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Friday, February 23, 2024

The Small Moments of Impact as a Sports Communications Professional

There was always this ambition to become an Olympic wrestler. Imagine the disappointment I faced when I realized this dream of mine wasn’t meant to be.

U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team press conference at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Pictured left to right: Andy Bisek, Ben Provisor, Robby Smith and Richard Immel. Photo by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com.

Growing up in suburban Oklahoma City, the world seemed narrow, limiting in fact. This is something I struggled with throughout my primitive years and even encompassing the “golden” college days. Every day was the same for me. Do your best in the classroom and train like a wild man to become the best wrestler possible. Although seeing my fair share of success and disappointment in both areas, I came to the next step in life wondering “What comes next?”

There was always this ambition to become an Olympic wrestler. It nagged at me constantly. Imagine the disappointment I faced when I realized this dream of mine wasn’t meant to be. My athletic career was not as I anticipated, something that haunts me even to this day. That said, I’ve found there is always an opportunity awaiting around the bend. Little did I know that I would actually get to the place I wanted to be all those years, even if under slightly different circumstances.

Where do we turn once our college days are over? I will be the first to admit I had no clue. The lessons I learned in sport, wrestling in particular, provided me with a well-rounded skillset of intangibles, and my B.A. in Journalism I earned from the University of Oklahoma gave me a foundation of tools to build a career on.

If ever I came to a crossroads, there is one inspirational quote that always put things into perspective. Bear with me as I indulge my love for fantasy epics.

Gandalf, the wise wizard from Lord of the Rings, said in a time of doubt and struggle, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

When you come to a challenging time in your life, don’t dwell on the hardship. Instead, decide to make the most of it.

After graduating college, I spent time working countless internships and odd jobs, often two or three at a time, to make ends meet until the right opportunity arrived. I was still unsure of what exactly I wanted to do and where I wanted to be as a professional. That is when I received a call from USA Wrestling.

The U.S. National Governing Body of wrestling, the sport I spent most of my adolescent life consumed with, had an opening in its communications department. Although I lacked a vast amount of professional experience, USA Wrestling decided to take a chance on me. A vote of confidence I can never express enough gratitude for.

2016 Olympic champion Kyle Snyder moments after receiving his gold medal. Snyder won the 97 kg men’s freestyle weight class to become the youngest American wrestler to win Olympic gold.

After upheaving my life from Oklahoma to Colorado, I soon discovered how much I needed to learn. From day one, I was filled with a desire to push myself and become a great professional. Even with that drive, I struggled. Overwhelming. Helpless. Tired. Call it what you want. This is something all of us will experience as we take on new journeys in life. My saving grace came from the desire to learn. I always thought even if I made a mistake, of which I made plenty, I can learn from it and come back stronger.

One month into the new role, my world was rattled once more with the International Olympic Committee taking the position to drop wrestling from the Olympic Games. This I couldn’t believe. It was unfathomable to me how one of the original Olympic sports could suffer such a fate. As such, I was thrown into the proverbial fire to help save the sport’s place on the Olympic program. My already demanding workload doubled. There were sleepless nights. Demoralizing moments. What did I get myself into?

Through all the madness, I found solace in seeing a community of like-minded people galvanize for a common goal. It was more than inspiring to witness this dynamic and play a small role in the effort. My circle of people increased to global proportions, which is something else I recommend taking advantage of. Network your community. In the end, wrestling was reinstated as an Olympic sport, and my sense of pride was overwhelming.

What did I learn from these early moments in my professional career? For starters, don’t be complacent. Just because something appears concrete does not mean it will always be. Appreciate the opportunities you have, and work like a mad man to keep them intact. Second, it is in adverse times where learning and growth occur. I would attribute my most rapid period of professional growth to those few months of calamity in 2013. Finally, soak up what you can and enjoy the process. I will always remember that time period in my life as a great challenge, but also a fantastic opportunity.

Fast forward to today and I have been afforded the opportunity to travel the world, experience different cultures, meet wonderful people and build lasting bonds. I’ve had the honor of covering five World Championships, five NCAA Championships, countless national and international events, and you guessed it, I found my childhood dream of being at the Olympic Games fulfilled.

2016 Olympic champion Helen Maroulis making the media rounds following her gold-medal win in Brazil. Maroulis became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in wrestling.

The 2016 Olympics was an experience that resonated with me on an indescribable level. There are moments of utter disappointment alongside the most blissful points of success.

For the past four years, I worked tirelessly to build relationships with individual athletes in pursuit of an Olympic dream. I can recall meeting a 17-year-old Kyle Snyder at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and seeing his passion for the sport. Similarly, I came across a seemingly timid Helen Maroulis who was trying to discover her way in wrestling. I came face-to-face with many of my childhood heroes and the biggest names in wrestling. It’s a nerve-wracking process, but the relationships built are invaluable to me beyond a professional level.

My role in Rio de Janeiro was to tell the world how our Olympic wrestlers fared, good or bad. No matter the result, when the athletes finished competing I am often one of the first people they see. The level of trust that must be built with these athletes is a large responsibility. They must see you as a member of the team, if not a personal friend. Hug and celebrate when the times are good, and be a pillar of support in times of struggle. These are special moments of impact.

The two names I mentioned earlier, Kyle and Helen, both went on the become Olympic champions and create a lasting legacy for themselves. Kyle was the youngest American wrestler to win an Olympic gold medal at age 20. Helen became the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. Watching these two individuals blossom and achieve their goals brought me to tears. After Helen’s gold-medal match specifically, I was paralyzed in emotion for a solid 10 minutes. My body was shaking. Never before have I been so moved. Seeing those you’ve worked with and care about reach the pinnacle is the utmost privilege.

On the other side of the table, I was heartbroken for those who fell short of an Olympic medal. Seeing reigning Olympic champion Jordan Burroughs cling to his family over the arena railing hit me in a way I have never felt. I was there when three-time World champion Adeline Gray suffered a similar fate. Both came up short. Both were crushed beyond measure. But for me, having the opportunity to be there in support, no matter how small, was just as special as being there for the wins.

The 2016 U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling Olympic team preparing for the opening press conference of the Olympic Games. Pictured from left to right Richard Immel, Jesse Thielke, Andy Bisek, Matt Lindland, Robby Smith and Ben Provisor.

If you are wondering what it takes to be a professional in the sports communications world, there is no finite answer. The environment is constantly changing. The people around you will change. It is a roller coaster through and through.

My advice is to live in the moment. Take in as much as you can to further yourself as a professional. Then, take it a step further and think how you can apply the lessons you learned professionally and apply them to your personal life. There will be times of joy, but you will also experience hardship. Don’t be afraid to invest in your job on a personal level. The experiences I have garnered in my four short years at USA Wrestling have impacted me at the core. And it is the small moments I will remember and cherish the most. No matter where the future takes me I will be prepared to tackle all challenges.

Embrace the moment my friends, and make your journey one you will cherish forever.

Immel has been a member of the USA Wrestling communications staff since January 2013 and currently serves as Manager of Communications. He received a B.A. In Journalism from the University of Oklahoma in May 2012 and was a member of the wrestling and rugby teams at OU.

Front Office Sports is a leading multi-platform publication and industry resource that covers the intersection of business and sports.

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