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One Long Reporting Trip Around the World

One Long Reporting Trip Around the World

While growing up in a small town on Louisiana’s Cajun prairie in the 1950s and ’60s, I longed to see the world. I read the National Geographic magazines that my brother received with a gift subscription every Christmas. We had Beatles albums, of course, but we also played a disc from National Geographic that featured the greatest hits of the humpback whale.

In my fourth-grade geography class, I became enamored with exotic-sounding places such as Reykjavik, Lapland and the Zuider Zee. And I wanted to know what the hell tapioca pudding was.

I still haven’t visited any of those places, but I have tasted tapioca pudding. And, upon arriving in New Zealand this month to cover part of the Women’s World Cup, I’ve now reported from 56 countries in my career as a sports reporter, the last 30 years of which have been at The New York Times.

My parents wanted me to be a doctor. I wanted to travel. Sportswriting seemed like the perfect passport.

I’ve been fortunate enough to cover 13 Olympic Games, eight men’s World Cups and six Women’s World Cups. Pursuit of soccer took me on a 15-hour boat trip up the Amazon and a 27-hour train ride from Moscow to the Urals. Along the way, I crossed the Berlin Wall, stood on the Great Wall of China, joined elite runners atop a 13,000-foot volcano in Mexico and descended a mile underground into a South African mine.

Who wouldn’t love being paid to cover international sporting events in London, Paris and Rome? But, perhaps given the duck-and-cover era of my youth, I’ve often been drawn more eagerly to places of Cold War vintage or international disaster, places isolated and once or still forbidden. And one place, East Germany, that no longer exists.

I’ve visited Hiroshima and written about a trip to Chernobyl during the 2012 European soccer championships that took place two hours south, in Kyiv. In 2010, I was given a tour of Nelson Mandela’s former jail cell on Robben Island off Cape Town. My guide was a onetime inmate who directed the infamous prison’s soccer league and wrote an entire math textbook on a roll of toilet paper.

In 2015, I ran a marathon in North Korea. My tour group was accompanied by a minder from the sports ministry. He knew of Dennis Rodman, a favorite of the authoritarian leader and basketball fan Kim Jong Un, but had never heard of LeBron James.

In 2018, while the opening match of the men’s World Cup took place in Moscow, I watched from a military bunker on the Ukrainian border. The game played on one of three televisions in the bunker, while low-level fighting between the Ukrainian military and Russian separatists played on the other two.

I’ve made a dozen reporting trips to Africa, where you can be guaranteed of seeing something you have never seen before. In Angola, a man asked if I would carry $10,000 through customs for him (I declined). In Ethiopia, I saw rows of table soccer games evenly spread out along an empty stretch of highway, no one within miles to play these ghostly amusements.

After growing up with air-conditioning during Louisiana winters, I’ve been attracted to stories in some of the world’s coldest climates — the surf spot above the Arctic Circle in Norway, the soccer tournament among Indigenous youth in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Last year, I reported from Longyearbyen, Norway, the world’s northernmost town, where climate change is happening faster than any other place on the planet.

Winter, too, in the Southern Hemisphere is what attracted me, in part, to New Zealand as a reprieve from the broiling summer at home in Philadelphia, where I live. Queenstown, on the South Island, is a winter sports hub. In between soccer reporting, I took a couple of bracing runs along Lake Wakatipu as the temperature hovered around freezing. And I booked a helicopter ride to Tyndall Glacier in the Southern Alps, where it was 7 degrees Fahrenheit in glorious sunshine but comfortably windless above 6,000 feet.

During my trip to the glacier, it became apparent to me that I was surrounded by change:

Climate change in Queenstown, where layers of glacier snow are striped, like gritty icing inside a birthday cake, with ash that carried across the Tasman Sea from the 2019-20 Australian bush fires.

Change in women’s soccer, where all of the previous World Cup champions were eliminated by the quarterfinals and a first-time winner, either England or Spain, will be crowned on Sunday.

And career change, now that The Times is disbanding its Sports desk and moving members of our team to other departments.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever return to this part of the world. But Reykjavik remains high on my fourth-grade bucket list.

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