Updated: February 16, 2014 at 2:07 pm
In the teeming sidelines of the Olympics, where world-class photographers jockey for plum spots to capture the Games' defining moments, a lapel pin can open many doors.
Gazette photo chief and veteran Olympic photographer Mark Reis learned that important lesson in the trenches at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.
"That's when I got it - that I couldn't do it on my own," said Reis, who began covering the planet's premier athletic event for The Gazette in 1996 at the Summer Games in Atlanta - an experience that nearly overwhelmed the then-38-year-old journalist.
As the hometown newspaper of the U.S. Olympic Committee and 20 national governing bodies, The Gazette is one of the smaller mediums credentialed to cover the event. In Atlanta, Reis found himself elbow-to-elbow with staffers from Sports Illustrated and the New York Times.
"I believe I was in over my head covering my first Olympics," Reis said. "I thought it was me against all those other photographers. What I learned at later Olympics was those are the people I need to succeed."
In his 28 years with The Gazette, Reis has witnessed more Olympic events in person, through the lens of his cameras, than most Americans have seen on TV. This month's Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, makes eight Olympics.
"As photographers and journalists, we like to be where it's at and then go to readers and say, 'Look at what we have to show you.' The Olympics is 17 days of being where it's happening," Reis said. "It's easily the hardest work I've ever done, but it's top of the list for the most rewarding."
By all accounts, Reis, 56, is a genial sort, soft-spoken and easy to befriend. Odds are he won't correct you if you mispronounce his surname "Reese" instead of "Rice."
"He is probably the most personable person who I've ever known and an invaluable source of advice," said Gazette photographer Jerilee Bennett, who teamed with Reis to cover the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. "But when Mark is covering a big event, like the Olympics or Broncos, he is completely focused. When he takes a grip or assistant to a Broncos game, they are worn out by the end of the day."
The value of lapel pins
In the lightning-paced, 24/7 context of Olympic media coverage, a photojournalist's free time is best devoted to a quick meal and a power nap, not networking. That's where the pins come in.
Before leaving Colorado Springs to cover his third Olympics - the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney - Reis designed a commemorative lapel pin celebrating the event and bearing The Gazette's logo. Olympic pins are a hot item among collectors and traders. They're also goodwill tokens that can serve as powerful social currency.
Reis took a batch of pins to Australia and handed them out everywhere he went - to spectators, security guards, locals and other members of the media corps.
"It's a good way to connect with people. You hand them out to make friends, and that could end up coming back and helping you do your job better," Reis said.
The pins helped make peace, and then some, when he was confronted by two uniformed police officers after wandering into an off-limits area near the Sydney Opera House while scoping for a prime spot to photograph the upcoming triathlon. Reis explained who he was and offered each officer one of the custom pins. The officers' demeanor instantly warmed. Not only did they allow him back into the verboten area, they later sought him out to share valuable insider tips and to request more pins for their buddies at the station.
"I've always said I wouldn't do an Olympics without pins," Reis said. "I never seem to have enough, though."
Comfort with the unfamiliar
The son of mission workers, Reis was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and spent his early years overseas in Europe and Africa. Those experiences inspired an inquisitive nature and comfort with the unfamiliar.
"I think that had a lot to do with why I became a photographer. Living in different countries and being dropped into different situations made it a natural fit," said Reis, who was fresh out of Iowa State University with a degree in journalism and mass communications when he took a job at the Colorado Springs Sun in 1981. When former Gazette owner Freedom Communications bought and shuttered the competing daily in 1986, Reis was one of two Sun photographers offered positions at The Gazette. By then, he was married to his college sweetheart, Wendy, and raising two daughters. He was thrilled at the chance to stay in town.
"In my career, I've had a lot of fortunate things happen to me. One of those is being able to be a photographer in Colorado Springs," said Reis, who welcomed his first grandchild in 2012. The following year, he was named director of photography at The Gazette.
Reis' career highlights aren't limited to the Olympics. He's captured iconic images and logged experiences to which only a privileged few can lay claim. In 2004, he spent 10 days in Sri Lanka covering the aftermath of the devastating tsunami. He's worked five Super Bowls and won numerous awards, including 2009 Regional Photographer of the Year from the National Press Photographers Association.
Those unexpected moments
Being on hand to witness the unexpected Olympic moments - at precisely the right place and right time - remains a personal career highlight.
Reis captured the moment of victory as American Rulon Gardner beat previously undefeated Russian champion Aleksandr Karelin to earn the gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in Sydney, one of the more stunning upsets in the history of the Olympics. He was mat-side at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing when Henry Cejudo, a Coronado High School graduate, defeated Japan's Tomohiro Matsunaga to become the youngest Olympic wrestling champion in U.S. history.
"It's great to be there when Michael Phelps is winning his umpteenth medal, but it's the unscripted moments, the surprise medals that are really great," Reis said. "For the athletes, their emotions are right on the surface. What a privilege it is to be there witnessing and recording it."
And to think it might not have happened.
"When I came back from Atlanta, that was such a difficult experience for me that if someone came up to me afterward and said, 'You will never cover another Olympic Games,' I probably would have hugged them and said, 'Thank you,'" he said.
Fortunately, that's not how things turned out.
Two months after returning from Atlanta, Reis' editor informed him that he was on the list for press credentials for the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Inwardly, he cringed. Outwardly, he said, "Thank you." He went on to earn the prestigious Gold Prize from the Olympic Media Association for his coverage of those Games. The prize: A fully paid trip to Sydney in 2000.
"Every Olympics since, I've gone thinking it could be my last," Reis said. "Now, I can't get enough."
The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, marks the eighth Olympics for photographer Mark Reis. Here’s a look back at his favorite memories from the previous seven.
• Atlanta 1996 — The gold-medal match in Greco-Roman wrestling featured Colorado Springs resident Matt Ghaffari and Russian Alexander Karelin. Ghaffari lost and, as the Russian national anthem played, I remember him wiping tears with a handkerchief bearing the Stars and Stripes. It was the first time I realized what a loss or win at the Games can mean to an athlete.
• Nagano 1998 — The highlight was watching 15-year-old American Tara Lipinski win the ladies’ figure skating gold medal.
• Sydney 2000 — I went to the gold-medal Greco-Roman wrestling match between Russian Alexander Karelin and Colorado Springs resident Rulon Gardner expecting to see Karelin win gold. Instead, I witnessed one of the bigger upsets in Olympic history.
• Salt Lake 2002 — At the opening ceremonies, I watched the “Miracle on Ice” hockey team from 1980 light the Olympic cauldron together. I also vividly recall American Apolo Ohno paying tribute to his mother as he stood on the speedskating medal stand.
• Athens 2004 — Being in the birthplace of the modern Olympics was incredible. Modern venues were mixed with centuries-old, historical monuments.
• Torino 2006 — One of my favorite moments was witnessing American Apolo Ohno win a gold medal. It was his second, and we all learned to appreciate the thrill of short-track speedskating.
• Beijing 2008 — There were so many memories. The opening ceremonies took my breath away — easily the biggest spectacle I’ll ever see. I also remember the emotionally charged gold-medal victory for the U.S. men’s volleyball team. Coach Hugh McCutcheon’s father-in-law had been stabbed to death as the Games began.