My Road to Rio
Behind my journey of the 2016 Rio Olympics. The whole Olympics experience now feels like a dream as I’ve settled into my daily routine in Los Angeles. My time in Brazil was a complete whirlwind even moreso was the journey it took to get there. Check out my experiences of working at the 2016 Olympics with the Australian National Basketball team below!
The True Journey
How did I get the opportunity to work for the Australian National Basketball Team? I took a risk. I left a stable job and a successful basketball program at Stanford University. I sold my car and packed my bags for Australia to pursue basketball opportunities there in 2014. I set goals for myself but the two most prominent were achieving happiness while simultaneously putting myself in a position to help Australia’s national basketball team, “The Boomers” at the 2016 Olympics.
I’m passionate about traveling, mostly because I enjoy learning about different cultures, and all the adventures life affords me while living abroad. Even if I had failed at gaining experience with basketball in Australia, I would never regret moving to Sydney or Melbourne. These two cities are ranked as the most livable cities on earth, after being there I see why.
It just so happens the current Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown, was a childhood friend of my mother in South Portland, Maine. Having also grown up in South Portland, I have stayed in touch with him over the years. Brett moved to Australia after college and was the Australian national team head coach during the 2012 London Olympics. Brett’s story inspired my own in a plethora of ways. Anything is possible.
During my first few days in Australia a coach jokingly said “you moved from the US to Australia to work in basketball? You got it backwards mate.” Not exactly assuring but I didn’t let it dissuade me. This same coach ended up being a great mentor throughout the year in Australia.
I volunteered hundreds of hours with basketball during my year in Sydney. Since I wasn’t getting paid for the most part, I worked side jobs to stay afloat. One stint was at a shoe store, another at a yacht club and finally at a software company. My year in Sydney was especially challenging but I loved everything about it. I did not do it alone. I had the help of many remarkable people who have since became lifelong friends. I felt I did everything I could possibly do in the “Land Down Under” for my basketball career.
Outside of basketball, I enjoyed my time there and was very happy with my decision to move there. I have been all over the world and Sydney is my favorite city I’ve been to. I have a strong feeling that I will be living in that country again(Sorry Mom and Dad!).
Between Australia and The Rio Olympics, I wasn’t hired by a team for the start of the 2015 basketball season and began believing that my basketball run may be over. As a backup I started applying to some startups in New York with some exceptionally uninspiring cover letters. While I was proud of with my basketball career so far, I felt like I had unfinished business with not working in with my ultimate dream, the NBA.
In between writing excruciating cover letters I found a $66 dollar flight from Boston to Los Angeles. I’d come too far not to go meet some basketball contacts one last time on the west coast.
Things began to pan out within days of arriving in California. I was hired by the Los Angeles Lakers D-League (minor league) team in February of 2016. Shortly after the Australian coach who I worked closely with in Canberra allowed me to assist him at the Rio Olympics.
The Journey Begins. First Stop Colombia!
It was significantly more cost effective to stop in Bogota on the way to Brazil, so I made a trip out of it. Alarmingly, Bogota is almost 9000 feet above sea level so it was a lot cooler than I expected it to be. I kept it cool in the Land of Pablo Escobar as I was attempting to stay healthy and conserve my energy for Brazil. I treated this as a warm up for Brazil, a cold one at that.
My hostel in Bogota was open air so the crisp mountain air, blasted me every morning. It felt like my families ski home in Northern Maine.
After three days wandering around the narrow streets of Bogota, I was off to Brazil. It was surreal seeing Sao Paulo on the departures screen at my gate, the time had finally come and I could not stop smiling.
I arrived in Sao Paulo and began seeing athletes from all over the world with their countries attire on. This made everything come to life. I was actually at the Olympics. Up until then it was just a goal and a plan but now it was real life.
Prior to arriving I read about the drive from Rio’s international airport to the city and how it weaves in and out of favelas (very poor neighborhoods in Brazil). I couldn’t see anything as it was 1am and they have huge walls blocking your vision. That smell though, it was bad. Welcome to Rio.
First Days in Rio De Janeiro
I checked into my Airbnb near the Olympic village in Barra da Tijuca. It was challenging to even find this place as house numbers in Brazil are organized a bit different. By that I mean that they aren’t organized at all. American house numbers are arranged in chronological order ex: they go 10–12–14. In Brazil they were something like 10–76–32–204. Hmmmm.
Later that afternoon I was off shopping for the players and the staff staying in the Olympic Village. I was tasked with the difficult task of translating food names from Portuguese to English. I studied French for almost 10 years and Italian for 6 months but unfortunately these languages were nothing like Portuguese.
“Dynamic Duo” Reunited
I met up with my good friend Ben again. Back in Sydney we did everything basketball related together. We met on my first day assisting the Sydney Kings in November 2014 and spent the next year volunteering there together.
At my farewell party in Australia, Ben and I said “see ya in Rio” to each other. I was more hopeful than serious at the time.
