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Oral History: Covering Long Beach At 2012 London Olympics

It was a true team effort when The Grunion covered the 2012 London Summer Olympics and all 32 athletes and coaches who had ties to Long Beach.

Long Beach State’s Misty May-Treanor and Long Beach Poly’s Bryshon Nellum were two of the headliners, and the small but significant stories that Mike Guardabascio and JJ Fiddler picked up gave the coverage a unique twist.

The lack of new Long Beach Olympians to celebrate this month gives us an opportunity to explain how the unprecedented coverage came together eight years ago.

Simon Grieve, Publisher

When Mike and JJ joined us in 2010, we already knew the Olympics would be in London. That’s my favorite city, and it seemed like it was inevitable. I liked the idea of covering Long Beach as its own country.

Mike Guardabascio

I remember Simon literally brought up sending us to the Olympics the first time he talked to us about hiring us, and at the time I didn’t know him well enough to know how serious he was being. In my head I was like, “Okay he’s probably full of shit but maybe we can use this to negotiate a raise a few years down the line instead.”

Simon

I needed sponsors to pull it off and we were fortunate enough to have Sue LaBounty, The Aquatic Capital Of America, the Long Beach Century Club and others really step up financially.

Mike

The trip itself was amazing and knowing that our bosses were willing to do whatever it took to make sure we had special coverage was the best feeling. But when the Century Club hosted a charity cookout for us — Dan Gooch’s Most Expensive Cheeseburger in the World — I was really touched. They raised several hundred dollars of food money for us, with the fire chief and the Long Beach State athletic director (along with Harry and Dan) volunteering. My mom was in town and got to see them present the money to us and she was emotional at seeing how much our community was taking care of us — it was a lot to soak in.

JJ Fiddler

We were too late to get fully credentialed by the United States Olympic Committee, so the idea was to go cover the Long Beach athletes and coaches with true gonzo journalism. We were going to write, film and take pictures of everything and anything over the three weeks from opening to closing ceremonies.

Simon

I had some Virgin Air miles and bought tickets with miles plus money. I asked some friends in London if they would put you up but apparently, being associated with me was too much of a risk for property damage and misbehavior. After lots of research and consultation of the Olympic venues and available transportation, I found a small room for rent in South London.

More than anything, this was a great way of me living vicariously through Mike and JJ. I knew that if anyone could pull off something very cool without proper access and little support, they could. The rest is history.

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JJ

We wouldn’t have been ready to go without the help of The Grunion’s digital creative specialist, Jesse Lopez, and Simon’s wife, Carla. Jesse made us a box microphone and Carla made us both sweatshirts so we could proudly represent the newspaper and our city. We got a few “What up, Long Beach?!” yelled at us.

Mike

We were surprised how many Long Beach people we ran into. Jessica Hardy’s parents, friends from high school, parents of kids we covered, Century Club friends — almost every day we would bump into someone who recognized us, a remarkable thing to happen in a city of several million people. But also a familiar experience for any Long Beach person who’s traveled abroad.

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JJ

We called Blackheath our home for three weeks while traveling all over England covering events, and doing some sightseeing of course.

London Sights & Olympic Opening Ceremonies

We take a walk around London to see the historic sights and Olympic venues before watching the Opening Ceremonies with thousands of locals in Stratford.

The house we were staying in had multiple rooms to rent, and a pair of Olympic volunteers stayed down the hall. Debbie Mallaband and Linda Rose of Sheffield were incredibly nice and told us some amazing stories about working with the Anti-Doping Agency. They were literally holding Usain Bolt’s blood hours before he broke another world record.

Mike

Unless you’re a Coca-Cola executive, tickets are hard to come by at the Olympics. We were resourceful young men who knew how to handle ourselves in a fight so we decided there was no stone we weren’t willing to flip over. So we bought tickets to a few events from a scalper in an alley, and we also scalped tickets from the Czech Embassy. Each country gets a certain number of tickets to every event, whether they’re playing or not. Some ambassadors decide to sell the surplus ones for cash, which is how we ended up buying a half dozen event tickets from a Czeck Embassy employee who looked like our friend Bob Keisser, a longtime local sports columnist — to this day we refer to the man as Czech Bob Keisser.

