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How I Write: Into the Light

A breakdown of how I wrote my award-winning story on a college swimmer who battled mental illness to win an NCAA championship.
How I Write: Into the Light

Last year, I won two awards for a story I wrote about Maddy Banic, a University of Tennessee swimmer who won a gold medal at the 2019 NCAA finals—her first and only national championship, in her last competition as a collegiate swimmer, after battling through years of mental health issues.

With the focus being put on mental health in sports after tennis champion Naomi Osaka recently withdrew from the French Open to focus on her well-being, I wanted to revisit this story, which will live on as one of my favorites I've written.

Hopefully it also provides you, reader or aspiring writer, with a model for how approach writing centered around just one person (what those in the biz call a "profile").

From start to finish, here's how "Into the Light" came together.

The Assignment

I was assigned the story about four months after Banic had stood on the podium at NCAAs. The win had resulted in some local and national media attention, and my editor, Cassandra Sproles, was interested in a profile of Banic for an upcoming issue of a college magazine.

Banic had not only culminated her college swimming career in the most remarkable way. She also spoke openly about the mental health issues she overcame to get there. After suffering a panic attack and withdrawing from the NCAA championships two years earlier, she nearly committed suicide, entered rehabilitation, and was subsequently barred from rejoining the Tennessee swim team for months.

A story of overcoming obstacles is one we can all relate to. It was my job to connect all the dots and find out: Why does this matter to a reader?

The Interviews and Sources

I tell my journalism students there are four fundamentals for good nonfiction writing or reporting: accuracy (don't get the story wrong), objectivity (tell the truth), versatility (follow the story wherever it leads; tell it however you have to), and access.  

It is nearly impossible to write a great story without direct access to the person you're writing about.

You need to meet with them. Observe their movements. Hear their voice. You need to experience them as a real person, not just someone you've read about online or exchanged emails with.

Banic was accessible. She had just graduated from the university with a degree from the college which was publishing the magazine. She was in Knoxville training for the Olympics (before the games were postponed to this summer).

I typically let a story subject choose where we meet for our first interview. It tells me something about them. In this case, the ideal location would've been the pool. But, looking back through my emails, I must've not thought of that at the time. So instead we met outside the Starbucks at the main campus library. Even though it wasn't the ideal environment, I was still able to observe and record Banic and scribble notes as we spoke casually.

From our conversation, I identified secondary sources. When you're interviewing, always pay attention to the parts of a person's story that someone else could speak to further (e.g. if a team captain says they never saw themselves as a leader, ask their coach if they saw the person as a leader or when they starting seeing them as one).

Banic had told me how she fell in love with Tennessee during her first recruiting trip:

“The first time I visited UT, the team felt so much like family. By the time I went on my third recruiting visit elsewhere I was just like, ‘No, this isn’t Tennessee.’ My heart kept calling me back here.”

So I asked to speak with the coach who had recruited her, watched her initial climb, the fall that followed, and her second attempt to reach the summit.

She told me she had isolated most of her team in the depth of her struggles with mental illness, and it took a while for them to trust her again. So I asked to speak to a friend and teammate who had been there before, during, and after.

She told me how, after they welcomed her back and unexpectedly voted her team captain her senior year, she relied on what she had learned in a leadership course she had taken to build her leadership style. So I asked to speak one of the people who led that course, who had also previously been her academic counselor and a mentor to her.

The Story

In an essay on writing he wrote for the Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland, my favorite sports writer Wright Thompson said:

Every single movie ever it’s the character confronts an obstacle and is changed by it. That’s it. That’s what all stories are.

We call this the hero's journey.

Unless you've got full creative control of what you do, not every story you write will fit this mold (for more helpful info on dramatic structure, see Freytag's Pyramid). But, Banic's story did. She was highly recruited out of high school. She had the makings of a champion; her first year at Tennessee she was an All-American and had won five conference medals. She had a dramatic fall and climb back to glory. In our interview, her coach called it "an incredible arc," and the story that had left the biggest impression on him of all the kids he'd ever coached.

I chose to open my story with an anecdote based around a relevant image that would be easy for the reader to visualize:

Hours before she stepped onto the platform on the second day of the 2019 NCAA Swimming and Diving championships, Maddy Banic sat by the warm-up pool playing back every second of the day before in her head. She had failed to qualify for the finals of the 50-yard freestyle, her best individual event. Now she was again out at the preliminary stage, this time in the 100-yard butterfly.

And I got to the action moving quickly. Two paragraphs later:

Banic had fought too hard for it to end like this. The depression diagnosis her freshman year; the panic attack at the 2017 NCAA finals that saw her scratched from two events and hospitalized; the near suicide attempt months later in her apartment; the three-month NCAA-enforced separation from a team that wasn’t sure it wanted her back anyway. This was Banic’s final national championship as a collegiate swimmer, her last chance to leave with a medal—not for herself but for the teammates who took her back and voted her their captain in the fall of 2018, entrusting her to lead them.

But, the opening section does not close with the gold medal. I wasn't writing immediately after the event. Everyone already knew she had won by the time my story was published. I focused on what eventually became more important: she had chosen to use her victory and the platform that came with it to advocate for mental health awareness in collegiate sports.

This sport is something you do—it’s not who you are,” Banic says. “You can step aside and then come back. You don’t have to give up. You don’t have to hide that you’re struggling. You can seek help.”

The second big section of the story took the reader back in time to learn more about Banic's background; I went into detail about her struggles and everything leading up to NCAAs.

The third section focused on leadership; how she had stepped up and led her team when they needed it most. All she had learned about leadership culminated in her decision to not give up going into the last event (a relay, the only team event in swimming) and push her team through to the finish line.

The last section was the "Where are they now?" section of the story. Since I was writing months afterward, I needed to include how Banic's advocacy was making an impact, the recognitions she had received for speaking up. I wanted to close, as I usually do, with a powerful quote that wrapped everything together. How did she do it? How did she overcome? Is there a lesson for the reader?

When she struggles, Banic likes to look at the tattoo on her forearm. “Your will Your way,” it reads—a testament to her spirituality. She got it just before Christmas 2017, a few months after she had left treatment and was adjusting to life back at school. She wanted to be reminded every day that there is a reason for everything that happens.
“It’s what helps me hold on through the hard days and the disappointments,” Banic says. “I may not like where I am—my anxiety, being in treatment—but something good will come out of this pain.”

If you found this breakdown helpful, let me know. If you want to work with me to learn how to write impactful stories about people, email me: briancanever (at) gmail (dot) com.