A Different Kind of Road to Rio

It was exactly 20 years ago this summer that I inadvertently made a life-changing decision. Like most choices of that sort, when you’re young and blissfully unaware of the long-term repercussions of you choices, I had no idea it would lead anywhere in particular.

I arrived in Washington, D.C., for a summer reporting internship with U.S. News & World Report, back when a weekly news magazine was an actual thing you received in your mailbox and read devoutly. I moved into a Foggy Bottom house with six other unpaid collegiate super stars with positions ranging from Clinton-Gore Re-elect (yup—I’m that old. Do the math…) to the D.C. district attorney’s office. And then there was me, who was absolutely positive I was destined to become the nation’s next ace political reporter.

In two weeks in D.C., I learned two things. First, how to walk to my office without getting lost. Second, that I was not made for politics. These are the reasons why one should always intern, kids—it’s just as valuable to understand what you don’t want to do as much as figuring out what you think you might want to spend you life pursuing.

As it happened, the Atlanta Summer Games were going on, too, and they needed help with the Olympics double issue. I was charged with researching the “unsung sports” of the Games—the off-beat, little-known events that nobody hears about except for a quick mention (and sometimes mockery) once every four years. This was before we had Google. I had to go to the library. And call people. ON THE PHONE. (Side note: I didn’t intend to make myself sound like I’m 100 years old in this post, but here we are.)

So I put my heart into doing whatever the associate editors wanted me to do. It was a group of guys who probably were not much older than me at the time, but because they had college degrees and proper full-time jobs, they somehow seemed more adult. After many late nights (and company-paid dinners, which are not to be undervalued when you spend three months doing a job for free), we closed the issue just in time to take our proper July Fourth holiday.

Like all good interns, we threw a party in our backyard with multiple kegs and no food, which ended in dozens not-sober 20somethings going to the midnight premiere of the movie Independence Day. By coincidence, guess who ended up in the row in back of me in that theater? A few not-sober U.S. News editors, who had truly done the hard part in putting that Olympics issue to bed. They started heckling me, whispering something about “an Erin Strout byline.”

Sure enough, when the magazine came off the press a day later, they had given me my first byline in a national publication. It was a complete surprise and a thrill. It stirred something inside, of course, though I ultimately took a long and twisted path to end up where I am.

Where am I, exactly? Currently, I’m sitting in the Houston airport about to board a plane bound for Rio de Janeiro to cover my first Olympics for Runner’s World. I think back 20 years ago and become acutely aware that had I not experienced that summer in D.C., I could well be on a plane bound for the next Donald Trump rally.

The Olympics may not be live up to the fantasy, I realize. A lot has changed—or at least been realized—since the days I wanted to be Mary Lou Retton. The Games claim to “contribute to a peaceful world” and the organization throws around ideals like the “spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.” But there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary—doping, corruption at the highest levels, and Rio’s poorest population left devastatingly behind in the “movement,” just for starters. My Olympic spirit is alive, but tempered by the realities, too.

I hope to have the time (and energy) to document my own experiences here along the way. Follow along here and read our daily track and field coverage at Runnersworld.com. It all promises to be a big adventure.

With that, as they say, let the Games begin.