JJ

Going to the USA men’s basketball and men’s volleyball practices really changed my perspective about what it means to be an Olympian. Even the NBA players on the basketball team were put through everything that comes with participating in an overseas tournament. We were there to interview Long Beach native Russell Westbrook, but couldn’t pass up a chance to put our branded microphone in front of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and more of the best players in the world. Seeing Long Beach State coach Alan Knipe leading the men’s volleyball practice was also a unique experience because we got to see how different the levels of competition are.

Team USA Men’s Basketball Practice @ 2012 London Summer Olympics

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Mike

Getting to cover Misty May-Treanor’s historic third straight gold medal in beach volleyball is an all-time sportswriter memory for me. I had written an extensive feature about Misty’s history with Long Beach that we filed shortly before hopping on our transatlantic flight, spending a week following her around as she prepared to leave for the Olympics. I knew that she was planning on retiring after the London Olympics. So it really felt like getting to see the last chapter in a really important part of city history. Also as a sportswriter, you see so many athletes who don’t get the ending they deserve — a high school athlete who’s lost a parent who loses in overtime in the semifinals, that kind of thing. Misty was one of those really, really rare moments where an athlete gets the happy ending that they deserve.

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JJ

I’m really glad we kept travel journals with photos and stories about how we survived a lot of moving and not a lot of sleep. The pictures Mike took really capture how each place we went had its own character and charm. My running diary attempted to explain what it’s like trying to be comfortable in a foreign situation, but mostly it was about amazing people and things I saw at pubs. We even found a way to buy tickets to Dublin, Ireland, for a day. They were less than $100 and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

 

Mike

For me personally, we produced so much content that some of the trip feels like a blur. I think we wrote an average of seven articles a day each, and ended up doing two or three videos a day the whole time we were in London. We worked 16-18 hour days for three weeks. The quiet moments in between all that work are some of my favorite moments. I’ll never forget watching Usain Bolt win a gold medal on my laptop while JJ was taking a nap on his bed across the room.

JJ

I was passed out. Let’s be honest.

Mike

Down the street from us in the park was a huge inflatable screen that thousands of people would gather and watch the major events on, and as Usain was racing, I was sitting in our quiet room with the lights off, listening to the distant roar of the crowd on the green cheering for him.

One of the other amazing moments that happened at London Stadium was Bryshon Nellum being selected by the other American Olympians to carry the American flag in the closing ceremony. He had overcome being shot in the legs while in college to make it back and compete for the USA, winning a silver medal in London in the 4×400. Watching Bryshon carry the flag, knowing that Long Beach was essentially a top 15 country in the world at those Olympics, was a fitting moment. We felt like we’d covered an important story, of how well our city represented on the world stage, and that we were the only writers who really got it. The sight was even more surreal knowing that athletes like LeBron James and Michael Phelps had voted for Bryshon, who I’ve known since he was in high school.

JJ

Our editor Harry Saltzgaver also did an incredible job laying out the paper every week. We sent him a lot of content, and it would come to him at very strange times, but he always made it work. Those covers are my favorite we’ve produced at The Grunion.

Harry

To tell the truth, I was seriously jealous of their experience — truly an experience of a lifetime. Once we got going, though, it was just fun trying to take their excitement and convey it to our readers. It didn’t hurt that we were the only paper that understood the “Long Beach is a player” angle. Mike and JJ really brought that home.

JJ

My favorite way to relive the whole experience is by watching the bloopers video I put together after the closing ceremonies. I had been making videos for three weeks so there were a lot of funny out-takes and situations that I sometimes forget about. Mike accidentally holding my hand instead of letting me hold the microphone in one of our stand-up shots is a particular favorite of mine.

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After the events were all finished and the medal count was tallied, Long Beach representatives finished with a total of 15 medals: 7 gold, 6 silver, and 2 bronze. The gold medal tally ties the city’s athletes for 10th most of any nation on the planet, and the total count puts Long Beach as the 17th most medals out of the 204 nations competing. To put that in perspective, our city of 500,000 outshone Jamaica, Spain, Brazil, Switzerland, Canada, and Mexico. India did not receive a single gold medal, despite a population of over a billion.

We sincerely hope we get the opportunity to cover Long Beach athletes and coaches in Tokyo in 2021, and of course the 2028 Olympics in our own backyard.

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JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.
http://The562.org