UGA Students Take on the Rio Paralympics

University of Georgia students in Rio

By Katelyn Umholtz

The opportunity to take college students to Rio during the Paralympics this year came about after former USA Today lead Olympics reporter Vicki Michaelis, now a professor at the University of Georgia, started teaching.

For UGA student Jenn Finch, the opportunity was right up her alley, but she never expected it to become a reality.

“I love to travel, and I love taking photos so it was kind of a given,” Finch said. “When Professor Johnson first told us about it, I never imagined I would actually be chosen to go.”

When it came time for the Paralympics to start, Michaelis and UGA visual journalism lecturer Mark Johnson, chose nine students from sports reporting and photojournalism. The visual journalism students from UGA included Finch along with David Barnes, Joshua Jones and Casey Sykes.

The program, Johnson said, was paid for by a Coca-Cola donation and college funds, and Canon Professional Services and ThinkTank Photo helped with equipment.

The students have spent over a week in Rio shooting for the Associated Press, and already they have seen improvements in their work.

“A big part of covering something of this scale is learning to not be overwhelmed, but learning how to solve the problems that happen around your job, and they are getting that done,” Johnson said.

From navigating less dependable transportation systems to having to change how they shoot from venue to venue and sport to sport, Johnson said his four visual journalism students have taken real strides to know what it’s like shooting at a huge sports event.

After seeing the affect sports have on communities while shooting for his school newspaper, Barnes said the Paralympics have expanded his aspirations.

“It’s my goal to cover Tokyo 2020, and this experience will definitely prepare me for that challenge,” Barnes said.

Even though most of the trip has been positive, there were some concerns that had to be addressed beforehand.

“Given some of the concerns in Brazil, we talked a lot about safety issues and how to handle themselves in public,” Johnson said. “We have continued to advise them to use bug spray and sun block.”

However, Finch said she wasn’t worried about the concerns she constantly heard about during the Olympics coverage.

“I’ve traveled a lot before and lived in Rwanda for a few months, so I wasn’t really concerned,” Finch said. “For the most part, I’ve found Rio to be very safe. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.”

Barnes said there were of course some issues he was concerned about, but it wasn’t enough to stop him from going. In fact, most of the troubles he has had while in Rio had nothing to do with Zika or crime, but issues visual journalists face at any point in their career.

“Be prepared for anything and everything,” Barnes said. “The weather will be unfavorable, your gear can and will fail and shooting positions won’t be what you imagined. Overcoming the technical and creative obstacles is just as important as showing up.”

Many of the issues, Johnson said, have not been with access of athletes, but rather problems of the sporting events in Rio.

“The fiscal problems of the Olympics bled over into the Paralympics with venues closing and cutbacks on the transportation networks,” Johnson said. “The changing of venues caused changes in the schedules so we didn’t know when and where some events were going to be until a few days ago.”

Despite stressful days that turned into long nights, Johnson said the students have handled it like professional photojournalists.

Barnes has learned that the sleep lost replaced by hard work pays off in the end.

“If you’re going to do anything, whether it be the Paralympics, an internship or work at a student paper, give it your all,” Barnes said. “There will be days where you shoot for 18 plus hours running on only three hours of sleep and one full meal, and it’ll be the best time of your life.”

Follow the UGA students on Instagram to see their work in Rio: