The other life of Ollie Williams
Written by: Herbert Krabel
Date: Wed Mar 06 2013
Slowtwitch: You are still involved in sports, but it isn't about the Olympics or World Championships any more.
Ollie Williams: No, itís not. Life has changed considerably since London 2012. Iím in the middle of a year-long career break, volunteering with aboriginal Canadian children and families in the Northwest Territories. Instead of reporting on sport, now Iím coaching football in a tiny community of around 500 people, 250km from the next town, in temperatures of -20C or below most mornings for the past few months. When you think that well over 100,000 people were in the Olympic Park at any one time during the Games, living in a village of 500 thatís so isolated is definitely a big change.
ST: How did you come up with that idea to move that far Northwest in the first place?
Ollie: My other half is Canadian and it hasnít been easy spending time on the same continent. Early in 2012 we found the Frontiers Foundation, a charity working with aboriginal families in the Northwest Territories, and that seemed like a great way to explore a part of the world we both love (Iím fascinated by all northern places, culture and scenery), stay together in the same place for a while and hopefully do something helpful at the same time.
ST: How did you meet?
Ollie: We met at the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010, while I was reporting for the BBC and she was working for Canadian broadcaster CTV.
ST: I guess you are now about half way into that 10-month volunteer mission. Is the time flying by?
Ollie: It is. Thereís plenty to do each day Ė I run around 20 hours of football* in our ridiculously small gym each week, plus I help out with all kinds of other events, literacy activities for the kids and organizing other sports for them to try like archery, snowboarding or skiing. And we have a few big trips as well. We took 20 kids aged eight to 17 on a yellow school bus for 1,300km down to Edmonton for a football tournament between Christmas and the new year. The bus broke down twice en-route, in temperatures of -33C. At one point I was sitting in the frozen bus, using a USB internet stick to Skype a local airline and get a quote for flying all of us to Edmonton instead. They wanted $23,000. We decided not to do that.
Ollie: This will sound ridiculous but if theyíd said $10,000, we might have done it. It was a panicky situation. Luckily, a passing snowplough driver was able to get into the engine of the bus and make it work. By that point, the cold of the metal bus floor was seeping into my boots, and those boots are certified to temperatures of -50C. The sandwiches we had packed froze. Inside the bus.
ST: You had mentioned that your old job at the BBC is being held for you. Were the folks you worked with there surprised to hear that you had this mission in mind?
Ollie: I actually kept it quiet from most people there until midway through the Olympics, because we all had plenty of work to do and I definitely had more than enough to think about Ė plus I needed all kinds of documentation in place, so I didnít want to mention it till I was absolutely sure I had the green light. So yes, I guess a few people were surprised when weíd sit in the media dining area at the Olympic Park and Iíd casually mention I was leaving the BBC in a weekís time to move to the Northwest Territories. But people were also incredibly understanding. Lots of my colleagues had taken similar breaks and they had nothing but positive things to say.
ST: Well, for those who don't know, what exactly was your role at the BBC?
Ollie: For the last three years, leading up to London 2012, I was an Olympic sports reporter for BBC Sport. That meant writing for the BBC Sport website, reporting and producing for BBC TV (primarily for two series entitled British Olympic Dreams and World Olympic Dreams, on BBC One) and occasionally popping up on radio. And a lot of tweeting. The great joy of my job was that I got to focus, almost exclusively, on the actual sports and athletes rather than the big-picture political stuff that comes with any Olympics. Other people did the interviews with the politicians and examined Locogís annual reports in minute detail Ė and those are important things to be doing Ė but I always wanted to be out at the events, meeting the athletes, telling their stories and I got to do that.
Ollie: Definitely fewer spectators, and Iím the only media at most of our events with my little camera. We have a blog documenting our time here, so I try to take photos, record video or edit together podcasts when I can. Occasionally we get our photos on the front cover of the local paper Ė the Deh Cho Drum Ė if that counts? Iím not sure about less attitude, though. The kids here are tougher interviewees than most athletes I came across.
Ollie: Alcoholism and drug abuse are huge problems in northern aboriginal communities, and with that comes a condition known as foetal alcohol syndrome or FAS. Thatís the product of heavy drinking during pregnancy and it can have wide-ranging effects on children, from severe behavioural problems to developmental issues, memory trouble, and difficulty grasping abstract concepts or language, among many other things. Itís not at all nice and a lot of the kids I work with exhibit FAS to some degree. On top of that, home life for many kids here is horrific, to put it mildly. I canít repeat some of the stories Iíve heard. Suffice to say some kids here donít get a lot of sleep, for one reason or another, and have seen a lot of things. The brilliant thing is theyíre all adorable, despite the various problems they have Ė they can be tough to work with some days but theyíre such a bubbly, crazy, entertaining and persevering bunch that itís inspiring. And they all love football, so thatís become my life for the time being.
