoor meets their tents are emblazoned with their school names. But that doesn't mean all of that school's athletes are hunkered down there between events.
They could be off rooting for a teammate. Or warming up. Or cooling down. Or eating Chipotle.
I'd approach a tent and say something like, "Can anyone tell me where Mary Trackstar is?"
Sometimes she was right there; sometimes another kid would say, "I think I saw her at the high jump."
So, I'd head over there, but by the time I arrived, she might have already left. Plus, during my search, I probably missed another kid winning another title.
And, sometimes, even if you know the subject, it can be hard to identify her when there are 293 pony-tailed high school girls jogging around in UnderArmour.
Reporters also have to help direct the staff photographers, who need to be versed in the contenders and the schedule so they can prioritize amid the chaos at state meets, in particular. That's assuming the photog found a parking spot that wouldn't get him towed or locked in a garage. Working a state meet as a journalist is more difficult than explaining a fake dead girlfriend hoax.
At non-state outdoor meets, I liked to stay in the infield near the finish line. There, at most stadiums, I was within 100 yards of the jumping events while also in position to see all of races.
Still, that left the throwing events out of my range.
Like I said, impossible.
Not to mention, as News-Post photographer Graham Cullen points out, the constant monitoring of events leaves little time to eat or drink, while outdoor meets mean several hours of sun exposure. By the end, journalists are probably more sapped than a kid who ran the 3,200, the mile and a leg of the 4-by-800 relay.
In addition to the complexity of gathering the results and finding interviews, it's no piece of cake to write a comprehensive story about a track meet — or wrestling or swimming, for that matter. You basically choose a lead, usually an individual, weave in other highlights, then wrap up by returning to the lead subject. Winners always become the focus.
That sometimes upsets readers, even though track stories are among the longest that we write. Coverage of individual sports like track, wrestling and swimming easily generate the most complaints.
You have to keep your head on a swivel for those, too.