It turns out that one of the best ways to prepare for the seemingly endless movie extravaganza that is the Seattle Film Festival from mid-May to early June is to have competed in the Olympics.
“Seattle is really like the Olympics of film festivals,” says Sky Christopherson, who would know, having been an alternate for the 1996 and 2000 U.S. Cycling Teams. “It’s the oldest, the highest attended, the longest.”
Adds his wife and fellow Olympian Tamara Christopherson, who competed at the 2000 Sydney Games as a sprint canoer, with a smile, “And just like the Olympics, it’s three weeks long.”
As it also turns out, the festival couldn’t have found better torch bearers than the Christophersons to usher in its opening weekend in the Emerald City with the wildly crowdpleasing “Personal Gold: An Underdog Story,” a pulse-pounding chronicle of the U.S. Women’s Olympic Cycling Team’s quest for medals at the 2012 London Games. At a time when it was difficult to simply field a competitive crew in the wake of the Lance Armstrong doping scandal that left the rest of competitive cycling high and dry as far as support was concerned, the film shows how Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed, and Lauren Tamayo overcame the odds to impress in London and rejuvenate an entire sport that had fallen on hard times in the process.
Their story alone as a ragtag group made up of specialists who excelled in individual events but weren’t used to competing together as a team would be compelling enough, with the drama of watching the cyclists grow into one cohesive unit. However, in the film credited to Tamara as a director and Sky as a producer, you see how technological advances in health monitoring and good old fashioned human ingenuity help the women go beyond what anyone thought was possible, given well-funded competitors and roughly three months in Mallorca, Spain to bond as a team.
The Christophersons’ perspective is unique, not only because they capture the rigors of being an athlete preparing for the greatest test of their abilities in a way that perhaps only another athlete could, but because they were intimately involved in creating the unusual strategy to get the very most out of Bausch, Hammer, Reed and Tamayo with the help of a makeshift support team that included sleep scientists, biologists, data collectors, neurogenetics experts and even a former Navy SEAL commander. The out-of-the-box approach pioneered by Sky produced spectacular results, captured in all its thrilling glory by Tamara on film and shortly after the premiere of “Personal Gold,” the two spoke about why they decided to turn on the camera, the commonality between sports and filmmaking and making the exciting possibilities of sports science understandable and accessible to anyone.
How did this become a film?
Sky Christopherson: It was not premeditated. We’re athletes. We’re not filmmakers by trade, but the moment we realized this could really be a story was when Lance Armstrong and his teammates were banned from competing in the 2012 London Olympics. We found out about it weeks before the media did and it really shifted the medal hopes onto this little group of underdog women that we were there helping and videotaping, just to give them feedback about their training. When that happened, we realized this is a lot bigger than any of us and it had become a historical thing happening [in front of us], so we thought, this has to be shared with the world.
Before asking more about the film, you assemble this team to help these cyclists that only makes sense when you see them working together. You’ve got biologists and physicians, which are understandable, but how do you even think to invite a Navy SEAL commander or a sleep scientist into the fold?
Tamara Christopherson: They had these gaps. They had a coach [Ben Sharp], but they had all these other gaps that most other teams in the world [don’t] because the U.S. is the only country in the world that does not support their Olympic teams financially with government dollars. All other countries have a Ministry of Sport that fills all those necessary roles. So what we were able to do is look at [was] “Okay, so what roles are missing?” Leadership — there’s a huge gap in leadership and that’s where the Navy SEAL came in because that’s their forte.
Sky Christopherson: And [that] encouraged Jennie [Reed], the athlete to step up and take a leadership role.
Tamara Christopherson: We looked at what are the great teams doing? They’re tracking sleep, but they’re spending a million dollars doing it. So we [wondered] if we could do the same thing but maybe use a few consumer devices to hack our way into what they were doing. We were trying to find a more efficient way to get at that same thing. It’s a total do-it-yourself, duct-taped together kind of thing.
Since you were working with the team as part of their support, was taking on filming them a complementary role or were those different roles ever at odds with each other?
Sky Christopherson: Sometimes at odds.
