Dream Team Almost Sleepwalking after Back to Back Epic Events

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Michael Phelps is surrounded by what must be one of the largest swarm of photographers I've ever seen after he jumped into one of the two photo wells to get a hug from his sister and mother. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

 Now comes the hard part.  With the two marquee events past us, the men’s 100M and Phelps’s 8th gold, the newsman in me tells me that the Olympics are pretty much over.  But the lensman in me knows better than to give up now. It’s time to start chasing photographs—not necessarily the news. Time to have fun and start to take even bigger risks from now on, especially since everyone has been seeing hundreds of Olympic photographs for more than a week now.

Michael Phelps and his teammates huddle for the last time prior to Phelps's historic 8th Gold Medal in the 4 X100m relay race.  I'd really love to hear what they were saying to one another.  This was a very long throw - this shot was made with a Canon 1D MKIII and an 800mm 5.6 at 1/640th of a second.

Michael Phelps and his teammates huddle for the last time prior to Phelps

 I’m now sitting here typing away while the men’s gymnastics floor final is going on. There are so many obstructions and the backgrounds are so impossible that it’s just best to sit this one out for a while and wait for the next event in the rotation. I’m mentally exhausted—I got to sleep at around 3:45 a.m. this morning after returning from the men’s 100M final and my wake-up call went off at 5:45 a.m.  I jumped out of bed before I had a chance to start that dangerous debate of whether or not I should try to squeeze five or ten more minutes of sleep in. And no breakfast of champions for me or Mike this morning—”breakie,” as he says, doesn’t open ’til 7.  As I was pulling up to the Main Press center at 6:15 a.m., I called Doug Mills of The New York Times, my former colleague there, and asked if he wanted me to save him a spot. Ever the pro, he let out a soft chuckle and let me know that he was already in position and had marked me a spot… there’s never such as things a being too early for an event such as Michael Phelps’s historic 8th gold medal win. (The race didn’t start until just past 11 a.m. but there were only a dozen head on positions available for all of the photographers covering the race.) 

Michael Phelps in action swimming the butterfly stroke in third position - this shot was made with a Canon 1D MKIII and an 800mm 5.6 at 1/640th of a second.  Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Michael Phelps in action swimming the butterfly stroke in third position - this shot was made with a Canon 1D MKIII and an 800mm 5.6 at 1/640th of a second. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

 The two of us were both lined up almost directly in line with lane 4, where the U.S. team would compete in the 4 X 100M relay.  I had an 800mm 5.6 in hand on a 1D MKIII, a 500mm 4 on a remote in front of me to get a looser version of the reaction on a 1Ds MKIII—and a 70~200mm on a remote off to the side. This was going to be a BIG one—or so I thought.  A truly historic moment with the potential of making a classic Olympic photograph.

Here is Michael Phelps touching the blocks. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Here is Michael Phelps touching the blocks. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Unfortunately, that photograph never really materialized, despite everyone’s best efforts. We came close, but I’m not sure anyone’s got a “classic” shot per se. I walked around the Main Press Center to SI and a few other papers and wires after the race today, and the consensus is that unfortunately there really wasn’t a truly fantastic defining moment. It’s a shame, and every photographer seemed to know this as we departed like mummies from the venue. Ultimately, no matter how hard you prepare, now matter how much energy and effort you put into preparing a photograph, there’s never a guarantee it will materialize. Sometimes it’s your fault—you might have chosen the wrong spot, or made some terrific blunder that someday, perhaps, you will learn to laugh off. Other times, like today, the moment itself fizzled. Phelps seemed more relieved than excited—clearly the best pictures from Phelps and these Olympics were taken yesterday, when he won his 7th medal by 1/100th of a second.  Mike’s photograph of Phelps splashing the water is a defining moment in my opinion. But today, well there are plenty of “good” or “solid” photographs—but no true keepers. And so we move on from here and continue to wish for other images that we haven’t yet previsualised in the upcoming seven days.

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photography by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photography by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

 There’s really not all that much to say about today’s race photographically. Everyone seemed to follow the script and the momentous occasion was recorded in history without all that much suspense. It’s still an honor to have been present to photograph such a historic moment—to be able to say that “I was there when…”—but any good photographer would trade a hundred such honors for a single iconic photograph. We’re not here to enjoy ourselves as spectators, after all—we’re here to do our best to make timeless images!

Michael Phelps during the metal ceremony—with tears in his eyes.   Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Michael Phelps during the metal ceremony—with tears in his eyes. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

After the race, It took me more than 5 hours to even look at the photographs on my computer—and that speaks volumes. When there’s something fantastic, you can’t even wait to flicker through your images on the back of your camera’s LCD screen. But a big part of our job of course is not just to make beautiful photographs—but also to record history. That said, I hope you enjoy this series of photographs from today’s historic race.

After a good rest tonight, I’ll be ready to go tomorrow.  The only negative right now—and I’m not alone in this, it seems—is that my photo vest is starting to have that “not so fresh” smell to it. We of course can’t get it cleaned (because we can’t get a spare one in the meantime) and by the end of this upcoming week, after a few more days in sun, the best thing that can happen to this vest will be for it to mercifully spontaneously combust after the closing ceremonies. There is no way that this things is making the journey back with me to the States.   

