Editor’s note: This Q&A with new SCNG Sports Columnist Mirjam Swanson is from the Sunday Aug. 21 edition of the Game Day with Kevin Modesti newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
When Mirjam (pronounced “Miriam”) Swanson was asked to replace the retired Mark Whicker, she knew those are big shoes to fill.
“Whicker is one of the really great ones,” Swanson said in an email exchange. “Such a great writer and so smart and so knowledgeable about so much. I’m telling myself I’m not replacing him, I’m just over here writing my columns.”
She wrote that her reaction to getting the job quickly went from “Uh-oh, what am I getting myself into?” to “LETSGOOOOOOO.”
The Anaheim native’s first newspaper gig was with the Adelanto Bulletin, where, in junior high, she compiled weekly Little League roundups.
“Probably poorly,” Mirjam says, “because my dad tells me the editor there let him know he didn’t think I had a future in journalism.”
Proved him wrong!
Swanson began her writing career in earnest at the University of Oregon Daily Emerald, and has covered “everything from Olympians and Oscar winners to city council meetings and freestyle motocross legends and a million random, interesting things in between” at five news outlets before working the NBA and WNBA beats for the SCNG papers from 2018 until her debut as columnist in July.
This Q&A is edited for brevity.
Q: Is there a story behind the less-common spelling of your name? Is it a headache — or kind of cool — if people are challenged by that?
Swanson: I’m named for the lady – a 6-foot red-headed Dutch woman who lives in Amsterdam, in the coolest apartment in the world – who helped bring my parents together in Holland once upon a time. So that’s cool. Also, it’s cool that it’s a conversation-starter/ice-breaker. A substitute teacher in junior high once pronounced it “marijuana,” and that actually won me points with that particular crowd.
Q: A column brings out a writer’s unique perspectives and personality. Do you think you see the sports world differently in some way, for some reason?
Swanson: Don’t we all, whether we’re sportswriters or not? Some people loved Pau Gasol. Others didn’t appreciate him nearly enough. It’s just that now I have the opportunity to tell people why they’re wrong! … which isn’t actually what I’m setting out to do. My favorite thing about journalism is that we get to flat-out ask people what they think and how they feel about things, that we have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to learn about their perspectives on the world. Getting people to tell you their story so you can share that story, that’s my jam.
What I’ve been hearing myself say the past few weeks is that, for me, column writing is another kind of storytelling. Instead of removing myself from the equation and operating as an invisible conduit between that story and the reader, I get to be the one telling the story around the campfire, in my own voice. First person vs. third person.
Of course, how I tell it, and what I tell, will be informed by all my life’s experiences – playing ball with the neighborhood kids on the street on hot summer days in Victorville; conversations (practice interviews) I used to have with softball teammates about their lives; finding that I started seeing athletes all as somebody’s baby once I came back from maternity leave the first time … and on and on, and on and on. Certainly all the thousands of stories people have shared with me along the way have shaped my perspective too. As will the stories I get to hear and share next week …
Q: What led you to sportswriting? It seems as if some people become sportswriters because this is how they can be close to sports, and others find that it’s the best outlet for their journalistic talents.
Swanson: Yvonne van Gennip. One day in third grade, my (Dutch) mom woke me up like this: “A Dutch girl won a [speed skating] gold medal!” I had only the vaguest idea what that meant, but clearly my mom was geeked about it. A day or two later, same thing: “The Dutch girl won another gold medal!” My family wasn’t a sports family, but it made a real impression on me that my mom – who is generally an upbeat lady, anyway – was floating around the house, so happy about this Dutch girl who kept winning gold medals.
That Dutch girl’s third race was broadcast on TV that Saturday, so we all gathered to watch it with my mom. The only way she had to record was an audio tape, so that’s how she recorded what became Yvonne’s third gold medal … and me falling in love with sports. It’s a seven-minute race, and at the beginning of it I’m an interested observer, going along for my mom’s sake. By the end, I’m screaming my little head off, willing Yvonne forward with every fiber of my being, desperate to see her succeed and, in the end, absolutely elated and thrilled to have witnessed it.