Now a few months later and we were back together in Rio. Next challenge: figuring out how to buy expresso for the Australian National Basketball team. This was way more difficult than it sounds. So many flavors, so little English. Any chore we did in Brazil took about two to three times as long as you think it would take. Traffic, security and lack of english made everything more complicated.
Start of the Olympics
In the days leading up to the Olympics the excitement around the village and city was wildly electrifying. This city was absolutely buzzing as the entire world had their eyes on Rio.
I did most of my work at The Edge during this time. The Edge was the Australian base for athletes and families near the Olympic Park and Village.
I began researching our opponents, collecting stats and analyzing videos. I would then supply the coaches with this information and video and they would decide our game plan from there.
Once the basketball games started I edited video during the games. I would also go to the games and look for play calls. Most countries would just call out their play calls as they all speak different languages.
I learned so much throughout my time at the Olympics. These games are best described as an intense, short season with there being an excessive amount of work to do each and every day. I cannot express enough how much of a pleasure it was working with the Australian National team and its surrounding staff. A remarkable group of people that included some of the best coaches in the world.
Safety in Rio
Security at the Olympics and throughout Brazil was as you expect, extreme. Over 85,000 security personnel were present, including 23,000 military soldiers. I heard from locals that Brazil spends more money on it’s security than education. To go anywhere, you have to go through gates and armed security guards. In order to enter and exit the coaches a finger scan was required. Reminiscent of a prison, there were watchtowers every 50 meters or so with armed guards in them.
Soldiers were everywhere in Rio. Thousands of guards with assault rifles all throughout the city. It was common to see a big truck driving through the city with 20–40 military personnel sitting in the back with their machine guns in hand.
Mosquito’s and Zika
The whole Zika hype before the Olympics had me a little uneasy. I was hoping this was American media overreacting per usual. Of course, I forgot to pack bug spray. At the pharmacy in Rio I imagined bug spray would be the entirety of their pharmacy after hearing about Zika for 6 months. I could not have been more wrong.
I walked in and couldn’t find bug spray anywhere. Eventually I performed an Oscar winning performance of a mosquito biting my arm to a group of pharmacists. They looked at me like I was crazy or something. They huddled with each other and figured it out. I was directed to this tiny section in the back of the store. My travel advisor suggested bug spray with 30–70% DEET. None of bug sprays that I found had higher than 7%. Perfect!
Zika was a none issue for the Brazilians I met. Comparable to people freaking out over Lyme disease visiting the USA, or earthquakes in California. It’s bad, it happens, but it isn’t a big deal for 99.9% of the citizens. Brazilians mocked Americans about the whole Zika scare and would even chant “Zika, Zika” to some of our athletes that spoke out against it. After all of the hype and coverage on Zika, no one at the Rio Olympics was infected with Zika(as of October 30th).
The passion of the fans at the games was like nothing like I’d ever seen. I’ve been in some pretty wild atmospheres while working at Stanford, but the passion at the Olympic games was next level. Fans in America for the most part are just fans. In South America, the fans cheered like they had a responsibility to.
The USA vs Argentina basketball game was the best fan support I’ve ever seen. The game prior to the US vs Argentina game was pretty quiet until about three minutes left. All of a sudden a few Argentinian fans started singing in the corner of the stadium and within seconds the stadium then erupted into Argentina songs. It’s like the Argentinian fans were all undercover or something and were waiting to explode.
As the USA vs Argentina game started, the Brazilian fans in the stadium started instigating Argentina fans by cheering for the US. The Brazilian fans would also sing a song about Maradona, a famous Argentinian soccer player. Argentina fans would return their chants, this continued throughout the entire game with an intense fiery passion. Almost as if the real game was in the crowd, and the basketball game was just a sideshow.
By the end of the game the Argentinian fans joined together in the upper section. They were going absolutely nuts despite losing by 20 points to USA. Argentinians were profoundly proud of their their country. This is one of the things that I love most about sports, being able to represent your country on a world wide stage. At the conclusion of the game, hundreds of police came to break up the fan section peacefully.
The smells were real putrid. The last time I was in Asia it smelt of raw sewage more often than not and Rio was much worse. My Airbnb room was next to a river making it completely brutal to wake up to and have breakfast.
The USA Game
The US beat China and Venezuela by about 40 during the first two games and had won over 70 straight games. When it was time for Australia to play the US, I knew we weren’t going to play scared and we were going to play hard but had no idea how it’d play out.
The Boomers came out firing on all cylinders. We were up most of the game but within the last few minutes the US pulled away. It was a total bummer.
Basketball fans or not, friends from all over contacted me after the game in awe of the Australian performance. We may have lost but I’m proud with how we played and represented Australia with our all out hustle and toughness. Call it what you want but I believe Australians play basketball the way it should be played.
The Ryan Lochte Situation
Don’t get me started.