Here is a tilt shift shot of Dara Torres' start off of the blocks in her 50M silver medal race. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Here is a tilt shift shot of Dara Torres

Once I returned from swimming, it was a struggle to keep my eyes open. Donald, Mike, Andrew and I had lunch together, and when we returned to the NEWSWEEK office at the MPC, we were struggling to keep our eyes open.  Mike passed out on the couch and I did my best to stay awake until my evening events. I didn’t know what to decide on in terms of what I should cover… it’s always tough to go back to “normal” events—after the 100M race and Phelps’s run—everything has a tendency to look a bit inconsequential in relation to those.

I debated between covering gymnastics or fencing—I’ve done both already so I kept going back and forth and back and forth in my sleep-deprived state. I finally decided on gymnasics and went to cover Alicia Sacramone’s chance at redemption on her individual vault event. Alicia had not done particularly well in the team competition, with at least two falls that were quite costly.

As I get there, the stadium is quite empty. Most of the seats are empty and the buzz that was in the room during the team competitions is missing. Luckily so are most other photographers… the only problem is that the empty stands are making for terrible backgrounds. As Alicia walks out toward the vault, she and the seven other competitors will have two shots at getting a medal. She’s the first to line up, and as is my routine, I focus on her and shoot a few frames to figure out my exact placement, focus and angle during her first practice run.   

The only problem is:  A score comes up after this “practice run”—of course I realize this was the first of her two vaults. I quickly scramble to another angle and make a quick burst of frames on her second attempt. Boy—that went by ridiculously fast… and apparently, the first time they face the vault is the real thing…

At this point I have a few decent shots, and there’s really no good reason for me to photograph the other competitors. The story here is that this is her last chance to redeem herself—and perhaps win a medal. Since they’re only each doing two consecutive vaults, the competition can turn on a dime at anytime. So I decide to take my 200mm 1.8 and focus on her face and wait for a reaction.

Alicia Sacramone reacts as she watches her Bronze medal disappear as she falls in the ranking of the women's individual vault competition.

Alicia Sacramone reacts as she watches her Bronze medal disappear as she falls in the ranking of the women

She’s incredibly tense.  And as each competitor goes by, her ranking drops from second place, to bronze and then she ends up going home empty-handed. Her coach gives her a big hug before the two walk off of the field of play together.

Alicia Sacramone was a bit despondent - but she did keep it together long enough to make it out away from the cameras. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Alicia Sacramone was a bit despondent - but she did keep it together long enough to make it out away from the cameras. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Alicia Sacramone is comforted by her coach Mihai Brestyan. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Alicia Sacramone is comforted by her coach Mihai Brestyan. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

 At this point I can stay a little longer and photograph the dreaded floor competition with the terrible background and endless foreground obstructions.  Instead I take a gamble and start to jog towards the fencing hall, which is the next building over, maybe 500 yards away. If I’m lucky perhaps I’ll be able to catch some sleep—uh, sorry, I mean the last minute of the match. Alicia’s event started at 6:45 p.m. and fencing started at 7 p.m… perhaps I can make it just in time…

Truth be told, at this point I’m so tired that sleep is the only thing on my mind.  I’m having trouble telling if my images are in or out of focus. My eyes are failing me—hey’re no longer focusing and I can’t see anything sharp anymore. Thank God for autofocus at times like these. This isn’t the first time my eyes have “stopped working” or focusing in my career… when you work long hours and/or days sometimes your eyes just throw in the towel and glaze over.

Jogging yet again with all of this gear is the last thing I really want to do.  But El Jeffe (Simon Barnett our boss and NEWSWEEK Director of Photography) isn’t paying us to sleep out here.  As far as he and I are concerned, we’ll have plenty of time to sleep when we die!  Seriously, this is the Olympics and it’s time to kick it into gear for one more series of events.  Plus I’m starting to catch my second wind—probably on pure adrenaline.

As I run into the fencing venue, I have no idea if the match is halfway through or seconds from being over. I catch a glimpse of some action on a TV as I dart past the security guard, so at least I know that the competition is still ongoing. I take the elevator up to the 4th floor and as I get within a few feet from accessing the photo positions, I think to myself: “Man, it would make a nice little blog story if I get here just in time for the finish.”

I see one of the French coaches as I walk in—this is the gold medal match, U.S.A. vs. France in sabre.   I ask him: “Qui Gagne?” (Who’s winning?)

He curtly answers: “Nous.” (Us.)

I then ask: “A la gauche ou a la droite?”  (Are you guys to the left or to the right?)

“A droite” he answers “et on gagne a la prochaine touche.”  (We’re to the left… and we win with the next point.”)

Aha—yeah, OK. Talk about timing.  No time for small talk or thank yous.  Luckily I hadn’t packed my gear on my jog over here… no sooner than I have a chance to turn around, I catch the following frames…

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Julien Pillet reacts to winning the gold in the men's team sabre final against the U.S.A. Photograph by Vincent Laforet for NEWSWEEK

Julien Pillet reacts to winning the gold in the men

Sometimes you can cover two concurrent events at once after all… just make sure never to let your editor know that!   What an Olympic day this was.  Time to get some sleep and prepare for seven more.