ST: Have you picked up any new sports and or skills?
Ollie: I went for my first snowmobile ride last weekend. There is a huge amount of snow on the ground here and a friend kindly let us borrow his machine for the day, so we took it out across the frozen river, through our small corner of the boreal forest and up the hillside to a fire tower (a lookout point for forest fires in the summer). The views were incredible and learning to pilot a snowmobile was terrifying but fun Ė we only crashed a few times, and the snow is so soft that injury wasnít an issue. Iíve also done a lot of snowshoeing and tried cross-country skiing for the first time, plus Iím suddenly an archery coach, which was fairly unexpected.
But the main things Iíve learnt are all to do with kids Ė managing them, interacting with them, coaching them, taking them on trips, all stuff Iíd avoided like the plague till I got here and now Iím learning more about that every day.
Iíve also learnt how to best marinade and cook a wild bison steak. Vital knowledge for my return to Salford this summer.
Ollie: Iím a cricketer back home but, as you can probably imagine, thatís gone by the wayside while Iím in Canada. I think the nearest cricket pitch is 3,000km from here. I left my bat at home which is a shame as Iíd love to have shown it to the kids, who have little to no exposure to the game. Thereís actually an aboriginal game here called Dene baseball (the Dene people being the local inhabitants), which is a cross between baseball and cricket with some similar rules.
ST: Speaking of the bus trip and the mechanical trouble you faced - is it kind of normal for you now to deal with whatever is thrown at you?
Ollie: Yes. Things change very quickly, here. Planning is an art form anywhere in the world but here it acquires a Jackson Pollock flavor. Kids donít turn up, kids turn up at the wrong times, parents go missing Ė as in literally missing, for days on end Ė and occasionally whole events simply donít transpire. Two weeks ago we were hoping to stage the first competitive ice hockey game in our tiny village for more than two decades. Two hours before the start, the driver for the other team (coming from 300km away) called us to say the whole team were ďtoo drunkĒ to travel so they werenít coming. That was the end of that. Two decades in the making.
ST: Do you think they were prematurely celebrating their possible win?
Ollie: If only we could blame it on that. Alcoholism is endemic here. But this strain of alcoholism, the way it works, has such a devastating effect on the way some of these communities function (or donít). And itís not as though Iíve ever felt remotely threatened by it, in a physical sense, while Iíve been here Ė Saturday nights in British town centers are far, far worse than the streets of Fort Liard Ė but itís the effect that alcohol has behind closed doors, on families and kids. I see the end product of that in my football sessions and at the schoolÖ and in that hockey game, which was sad because the cancellation made ďtoo drunk to travelĒ seem like a normal, everyday excuse to the kids. I had to explain to them that they need to be angry about that, they need to feel let down.
Ollie: Well, we both turned up sober for it. Does that count? We decided we wanted to get married while we were in the Northwest Territories and, since thereís nobody to issue a marriage license in our village, nor a marriage commissioner to perform the ceremony, we had to do it while we were somewhere bigger. Those chances donít come along often so, in the space of about a week, we managed to arrange for it to happen while we were on other business in the town of Fort Simpson, north of here. Just us, a justice of the peace, and two witnesses, standing on the banks of the frozen Mackenzie River. The whole ceremony lasted seven minutes.
ST: That is certainly a different spin on a white wedding, but did you ever imagine that you would get married in such cold and unforgiving conditions?
Ollie: The wind was the worst part. The temperature itself was only something like -10C, which is perfectly bearable by the time youíve been through -30C or below, but the wind chill nearly took our hands off when it came to the exchange of rings.
ST: After that maybe everything should be possibly easier.
Ollie: We thought about tying a couple of cans to the back of the huge Ford F150 truck weíd borrowed from a friend to get us there Ė maybe with ďJust marriedĒ etched in the dirt on the back window Ė but we were so cold, we threw ourselves in the truck and drove the four hours home. Our honeymoon was a football coaching clinic back in the village that weekend. Oh, the romance.
Ollie: I move back to Britain in June or July this year and then itís back to Olympic life at the BBC, preparing for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, although Iím hopeful that weíll get to cover a lot of summer sports too. As for the rest of today, Iím off to a drum dance and feast in the community hall. Moose meat beckons me.
ST: Will you miss moose meat once you are back in the UK?
Ollie: Itíll be a sight harder to get hold of, thatís for sure (and itís not easy here). It goes very well in stew.
ST: Anything else we should know?
Ollie: Donít lick anything metallic when the temperature drops below -40C.
You can follow Ollie Williams on Twitter via @olliew
* When Ollie talks about football here, he really means what North Americans call soccer.
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