My mom’s family and friends clipped every article they saw on Yvonne (and there were many) and sent them to us, where my mom would translate them all to me. So although my dream of becoming a speed skater and going to the Olympics was short-lived (my excuse: there wasn’t a lot of ice in Fontana), it was replaced by another goal, because I had an epiphany: I already loved writing and I wanted to go to the Olympics and be around athletes like Yvonne – and that was a job!
So from 9 years old, that was it. And, amazingly, it hasn’t disappointed. Hasn’t paid real well either, and it’s been a lot of “work,” but what fun.
You just never know what’s going to alter the trajectory of someone’s life, somewhere.
Q: When I was younger, I was slightly ashamed that I consciously imitated writers I admired. Then I came to find out that they’d started out consciously imitating writers they admired as they developed their own styles. I won’t ask if you ever imitated other writers, but I do wonder whom you saw as role models on your way up.
Swanson: Who were those writers? Please, recommend. I’ll probably want to steal from them too.
For me, as a kid, I learned the language of baseball from listening to Al Conin broadcast Angels games, used to memorize Shel Silverstein poems and read Gregg Patton in the San Bernardino Sun religiously. Found Gary Smith while I was devouring every issue of Sports Illustrated at the library where my dad worked, which is where I’d wind up after school and softball practice every day, and that discovery blew my mind: Sportswriting as art!
Was so taken by former Stanford guard Jamila Wideman when I watched her play one day at McArthur Court in college I looked her up and read a few articles, which led me to her dad, the renowned author John Edgar Wideman – and immediately I became an even bigger fan of his.
Following Jamila to the WNBA led me to Don Bosely, who covered the Monarchs – with such humor and joy – for the Sacramento Bee. The Washington Post’s Chuck Culpepper brings similar energy to all his work, and I read him as much as possible, but especially if I’m having a bad day.
Picked up a book on sale at an airport once by Claire Messud and fell in love. Katie Heindl, a wonderfully daring basketball writer in Toronto, hipped me recently to Miriam Toews and I’m just digging into her powerful catalog.
And I often go back and revisit N.R. Kleinfield, the former New York Times metro/feature writer who made meaningful, revelatory long-form poetry of chronicling the “ordinary.”
Q: By my count, in less than a month of columns you’ve already written about subjects of interest to Rams, Chargers, Lakers, Dodgers, USC, UCLA, Sparks, LAFC and Angel City fans. Your Angel City piece was about the unique vibe at women ‘s soccer games in L.A. If that isn’t the best show in Southern California sports, then what do you think is?
Swanson: I don’t know! I’ve checked in on all those teams and haven’t even scratched the surface of all that’s going on around here. Aren’t we lucky, though? But I haven’t even been to an LAFC match yet – or a Rams game! Check back with me … in a year?
Q: Dodgers or Rams? Which team has the better shot at a championship this season?
Swanson: LAFC! In the head-and-shoulders-above-the-competition department, those fellas might have a couple inches on even the Dodgers and the Rams.
But that’s dodging the question. So I’ll say Dodgers, only because we’ve seen them succeed so deep into this season already, they’re on pace for their best season ever, they’ve already done this much – despite pitching injuries and slumps from some key hitters. And they’ve been so dominant for so many regular seasons in a row now, as fickle and fluky as playoff baseball can be, they just feel due for another championship.
Meanwhile the Rams are just approaching the starting line and we can’t know what the season ahead has in store for them or how they’ll handle it. But it’ll be fun to find out.
So why not both? Or all three?
Q: Readers envy sportswriters because we get to go to games all the time. How much are you looking forward to your first trip to Piscataway, N.J., for a big UCLA-Rutgers game?
Swanson: Easier on the sportswriter than the athlete. I’d love to go. Tell Tom [Moore, our sports editor] I want to go. Might have to buy a winter jacket first. But I’m down.
It has dawned on me that the new farther-flung Big Ten destinations will make it tougher – and more expensive – for SoCal-based news outlets to cover USC and UCLA. Alas, don’t think that was high on the list of considerations for the people making the decision.
Q: Thanks for doing this. I hope we can check in again during the busy fall sports season.
Swanson: For sure. Let’s goooo!
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