As mentioned in yesterday’s introduction, angling for some freelancing work from Rio 2016 had been a goal since I’d arrived in Brazil. I’d hoped that being a relatively established freelancer who was living in the general neighborhood and had had a year under my belt to acclimate to Brazil would be the ticket to my choice of freelance gigs. And this is the Olympics we’re talking about! Of course I wanted to get there somehow.
An early approach, in the months after I arrived, was trying to link up with a US newspaper big enough to have a freelance budget and a decent number of hometown Olympians to cover, but too small and cash-strapped to actually send staff to Brazil. (Hat tip to my mom, who largely came up with this idea.) I started a spreadsheet tracking US athletes named to Olympic teams, their places of residence, hometowns and newspaper(s) of record in those places. Then, more or less at random, I began emailing sports editors at papers that I guessed might be in that sweet spot of wanting coverage but only being able to afford it through a well-placed freelancer. This was just pure busywork, combing the web and blind-pitching.
My response rate was low, and one of the editors who was kind enough to respond asked a question that ultimately proved fatal to the whole plan: do you have a media credential? I didn’t, and soon learned that a) the deadline to apply for one had passed before I ever knew I’d be living in Brazil and b) it is exceedingly unlikely that the USOC would have awarded a scarce and coveted credential to an unaffiliated freelancer in the first place.
One of the crucial skills of freelancing is coming up with good ideas and believing stubbornly in them while simultaneously maintaining emotional distance. Good freelancing ideas constantly die in infancy (I still think the medium-sized paper idea was a worthwhile one, for the record) and you can’t spend time mourning them. By early 2016, I’d moved on with life and decided to concentrate on other projects, while still keeping an eye out for other ways to hitch a ride to Rio. Nothing really of note to report there.
By July, it seemed clear that Rio wasn’t happening, and I’d turned my full professional attention to things that were: stories about austral bird migration, manioc processing, hops cultivation in Brazil, (all forthcoming). Grander freelancing ambitions have to be managed the same way as individual story ideas – believed in, pursued hard and abandoned with nary a backward glance if they don’t get over the hump – and Rio 2016 was in my rearview.
Then, in the two weeks leading up to the Opening Ceremony, a handful of unexpected emails began arriving, inviting Rio 2016 pitches. It want to be clear that this is very rare – an editor taking initiative to ask me (me!) to send ideas. One of the more insidious and discouraging freelancer delusions out there is that one where you let yourself start thinking that because you exist, and because you’re good at what you do, and because you have some good clips posted to your tastefully curated website, high-powered editors at prominent publications are going to track you down and hire you and vouch for your work’s inclusion in the year-end anthologies and and and. In reality, they don’t know who you are and (general impression here, supported by cursory review of my tastefully curated website’s analytics functions) don’t care much about your website.
But anyway, I got cranked up about Rio all over again and dove into brainstorming, trolling the web for story ideas in response to invitations, sending emails detailing my findings, getting a handle on expenses that would be incurred if this potentially late-breaking trip actually broke and monkeying with a work and family schedule that had not been developed to accommodate time in Rio. There ended up being I’d say three editors/publications with whom I had serious back-and-forth by email about Olympics story ideas. The one that worked out was Modern Farmer, which I’ve written for a good bit since it launched in early 2013. Modern Farmer has been through some ups and downs over that time, and the amount of work I did for them varied accordingly, for a succession of editors. I’d written a few times previously for the editor who contacted me about Rio, but I’d never taken it on myself to pitch them first, in part because I had been detaching myself from the fantasy of reporting from the Olympics and in part because I’d wrongly assumed that a trip to Rio would be out of Modern Farmer’s current price range.
(The other two pubs that seemed to be giving my Rio pitches fair consideration were ones I haven’t written for before, and are prominent, and even though the point of this whole endeavor is naked honestly about freelancing from Brazil, I’m thinking it’s best to leave them unnamed. Protecting sources and whatnot.)
Things moved fast then. That first email w/ unexpected invitation to pitch Modern Farmer arrived on a Friday. Then followed a bunch more, talking story ideas and rate and my estimated costs and size of the expense budget, and by Monday night I’d booked my flight – for the following Friday – and Airbnb, and Rio 2016 had come roaring back from the grave.
The Friday that I left was the Brazilian Father’s Day, and I got an evening flight so I could still go to the little Father’s Day ceremony at my son’s preschool that afternoon. It was a total joy and pleasure except for the fact that I tend to get weepy when I’m feeling proud of Alex, and as the lone American father at the school I already stick out plenty without breaking down in public tears. Friday afternoon traffic in Porto Alegre is a total bear and my Uber ride to the airport post-Father’s Day party cut it real close. But domestic air travel in Brazil is incredibly easy and low-stress compared to the US; my average time from curb to gate is usually like six or seven minutes in Porto Alegre. I made it that evening in less than five. My flight was direct to Santos Dumont, Rio's old airport, right downtown beneath the Pão de Açucar and Cristo Redentor, jutting out into the water so that on final approach it looks like you’re definitely crashing into the bay until, at the the very last second, the runway appears. And there I was.