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Two North County locals document Olympic history

North County residents Donald Miralle and Chris Cote were on top of the action in Tokyo

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Watching the Olympic Games unfold in Tokyo this summer was undeniably an exciting — albeit surreal — experience for spectators worldwide. We were finally able to see these elite athletes enter the spotlight after a long period of uncertainty, and as a global community we came together with a united thread: wishing the best for our countries’ competitors while simultaneously being in awe of their commitment to excellence.

Here in San Diego, certain athletes became household names, as we cheered on the likes of Encinitas locals including skateboarder Bryce Wettstein and swimmer Michael Andrew, San Diego native and trampolinist Nicole Ahsinger, track cyclist Jennifer Valente, La Jolla’s renowned golfer Xander Schauffele, and BMX racer Alise Willoughby, to name but a few.

But what might be somewhat lesser known to many is the local talent that traveled to Japan not to compete, but to document the historic event and to report on and celebrate the sports they are so passionate about. There’s La Jolla’s Fernando Aguerre, president of the International Surfing Association, whose 20-plus-year efforts finally resulted in making surfing a Summer Olympic sport. And of course, there’s the legendary Tony Hawk, widely regarded as the most influential skateboarder of all time, who was there to support the sport he was so vital in shaping.

Two Leucadia locals were also there behind the scenes: one an Olympic veteran of sorts, the other, a first-timer. Renowned photographer Donald Miralle has covered the Olympic Games ten times (this time for National Geographic). Chris Cote, on-air announcer for World Surf League, was brought on as master of ceremonies for this year’s inaugural surfing competition. 

Photographer Donald Miralle with Tony Hawk at Narita International Airport

From a logistical standpoint, COVID-19 certainly presented numerous hurdles for members of international media traveling into a country that is still on lockdown due to a global pandemic. “Japan is where the U.S. was a year ago, experiencing spikes in cases but [with] a low vaccination rate,” says Miralle. “We had to submit activity plans to the Japanese government for approval over a month before the Games. We had to have two nasal pharyngeal COVID tests within 72 hours of our arrival flight, and again before we departed. We could only move from hotel to venue and back on special media buses and taxis for the first two weeks. We had to book and reserve shooting spots at every venue and competition we attended, which made prior planning essential. It was like no other Olympics before because of all the measures that were in place to protect the athletes, media, and volunteers.”

Typically, Miralle is used to shooting in a packed stadium with an electric atmosphere. “In contrast, these competitions took place in completely empty venues, which was bizarre,” he says. “I just know from a photographer’s standpoint, not having the crowd presence in the stadiums definitely changed the environment at every venue and how we shot it. But at the end of the day, the athletes’ performances transcended and eclipsed the empty stadiums. We were doing this massive event in such a weird time in our history, and for a moment the world came together and enjoyed these athletes and their sports. Witnessing new world records being set and documenting the new historic Olympic sports were just a few of so many great moments I was privileged to capture.”

With the addition of surfing and skateboarding, it was only natural that there would be an expanded presence from North County residents. When asked about whether there was a sense of community camaraderie at the Games, Miralle replies, “I had two Encinitas athletes who I consider friends competing in Tokyo: Michael Andrew in swimming and Bryce Wettstein in skating. I was very excited to photograph them both during their competitions, and made it a point to find them afterwards to congratulate them.” 

Team USA’s Caeleb Dressel took Tokyo in Godzilla-like fashion, breaking the world record and winning the Men’s 100M Butterfly. Dressel brought home an Olympic best five gold medals in all of his swims. Photo by Donald Miralle/National Geographic

For Chris Cote, the Olympics’ inaugural surf competition emcee, the magnitude of the moment really hit him when he announced the names and countries of the surfers. “To see their faces and the pride they carried with them when their names were announced was incredible,” he says. “The Olympics is so much more than what you see on TV; you’re literally watching dreams come true for many of the athletes, but you’re also seeing years and years of hard work and high hopes dashed within a span of minutes. The production teams, logistics people, volunteers, and Japanese hosts impressed me beyond measure. I’ve personally never worked so hard at an event, but the people I worked with worked twice as hard. It was inspiring to see that firsthand.” 

Chris Cote, master of ceremonies for the Olympics’ inaugural surfing competition

A career highlight thus far, Cote says that announcing the first ever Olympic medal ceremony for surfing is something he will never forget. “I feel like in my small way, I was part of history, and that feels good. I was so fully focused on the moment and getting it right that after my last announcement, I just broke down and cried tears of joy.”

Adding to that the fact that he was there to see a sport he’s so passionate about finally take the stage at this global level, Cote says, “I love surfing and I’m a huge fan of the surfers who competed — I know how hard they all worked to get there and how much they sacrificed and went through mentally and physically. To share this sport and these athletes with the world was an absolute honor and privilege. Plus, the surfers who got medals are all friends and really good humans, so to see them achieve the pinnacle of sport was monumental.”  

Featured Photo Team Japan wins the Men’s Épée Team Final during the Tokyo Olympics. Photo by Donald Miralle/National Geographic
Image Credits Donald Miralle and Tony Hawk: Photo by Donald Miralle, Chris Cote: Photo by Chris Cote

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