“Jobs of the Future” is a series focusing on career paths, local job opportunities, programs, and tales of success that highlight North Bay's diverse job market.
A reporter often must be a researcher, but a researcher doesn’t have to be a reporter.
That’s how Michele Walker describes what she does for a living; gives the reporters the facts through her business Walker Sports International.
“My job is to give them the facts and that’s why the info system is still in use at the games today. The journalists don’t necessarily have all the time in the world to Google stuff and so they can go to the info system, look at the biography, look at the stats and then create their stories from there,” says Walker.
The “games” she is referencing are the Olympic games, an event she has been a part of in some way going back to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain which she worked at as a spotter for CTV’s broadcast.
Walker says she never envisioned she would ever be a part of an Olympic event, but knew she wanted to work in the sports industry.
“I went to Chippewa and I loved sports,” says the North Bay native from her home in Aurora, Ontario.
“When I look back at my high school yearbooks, everyone was commenting on the fact that I was destined to be a Phys Ed. Teacher and I really was thinking that was where my career was headed.”
Walker earned a bachelor’s degree in Physical Education at Western University and also got into a specialized stream of sports medicine, which led her to New Mexico State University where she earned her Master's Degree in Athletic Training and Biomechanics. After coming back to North Bay and teaching for two years at Chippewa a place she says was the basis for two pivotal moments in her life.
“I was in Bill “Benny” Colcock’s geography class as a student. He was a track official at the 1976 Summer Olympic games in Montreal. Well, I was already fascinated with the Olympics by Grade 10 and so I couldn’t get enough of his stories about his experiences at the games. I was like a sponge, just wanting to know everything,” says Walker.
“If it wasn’t for him, who knows. But then I had a teacher from my time at Chippewa and some friends who had gone to an Olympic games and so I just said that I feel I have a bigger contribution to make to sports somewhere. I had no idea what it was though.”
Walker left North Bay and wound up in Toronto without a job, but she stayed with a friend, France Gareau, who had won a silver medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Walker says Gareau gave her the confidence to head over to the Ontario Sports Centre on Sheppard and Leslie and see if they were hiring.
“The only job they had was for a fax machine operator,” says Walker.
“I took the job, and I decided I was going to be the most efficient fax machine operator they would ever hire.”
Walker very quickly pivoted that role into a job as a secretary for the Ontario Volleyball Association, which then helped her in landing a job leading the Female Athletes Motivating Excellence Program (FAME).
“Right away I was introduced to 80 Olympians who were all part of this speaker's group. It was a super important role and I loved it because I was getting to talk to Olympians every day,” says Walker.
With her own company now, Walker writes athlete biographies that get handed out at big events and she says that came about through the FAME program.
“I would go and watch the athletes speak at schools and the teachers would do the introductions. A lot of the time they would just pick a few things off one of the athlete's resumes and it wasn’t very exciting or indicative of who they are. I felt the athletes deserved so much better and so I started writing the introductions for the teachers or the emcees and that’s how my biography writing business got started.”
But it was two former Olympians who set the wheels in motion to send Walker to her first Olympic games.
“I spent about two years at FAME and one of the other people that was involved was Elfi Schlegel the 1978 Commonwealth Games gold medal gymnast for Canada. She was a keynote speaker for FAME and she was also a CTV broadcaster along with Debbi Wilkes, the 1964 Olympic silver medallist in pairs figure skating,” says Walker.
“Debbi is in my office and I get a message that says, ‘call Ralph Mellanby at CTV’ and I asked Debbi ‘who the heck is Ralph Mellanby?’ and Debbi says ‘he’s the grand fromage, call him right now!’ It turns out that Elfi had spoken to the network about me and thought that I would be a good asset to work in television because of my sports knowledge. He wanted me to go to the 1991 Pan-Am Games as a spotter for athletics and volleyball. I got to be on the ground in Cuba for the opening ceremonies and Fidel Castro is standing right beside me, and I’m surrounded by all these amazing athletes and it was just a mind-blowing experience to take it all in.”
In November of 1991, CTV once again called upon the services of Walker for the upcoming Summer Olympics.
“I thought ‘are you kidding me? This is my one chance to go to my one Olympics,’” says Walker.
“They said that I might not get to travel but I thought that was fine because I was still getting to be a part of those games. I worked at the CTV offices with two other researchers and we didn’t have internet so we were faxing stuff back and forth to NBC Sports in the middle of the night and I was basically in a 24-hour working mindset. But it was the best job ever just prepping for the games and I ended up going to Barcelona for the actual games themselves.”
