Notre Dame students work at Rio Olympics
Emily McConville | Monday, August 29, 2016
The U.S. women’s gymnastics team emerged onto the floor of the Rio Olympic Arena and sat down, awaiting the routines of the women’s all-around team competition. Wild applause greeted them, the packed arena and millions around the world cheering the star-studded quintet on.
In the row of seats behind them was senior Payton Erlemeier.
“I was low-key trying to keep my cool, but I was so excited to see them,” she said.
Erlemeier was an NBC Olympics intern, a job she had gotten after working for the network at Notre Dame football games. She arrived in Rio several days before the Games began and watched the city make last-minute preparations.
“It was really cool to see everything come together,” she said. “Some days you could wander anywhere, and then as it got closer to the Games, security got tighter.”
Erlemeier worked primarily at the gymnastics arena. Not far away, fellow senior Noemi Ventilla was volunteering for the press team of the badminton arena.
Ventilla had wanted to work at the Olympic Games since she was 10 years old, when her hometown, New York City, was bidding to host them.
“New York never got the Olympics, but since then it’s been on my radar as something I could do and something I really wanted to do,” she said.
By the time the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro rolled around, Ventilla’s interest in the Games had expanded to a senior thesis on their impact on host cities. She traveled to Rio with a Glynn Family Honors Program research grant, as well as the volunteer position.
She spent 11 days working at the badminton arena, visiting newly-renovated buildings and neighborhoods, watching events and talking to people from all over the world in town for the Games.
Ventilla’s specific job, the result of a nearly two-year application process, was to show mainly Chinese and Japanese photographers of badminton, a popular sport in Asian countries, where to go. She had little work to do at first.
“Once the quarterfinals and semifinals started, a lot more press started showing up and it got a lot more exciting,” she said.
For her thesis research, Ventilla visited the sites of the Olympic events, many of which had previously existed but were renovated for the Games.
“They were really trying to make the Olympics have as little of a negative impact as they can so they were reusing a lot of the stuff they had,” she said. “The place where I was working was a convention center from the ‘70s. It had been there and it will continue to be there.”
Erlemeier worked as a “runner,” on hand for sometimes 10 or 15 hours a day to help NBC commentators, production crew or other network employees. She watched many gymnastics events and said the Brazilian athletes drew the biggest response.
“Whenever any of their athletes went out, the arena would just erupt, it would go crazy,” she said.
In her free time, Erlemeier explored Rio with other interns, including two local students. She would go to other events. She watched Michael Phelps, who grew up not far from Erlemeier, win one of several gold medals.
“Seeing him in person and swimming — it was a really great moment when he touched the wall,” she said.
Ventilla missed swimming and gymnastics but watched events in track and field, fencing, weightlifting, table tennis and, of course, badminton. She also saw the national team of Hungary, where her family is from, play water polo twice.
“I wasn’t going to leave Rio until I saw water polo,” she said.
The Games’ operation was “pretty disorganized,” Ventilla said, but fears over security and the Zika virus she saw in United States media were overblown.
“I’m so glad I went because I saw it with my eyes instead of the eyes of the media, which really helped,” she said. “I think I had a more accurate view being down there than I would have just reading all the terrible things.”
Erlemeier said she never felt unsafe.
“I thought Rio did a better job than people gave them credit for,” she said.
Ventilla said she was continually impressed with the global nature of the Olympics — her fellow volunteers were from Mexico, China and Iran, and two Japanese men gave her the country-specific pins that many attendees were exchanging.
“Everyone was super friendly,” she said. “I feel like the Olympics has this unique ability to make people excited and want to share stories.”
For Erlemeier, the best part was just being there.
“See everything in person, having those moments of when Simone [Biles] finishes and the place erupts, it’s an incredible feeling to be part of something so big.”