ESPN’s “Journalism Showcase” – March 17, 2017

Shikha’s coach helps her get her skates on before heading onto the ice.
Cameraman Matt Knapp films Shikha as she gets help putting on her skates. (Courtesy Special Olympics Bharat)

This Saturday, March 18, ESPN will begin its coverage of the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. As part of its plans, ESPN’s Features group traveled around the world in recent months to discover and share some of the most fascinating and inspiring stories of the athletes competing in Austria.

Coordinating producer Kate Jackson and senior managing editor Esther VanHuystee are two (vital) members on the team who helped pull these stories together.

“We’re really lucky, we have an incredible partnership with Special Olympics International and they have some people there who work really closely with local delegations. They are a huge help in researching stories locally,” Jackson said. “Unlike athletes and coaches in the NBA, the NFL or MLB there’s not an incredible amount of information out there. As producers, we really have to dig. It’s a much more grassroots type of research and producing.”

VanHuystee explained that producers needed to be ready to roll with whatever came their way – from weather, to visas to discovering a whole different storyline than what they originally set out for.

You can’t just choose the stories that are easy to tell. You have to really tell the important stories, no matter how hard they are to get to.”– Kate Jackson

As part of that process – which at times required some creativity and adaptability – ESPN’s features group shot on four different continents and everywhere from downtown Amsterdam to the rim of a volcano in Costa Rica.

In fact, Jackson says the team discovered a story in India but getting the crew there presented a larger obstacle than they ever imagined.

“We found this incredible story about a figure skater named Shikha, from India. Many parts of India, including where she is from, are not highly developed. People don’t have many of the luxuries afforded to many of us. And like many parts of the world, large parts of India are not particularly accepting of people with intellectual disabilities,” Jackson said. “So when it was clear that there was something different about Shikha, she was sent away to be raised in a special residential school. That’s a hard story to tell, but we feel educating people about it is important.”

Jackson says that the visas to travel to India were extremely delayed and arrived just a few days ago.

“Our team is on the ground in the country right now,” she said. “You can’t just choose the stories that are easy to tell. You have to really tell the important stories, no matter how hard they are to get to.”

Both Jackson and VanHuystee agree that although the Special Olympics is one of the more challenging projects they’ve worked on, it is by far the most rewarding.

“We want [viewers] to come away rooting for the athlete and gaining a better understanding of people with intellectual disabilities,” said VanHuystee. “As figure skater Sharita Taylor says in her piece, ‘I’m just like you.’”

“We feel we have a responsibility with the Special Olympics,” Jackson said. “All of us feel it is a calling to do the very best that we can to tell these amazing stories and do our part to help change the world for the better.”

Producer Danny Arruda, reporter Chris Connelly the Special Olympics team in India. 
The ESPN crew poses for a photo with a group of Special Olympic athletes who had just concluded a Holi Festival celebration. (Courtesy Special Olympics Bharat)

Lessons and Inspirations with senior managing editor Esther VanHuystee and coordinating producer Kate Jackson:
What did you learn from working on these stories?
Jackson: “We’ve done more than 20 features all around the world and the singular theme we hear from every single athlete is that they were bullied, ostracized, made to feel different or like they were an outsider. The Special Olympics is the very first time they ever felt like they belonged.”

VanHuystee: “I learned, personally, how these athletes that we’ve profiled have dealt with the challenges they have been faced with. They’ve found forgiveness or a way to use the hurtful things that have been said to them or about them as a source of motivation. They never let it stop them.”

What story was most inspiring to you?
VanHuystee: “We are telling very compelling stories, each one impacts you differently. We are amazed by their spirit, their forgiveness in the face of horrible cruelty and prejudice, their sense of humor and their drive to excel and to win like any other athlete.”

Journalism on Display