From oil rigs to Olympic village: Glenwood Springs resident takes to the camera for Beijing Olympics
Trevor Swank looked out of his Beijing hotel room window at the Great Wall of China.
Despite its close proximity, he couldn’t visit.
Earlier, when his flight from Tokyo touched down, Beijing Capital International Airport was also nearly empty.
In the meantime, every Chinese worker he did encounter wore full hazmat suits, a precaution taken to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“For the most part,” Swank said, “they shut down the city.”
Welcome to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Swank’s experience as camera operator at the Olympics was like stepping on to a different planet, he said.
No one could leave the hotel complex unless they were on a shuttle to the venue. All necessary amenities — restaurants, markets — were instead an elevator ride away.
Hotel life wasn’t all bad, however.
Many times the hotel bar brimmed with 30 or so Canadians and Americans depleting the Tsingtao beer supply. And when money exchanged hands, the bartenders sprayed down and sanitized the cash before depositing it into the register.
“Everybody’s wearing hazmat suits,” he said. “From beginning to end, all the hotel staff. Everybody’s wearing hazmat suits.
“I’ll never complain about wearing a mask again.”
Accompanying China’s strict COVID-19 practices is its Communist identity, and this reality made a profound mark on Swank.
“They do their job, no questions asked. Whatever it is, doesn’t matter, that’s what they do,” Swank said. “They were sanitizing snow as people were walking.”
But Swank didn’t come to China for sightseeing. He was there to point a camera at some of the best winter athletes in the world.
Oil to powder
Swank’s path to the Olympics was anything but expected. Years earlier, Swank was working as a roughneck near Grand Junction when he received a phone call that changed his life forever.
On the other line was a cousin who went to film school.
“He got tied in with a guy who was doing X Games, and at the last second they needed a guy in LA because he was going there and somebody dropped out,” Swank recalled. “So he called me and said, ‘Hey, you wanna come work this job?’”
Swank put oil pumping on hold and ended up living in Los Angeles for a week to work as an X Games camera crewman.
A decade later, Swank found himself flying to Beijing to work as a camera operator in the 2022 Olympics. The experience provided him a front-row seat to see some of the greatest winter sports athletes in modern history.
“I was lucky in the sense that I started off in a big show like X Games,” he said. “The normal route, you kind of break your way into the industry doing college football and high school football and you work in local markets.”
“I just kind of fell into this national TV show.”
Swank’s first major international gig came in 2018 working as camera assistant in Pyeongchang, South Korea — the site of the XXIII Olympic Winter Games.
But after he hopped off a charter Air Japan flight on Jan. 29 to Beijing Capital International Airport, it became the first time he was the one officially pointing an $80,000 piece of equipment at skiers flying above his head.
His employer? Olympic Broadcasting Services, a subsidiary established by the International Olympic Committee that feeds footage to rights-owning broadcasters across the globe, including NBC.
“If I knew the full magnitude of how many eyes — you know, 20 million viewers, 50 million, whatever it is — I would have been nervous,” Swank said. “But it didn’t affect me.”
In Beijing, Swank woke up every morning, had some coffee, braved the -22 degree cold, took the bus to the mountain, had crew meetings with the director, went to the dry room to put on ski boots and, from there, went to his position.
“I’m a handheld camera operator, so I would ski down to my camera spot,” Swank said “I’d take my camera, get off the lift and I’d ski down to where I’m shooting that day.”
Many top Colorado athletes competed in the Beijing Olympics this year — Aspen’s Alex Ferreira, Basalt’s Hanna Faulhaber. Vail’s Mikaela Shiffrin.
But standing behind a handheld camera at the start gate in the Xiaohaituo Mountain Area was Swank.
Swank won’t forget the Latvian course workers he met, or the athletes’ coaches he chatted with at the start gate.
“Mostly about how terrible the snow is,” Swank said. “How cold it was because it was incredibly cold. And when it came close to the gametime, ‘How do you guys feel? Are your skiers going to do good?’”
During the 2022 Olympics, Swank said all events took place over nothing but man-made snow.
“It felt like styrofoam,” he said.
Life as a camera operator has its ups and downs, Swank said.
When the going’s good, an operator typically makes up to $450-$500 per day working 8-10-hour shifts. In addition to decent pay, Swank gets to travel the world, meeting all sorts of new people.
But there are also breaks in the action.
“You can go through some lulls where there’s no work at all,” Swank said. “Especially when COVID hit and stadium sports stopped, a lot of us stopped working and we were like, ‘What’s our future like?’
“Because we’re all freelancers.”
Health insurance is also provided out of pocket.
Trevor’s sister Andrea Swank, however, knows her brother is right where he belongs.
“He was always the goofy, comedian-type. The very outgoing one,” she said. “He was doing Backstreet Boys for the talent show in fifth grade.”
Andrea said when her brother first decided in 2012 to work X Games in Los Angeles, she thought it would be a quick, easy job to make money. Instead, it turned into a life of becoming a camera wiz and filming the Olympics.
“I told everybody about it while he was there,” she said. “Even people that didn’t even know us said, ‘I can’t believe your brother’s there. That’s pretty sweet.’”
Though it’s a bit of a ways off, there’s a good chance Trevor returns to the Olympics, camera in hand. This time, it’ll be the 2024 games in Paris.
“I remember a camera guy I was working with. He said to me, ‘Trevor, never get into this industry,’” Trevor said. “I was like, ‘I think I want to.’”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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