Tamara Christopherson: The physical work of documentary filmmaking … being athletes helped make that work because you’re running all over the place. Sometimes you’re crouched down just waiting for that shot. Sometimes you’re sprinting over to get the other shot. As athletes, it was very natural. Plus, it’s such an amazing time to be an independent filmmaker if you have a story and you know roughly how to use the technology. We had probably five GoPros, which were particularly helpful because we just put a bunch everywhere. We duct-taped a bunch to the bicycles. That’s how we were getting all this footage. It was when we got home from London when the real work started.
Sky Christopherson: Two digital SLRs and one audio recorder, and that’s it. That was enough to make an entire film. While sometimes we really yearned for a camera crew to help out, we found that because we trusted the athletes and they trusted us as well, we were able to get really intimate moments. I don’t think they would have let a camera crew in when they’re brushing their teeth [or other] very personal moments.
You also seem to capture moments about the process of training and the experience of racing that I’m not sure filmmakers who didn’t have the background you do would’ve. Did that athletic experience give you insight into how to make this?
Sky Christopherson: I think so. When you’ve been there and you’ve had that Olympic experience and all of the hard work and the pain that goes into it, you really know how to see that and where those moments are going to be — when their face looks a certain way, when they’re almost falling off their bike. You have to be there at the right time and place. Of course, there are hundreds of hours of footage of bad shots, too. [laughs]
Tamara Christopherson: What we really wanted to capture for viewers was the stuff that NBC doesn’t show. The really gritty, nasty training days. We really wanted viewers to come away from it, even the people who may never have stepped onto a bike, to feel at the end like you had trained for the Olympics with the music, the anticipation, especially the competition moments. The experience that we had definitely fed into that.
Tamara mentions how the real work started after London, which I imagine had to do with the editing. It’s relentlessly paced. Was it difficult to get to a place where it was that energetic?
Tamara Christopherson: We were really lucky to be in Hollywood and find a team to help us shape that. We had a great editor, Jacob Kindberg. We had a great writer. James Lockard. and we had a great composer [Christian Davis]. Of course, we were heavily involved with the edit, but it was combining all that together.
Sky Christopherson: We were very much underdogs as filmmakers, just like the women were as athletes, and we found that team of people in Los Angeles that were really passionate about the Olympics, so they wanted to help and were willing to work with our budget. That team was really key.
Was filming logistically difficult, given that all the team members were in different locations before traveling to Mallorca for training?
Sky Christopherson: It was tricky in that Spain doesn’t seem to have much bandwidth on its internet. We were constantly trying to get connections.
Tamara Christopherson: It’s was like dial-up speed. Skype really saved the day a lot of times. Big time. And [there’s a cool story with] Datameer, the company who volunteered to pull all the data together because, as we found out later, their CEO [Stefan Groschupf] had been in Germany training for the Olympics when he was a young kid. We didn’t know that until very recently when he finally told us. So it was the power of the Olympics to move people to do things that they wouldn’t normally think of doing and it was cool to see that. It’s a real huge international effort just to support these ladies.
Was conveying the science behind what these women were able to accomplish difficult?
Sky Christopherson: That’s a funny question because we wanted to get very in depth with all the details. That’s the stuff we love geeking out on…
Tamara Christopherson: The first cut was 36 hours with that story. Really long.
Sky Christopherson: A little bit long. [laughs] The writers said, “You got to get this down a little bit.” We also did about 28 test screenings over the last year. Audience feedback was really great because some people are saying, “We don’t understand some of these details,” so [the question became] How do you bring this to the broadest audience and have them really get the essence of it?
Tamara Christopherson: We were using “An Inconvenient Truth” as a model. It was the first movie that brought that conversation to everybody. I think there’s a tremendous desire to manage your own health, but it just takes a little bit of the human side of that conversation to inspire people who would not normally put a Fitbit on and when you see it really changing the athletes, not only their experience, but winning a medal, that makes it more interesting.
You also broaden the spotlight from the women cyclists to their supportive husbands and how this is really a team effort. Why was that important for you?
