L.A. Times photographer shares an Olympic journey: Robert Gauthier

Cecile Landi presses her forehead to that of Simone Biles.
U.S. gymnast Simone Biles is congratulated by coach Cecile Landi as it becomes evident she will earn a medal in the women’s balance beam.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
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Photographing the Olympics is a uniquely challenging experience. The variety of sports, venues, athletes and shooting positions compels photographers to dig deep into their metaphorical toolboxes to create impactful images.

Witnessing humans experience their greatest highs or deepest disappointments multiple times a day ratchets up the intensity of our shooting sessions. Capturing such a moment effectively in a single image is my job. And, spoiler alert, it’s fun!

Without going into the minutiae of shuttle buses, crowded sidelines, television camera operators blocking our views of the athletes, the Tokyo Olympics was like none of the others I have covered. No fans in the stands, the unseen threat of the coronavirus cast a heavy pall over the competition.

But the competitive spirit of the athletes and the determination of the local staff and volunteers won out. This collection of photos represents my visual journey. Whereas I usually plan thoughtfully before each event, I came into these Games open-minded and let the moments come to me: a sort of search for predicted outcomes and styled images.

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I hunted for peak moments. If they happened with a clean background, all the better. Simone Biles embraced by her coach, Cecile Landi, after an intense week of fear, disappointment and scrutiny is my favorite image of the Games. Given the backstory, it’s equal to 1,000 words and yet still an intimate moment.

The relief on Biles’ face, the warm embrace of her coach, Landi’s face mask, the American flag. The image notwithstanding, this is one moment I’ll remember a long time.

On the lighter side, I found myself on the field of play during an off day at the skate park as Tony Hawk put the first-time Olympic sport to the test. Photographing a legend up close — so cool, right?

Tony Hawk crouches upside-down, one hand holding him up and the other holding his board to his feet.
Skating legend Tony Hawk, to promote skateboarding at the Olympics, takes part in a practice at Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Two martial artists grapple while upside down and poised on their heads.
Yeldos Smetov, right, and Tornike Tsjakadoea battle for the bronze medal in men’s judo.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Other images resulted in being in the right place at the right time. Men spinning on their heads as they compete in a judo final. Carli Lloyd dealing with the apparent end of a Hall of Fame career inside an immense, empty soccer stadium. Basketball player Breanna Stewart missing the ball and smacking the face of Australia’s Marianna Tolo.

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Carli Lloyd sits on a soccer ball on an empty field.
Team USA forward Carli Lloyd sits alone on the field long after losing a semifinal match against Canada.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
As she leaps, Breanna Stewart's hand is planted in the face of Marianna Tolo.
Australia’s Marianna Tolo is hit in the face as she and U.S. player Breanna Stewart chase a loose ball in the women’s basketball quarterfinal.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
In the water at the side of the pool, Regan Smith's jaw drops.
U.S. swimmer Regan Smith reacts after learning she’s won silver in the women’s 200-meter butterfly.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

There were hundreds of photographers at these events. Quite often, the same moment captured by all of us looked strikingly different. This was the case with unexpected surprises, as when U.S. swimmer Regan Smith reacted to her silver-medal win in the butterfly with a look of pure amazement.

Even contrived photos can become visual surprises. During a break at the swimming venue, I noticed divers practicing nearby. While I was packing my gear on the swim deck I noticed my line of site for the springboard offered a chance at a clean, striking image. A dozen attempts later, the image below popped up on the screen of my camera. I didn’t know what it would look like, but the result was satisfying.

A man's face is clear and the rest of his body a blur, with the Olympic rings in the background.
After a morning session of swimming preliminaries and finals, divers practice for their afternoon competition.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

More than satisfying to a photographer at the Olympics is capturing “the agony and the ecstasy” of a particular sport. New to the Olympics, speed climbing is a blast to watch but a challenge to shoot. I realized I was covering a bunch of athletes staring at a wall. Thanks to the intensity of French climber Mickael Mawem and U.S. climber Nathaniel Coleman, the story was told as they rappelled down the wall — after the race.

Mickael Mawem and Nathaniel Coleman are suspended by ropes next to a climbing wall.
Mickael Mawem of France shows joy after beating U.S. climber Nathaniel Coleman in the speed climbing final.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Heart, focus and grit.

Providing another unique angle on the Olympics are the rings. Some won’t value a shooting position unless the action can be framed by five circles, stacked horizontally — a clever framing device and one I exploited at the freestyle BMX competition. U.S. rider Justin Dowell flips and spins his handlebars. He’s lined up nicely, but what about that middle ring? No worries, his front tire will fill in nicely.

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Justin Dowell is upside down on a bicycle with the Olympic rings in the background.
Justin Dowell spins his handlebars as he flips during his first run in the men’s freestyle BMX finals at Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The same goes for U.S. gymnast Sunisa Lee on the parallel bars. Her eyes are focused on the task of spinning and flying. In a split second, it all lines up.

I like the two images shown below for much the same reason: Despite their disparate nature, I feel they convey the same message — heart, focus and grit.

Takuya Kai is Team Japan’s catcher. He’s outgoing, expressive and a true hustler. When he scored the go-ahead run against Korea, he raised up on his knees and screamed out in victory. When I look at this image, I see a uniform caked in sweat and dirt, clenched fists providing the force he needs to scream after an exhausting game.

Sunisa Lee lifts her legs as she hangs from a bar.
U.S. gymnast Sunisa Lee performs on the uneven bars. She earned a bronze medal with a score of 14.50.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Takuya Kai, kneels, covered with dirt, shouting with his arms above his head.
Team Japan catcher Takuya Kai celebrates after scoring from first base in an Olympic semifinal game against Korea.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

I hunt for peak moments.

U.S. beach volleyball star April Ross has won silver and bronze Olympic medals in the past, and her pursuit of gold was well reported this year. On an oppressively hot day, Ross, along with partner Alix Klineman, battled Switzerland in a semifinal match. Ignoring the heat, humidity and constant flow of sweat, Ross showed her heart, and I photographed it. Like I said all along: This is fun!

April Ross as she bends over, dripping sweat.
April Ross pauses during a beach volleyball match, a heart pendant dangling from her necklace, at Tokyo’s Shiokaze Park.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)