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Backstory of my interview with Rafa Ortiz, published by Outside

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
So here’s how a lot of my work gets its start:

I read an article or a book or I see a photo, and I think: What’s the backstory? and What’s the story that hasn’t been told yet? and What’s missing here? What else do I want to know?

Then, I go off in search of the answer.

The photo that sent me on the search for Rafa Ortiz.

The photo that sent me on the search for Rafa Ortiz.

Last year, I saw a full-page photo of a kayaker launching himself over a crazy-looking waterfall. The photo, taken by Lucas Gilman, was captioned:

“To capture kayaker Rafa Ortiz, of Mexico City, paddling off Washington’s 189-foot Palouse Falls, Gilman set three cameras on tripods and triggered them remotely. ‘I didn’t want to shoot handheld because I was shaking too much,’ says the Denver-based photographer. ‘On 100-plus-foot waterfalls, it’s not like things go kind of bad.’ Ortiz fell nearly four fell seconds and was ejected from his kayak on impact. He walked away unhurt and hopes to paddle off Brazil’s Iguazu Falls in November.”

The caption would have been intriguing enough, but what really caught my interest, compelling me to rip the page out of the magazine and put it into my notebook, was the fact that Rafa Ortiz was a Mexican kayaker… from Mexico City. Mexico isn’t exactly known for having an active kayaking culture, and Mexico City definitely isn’t a place that’s amenable to getting your start as a kayaker.

I wanted to know more.

I suspected there was a whole lot more to tell an audience of American and Canadian readers about Ortiz, who’s gotten a good bit of ink in Mexico, but almost none outside his home country.

I started searching for Ortiz’s contact information and ended up connecting with him via Facebook. As I hit “Send Message,” I wasn’t particularly hopeful I’d ever hear from him. But within days, he’d written back and pretty soon, we’d set up a time to meet. It just so happened we’d both be in Mexico City in September (he travels quite a bit and isn’t home much), so we got together at a diner for an interview.

From the minute I sat down, Ortiz was the ideal interview subject: warm, totally candid, and without any sort of pretension or defensiveness. We spent a couple hours together, ate hamburgers, and then ended up taking a taxi together to Polanco when we were done.

Prior to the trip, I’d reached out to an editor at Outside’s online division to gauge his interest in running the interview. The editor and I had worked together elsewhere, and while that was certainly an “in,” it was by no means a full pass. He said he’d “potentially” be interested and to let him know how the interview turned out once I’d done it.

I knew that it had turned out well. In addition to having dozens of interesting anecdotes, there was an inherent narrative arc to what Rafa and I talked about. There was emotion. And there was the hook for editorial: Rafa was pissed at Outside, which had published the photo and that caption saying he was going to run Iguazu. The editor told me to send him up to 4,000 words.

I spent hours transcribing the interview, which clocked in at 13,000 words. It was agonizing to trim down to 4,000, though it was also a fascinating process. As I listened to the interview and read the transcript, I realized again how much Rafa had shared with me, and I had to be thoughtful and respectful about what not to share, especially since we hadn’t had any overt discussion about what was on and off the record. I also had to be sure that I was editing pieces I felt were important without losing the overall spirit and coherence of the interview.

I’m really pleased with and proud of the finished product, which was published today by Outside Online.


4 responses »

  1. I know this was a huge undertaking for you ~ congratulations on an awesome finished project!

  2. Hey Julie–We’re pleased with it too. Hope we can work together again soon!


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