Sky Christopherson: When we arrived and we saw those staff shortages as a result of 10 years of men’s professional cyclists dominating the sponsor and funding focus, the husbands were crucial in filling some of those roles. Brandon [Reed] is the biggest sports fan you’ll ever meet and he’s so enthusiastic. In Seattle, he’d be the 13th man…
Tamara Christopherson: [laughs] That’s the 12th man.
Sky Christopherson: I’m thinking with Brandon he’s a whole next level.
Tamara Christopherson: Yeah, he takes a whole other number.
Sky Christopherson: But he’s a lifelong supporter of Jennie and we had to have him wear different hats. He was not only a cheerleader, but he became the mechanic and a sports scientist and a physical therapist and a cook, getting the nutrition right for Jennie. All [the husbands played all] these different roles.
Tamara Christopherson: Yeah, we [also] wanted to really show the human side of the Olympic story. You that think every athlete who’s on that team is like Michael Phelps or Lindsey Vonn or these spectacularly wealthy athletes. But the majority of U.S. Olympians are just like these girls. It’s a family effort. Oftentimes, it’s crowdsourced and it’s a community effort just to get to the Games, so it was cool to tell that whole side of it that usually gets missed.
Did you actually feel like you were reflecting your own Olympic experience in documenting the one these women had?
Tamara Christopherson: Actually, it was just the opposite. When we were athletes, it was right after the ’96 games in the U.S. The funding at that time was very high and we actually had it a lot better than they did. That’s why when we showed up, we were like, “How could it possibly be worse than 10 years earlier?” So this was less about our story and more about what we’d seen happen as a result of the commercialization [of the sport] and the shift to the Lance Armstrong crowd, the bad seeds. All of the amateur money was really shifted to those guys.
As we see now, it was a total fraud. Just like [Wall Street Journal reporter] Reed Albergotti in the film says, a lot of people were making a lot of money and no one wanted to say anything. Fortunately, the CEO [during that time] has now resigned at U.S. Cycling. There’s a new Board. As a result, maybe [because] of this film and bringing attention to this, they’ve shifted most of the amateur funding to the women’s side of the sport because women — in mountain bike and track — were the only athletes that came away with medals at that Olympic Games. All the dopers were kicked out.
Have you actually been showing this to influencers within the cycling community before the premiere?
Tamara Christopherson: Yeah, we did a private screening for the head of sport performance at the United States Olympic Committee. All he ever really gets from sports is an annual report, so his experience of what was really going on was very different on paper than what he saw in the film. At the end of the film, he was crying and having the same emotional reaction as pretty much everyone does to the film. Right after that, he went back to Colorado Springs, the [U.S. Olympic Committee] headquarters and they fund a roof on the velodrome, a bunch of international races and a bunch of athletes. All of a sudden, there’s 50 girls at the training camp able to start training for the Olympics. He really thought, “Okay, here’s a huge opportunity for medals and I’m missing out,” so I think it had an impact on him. There’s a lot of young women coming into the sport now who maybe never would have known about it. It’s cool to see that shift. And in sports in general, I think they’re looking for ways to utilize technology [efficiently], so that large dollars can be more effectively spent.
So now that you’ve done both, which is the biggest endurance test – making a film or training for the Olympics?
Tamara Christopherson: Filmmaking is very physical. You have to have great stamina, you have to be very focused. All the skillsets carry over each way, but I would say filmmaking is much more difficult.
Sky Christopherson: It is a marathon and not a sprint, and we were both sprinters.
Tamara Christopherson: It’s like 10 marathons. But as far as the teamwork aspect, it’s the same stuff. You have to inspire people to become part of your team. But the subjective nature of the success is much different than our sport. As athletes, you give us a finish line and say, “This is where your endpoint is,” and we go for it. With film, it’s much more nuanced and subtle. Our win for this film is really to get as many kids globally to see it and to be inspired to get into sports. If six million little girls across the world can see this film, that would be a huge win for us.
Sky Christopherson: Hopefully, it’s also far beyond just a niche cycling documentary. It’s about health and people finding their own personal goal. That would be the win for us, a worldwide personal gold.
“Personal Gold: An Underdog Story” does not yet have distribution. It will play at the Seattle Film Festival once more on May 19th at the AMC Pacific Place at 7 pm. Future screenings and dates are listed here.