In Spain, surrounded by the best athletes in the world, it was a Canadian sprinter that would become the talk of the games and create some memories that would stand out for Walker.
“That summer was the return of Ben Johnson. I knew him quite well based on the other positions I had held. The network decides they want to interview him, but he won't talk to anybody, except me. But I’m not an on-camera person I’m just the researcher. So, they end up tracking him down in Germany and send me with a cameraman and a producer to go shoot a segment with Ben Johnson,” says Walker.
Johnson eventually made his way to Barcelona, but wasn’t staying in the athletes' village. CTV arranged for Walker to pick him up and bring him to the broadcasting centre. Walker says when they got to the security checkpoints it was Ben that didn’t have the right accreditations.
“We can’t get the van past this point with Ben in it, and I wasn’t going to just tell him to get out and find another way in. By this point, he had the windows down and there were swarms of people coming over to the van to say hi and take his picture,” she says.
“I’ve never been in the presence of someone who attracted so much attention. There were people everywhere, and I said to the security guards, ‘look if you don’t let us in, you are going to be responsible for his well-being.’ So, they let us through.”
Walker was then asked to work in the mix zone where the reporters do on-field interviews just after the athletes compete.
Walker says, “I had never worked in the mix zone before and I was the only female in there. It stinks, it was hot, it wasn’t a pleasant area to be in. So, Ben runs, and then he stops right in front of me and I’ve got a live camera ready to talk to him, but the print media break down the fencing and just storm him and it scared Ben and he just ran off. I had no idea what to do and we lost the interview and I said to producer Scott Moore ‘I am never doing that again,’ and he said ‘oh yes you are,’ and I’m glad he did, because working mix zone is my favourite thing now. It just got better the more I learned the ropes. I was pretty green at the ‘92 Olympics, but it’s just an amazing atmosphere to work in now.”
Walker says she stayed in touch with Johnson over the years and recalls a story of going with him to the Toronto Reference Library to help him find some items a European documentary team needed for a story they were doing on Johnson.
“I’m pulling out hundreds of files of articles and record sheets on him and just flipping through them furiously trying to find what he needs. Ben has a file, and he is slowly reading every word on every page. After a while, he turns and looks at me and he says, ‘I was pretty good, wasn’t I?’” says Walker.
“It still makes me want to cry because that was the first time he had really sat down and read an article about himself. He couldn’t believe how the writers in the papers gushed about him back in the day and how they put him on this pedestal of how great of an athlete he was. Even now when I run into him, he’s still very kind to me. I’m very empathetic to him and his situation and to this day every single person in that race in 1988 has either tested positive or admitted to illegal substances except for Robson da Silva and so he really was a scapegoat. He has gone on to have a decent life, but there’s always that question of, ‘what if.’”
Walker used to wonder what if she got to be a part of an Olympic Games and that question was answered in ‘92. From there she continued to land gigs with networks for a variety of important behind-the-scenes roles. It’s a position that has evolved from using fax machines to using the internet and social media.
“Now that you have the Internet you can almost never be done with a biography as long as the athlete is still alive. You have to learn where the boundaries are and know when you have enough,” she says.
“When I started trying to get information on athletes using their social media, I would go on Twitter and spend about an hour just reading stuff. I then realized that I didn’t need to know everything. I didn’t need to know that Adam van Koeverdan just went and had a burger. I was just saying ‘I have to stop or else I’m never going to be finished,’ and that’s what you have to do.”
Walker has now worked at over 45 different large-scale events including Formula 1, the G8 Summit in 2010, and the 100th Grey Cup.
“In my broadcast life I’ve worked with Ron McLean and Chris Cuthbert and Scott Russell and it was just an amazing experience to be able to feed them live information or to tell Ron some tidbit one day and to hear it come out of his mouth three days later more eloquently than the way I gave it to him. It is just a fun experience,” she says.
According to her website: Walker was awarded the commemorative medal struck by the Royal Canadian Mint to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada for her work on the 1993 World Indoor Championships in Athletics in Toronto. It was awarded to Canadians who were deemed to have made a significant contribution to their fellow citizens, to their community, or to Canada.
Walker says, “Someone did once say that I always over-deliver but my comment to that was, ‘I don’t know what the story is.’ I don’t know what each individual journalist is going to write, or think is worthwhile. Everybody doesn’t need everything, but everybody needs something. I give you the menu, and you take what you need from it.”
If you have a story suggestion for the “Jobs of the Future” series, send Matt an email at [email protected].