Track and Field
Ben and I went to the Track and Field finals when we finally had a free night. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve seen. Witnessing the unbelievable physical feats in person was amazing. USA dominated which was nice to see as well.
Bronze Medal game
Serbia stuck it to us in the Semifinal game. It wasn’t our day and Serbia could do no wrong. Teodosic from Serbia had one of the most impressive games I’ve ever seen. We would now play the bronze medal game vs. Spain. If we won, this would be Australia’s first medal in men’s basketball.
We went back and forth with Spain all game and eventually lost by 1 point in the closing seconds. No details needed for that, you can go to YouTube. It was incredibly frustrating to be so close to bronze losing the lead with a few seconds to go.
This was the fourth time Australia finished in fourth place. and we would be leaving Rio without achieving our goal of winning our first medal.
My Australian basketball run was now over. I have experienced an overwhelming amount of uncertainty during the almost two years since leaving Stanford, and it’s amazing to think this uncertain path took me all around the world and even to the Olympics. Somethings you just can’t plan.
After the Olympics ended I stayed in Copacabana for a few days with Ben and was finally able to be a tourist.
Rio is by far one of the most fascinatingly beautiful cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The geography around the city is like an oceanfront Yosemite National Park. It’s absolutely stunning with towering cliffs, scattered mountain ranges and the city all throughout this landscape.
Bakery and Breakfast
Almost every morning in Rio I went to the same bakery for breakfast. At first I was received with anxious “he doesn’t speak Portuguese” looks. Eventually after becoming a local after many mornings, I was greeted with smiles. Everyone was excited to see me. It was a great way to start my days and the baguettes were great. My biggest regret of my trip was not saying goodbye to this bakery or gifting them with some Australian swag. I guess I’ll have to return some day to Boulangerie Carioca and see if they remember me!
Nightlife in Rio
The energy of Rio was nothing like I’d seen before. Parties would just happen on the street with musicians playing samba music and people dancing everywhere. It could not be more different from my own American culture and that’s what I love about being abroad.
Overall Rio Experience
I loved my time in Rio and I miss it. The vibe of the city can’t really be put into words. Brazilians would always ask what I thought of the city and country. When I told them I loved it, they’d say “Oh, be honest”. I’d respond and tell them the truth that I have truly enjoyed my time there again.
After all of the negative media coverage, Rio hosted an unforgettable summer Olympics.
Good Bye Rio, Onto Paraty
After three and half weeks in Rio , I took a four hour van ride south to relax. I ended up in a small town called Paraty. Great food combined with an easy to navigate, pedestrian friendly city made this place perfect after the month of craziness in Rio.
The World is Small and Sao Paulo
After a few days in Paraty I left for Sao Paulo. The van ride to Sao Paulo makes me nauseous just thinking about it. Five hours on a zig zagging road through a mountain range was a grand ole’ time. The driver did his best Mario Andretti impression racing through the switchbacks.
Feeling queasy at a rest stop I started talking to one of the guys in the van, Simon. Simon was a cycling coach from Belgium and was one of the Rwandan cycling coaches at the Olympics. His American girlfriend in Rwanda went to college with my sister and they are still friends today. My sister and his girlfriend also went to Kenya together for a month on a school trip with their small University, St. Lawrence. Unreal.
Inspired story of his work with the Rwandan cycling team. My mind started spinning about what I could in Rwanda with basketball. My minds still spinning…
I arrived in Sao Paulo for a night. Massive city with skyscrapers for miles and miles. It is bigger than New York City and Los Angeles to put it in perspective. I went to Skye Bar which was a famous rooftop bar with some people I met at the hostel and reflected on my last night of Brazil.
The next day I had a seven hour lay-over in Iguazu Falls, Brazil. Probably the best and most refreshing airport on earth for a layover.
I stayed in Lima for a few days at a wonderful hostel near the coast. Toured around Lima and enjoyed some food. To be frank, I lost about 10 pounds in 3.5 weeks during my time in Brazil. The food in the Olympic Park(not village)was disgusting.
With a couple days left in South America, I took a five hour bus to the oasis town of Huacachina. The buses I experienced in South America were surprisingly pristine which was a pleasant surprise. The bus chairs are like Lazy Boy recliners and food is served throughout the trips.
Huacachina is a small oasis in the middle of the desert and ended up being was exactly what I needed. I did some sand boarding, hiking, dune buggy riding and a whole lot of napping in the hammocks at my hostel.
I think this trip was a microcosm of my basketball career to date. I planned nothing more than a day in advance and met a bunch of awesome people along the way. I was able to explore a new part of the world and fully experience the Olympics first hand. This trip also inspired new ideas for my future with basketball. I can’t wait until that time comes!
Until next time,
Thanks to fellow blogger and friend Kelly Madera for editing this post! Follow her cause at http://www.kellmenow.com/ , kell_menow on instagram and kellmenow on Facebook.