It takes a sharp eye, a supple body and super-quick reflexes to be a top sports photographer. And Kiwi snapper Alisha Lovrich has prepared well for the Tokyo Olympics, Heather Dawson discovers. 

When Alisha Lovrich lines up in Tokyo, it will be the culmination of years of training.

And just like the athletes she’s photographing, the pressure will be on. She has one shot to get it right. There’s no re-run of the 100m sprint if she misses the moment.

“The whole stadium falls quiet, and I can hear my heart beating. It’s total silence except for the odd camera shutter from the crowd. Then the gun goes off, the crowd roars, and you have nine-point-something seconds to get yourself together and get the shot,” the Auckland-based photographer says.

It’s something that Lovrich, a middle-distance runner turned pole vaulter, has been working towards for years. She initially dabbled in sports photography when an injury kept her out of the Auckland athletics championships.

She decided to take pictures of friends at the meet for fun and upload them to social media. Her work was so well received she was invited back with a full media pass, and her sports photography career has snowballed from there.

She’s working in Tokyo as Athletics NZ’s preferred photographer and will be snapping pictures for the Black Sticks hockey teams as well.  

Taking great photos is a sport in itself.

First, there’s having a game plan and knowing the athletes you’re up against. Lovrich walks through how she plays it, capturing both action and emotion.

She uses shotput as an example. “Tom Walsh and Valerie Adams often only need one qualifying throw, so I aim to get the action shot early, because I want to be in a different position for the final.”

Sports photographer Alisha Lovrich has been doing her own training for the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: supplied. 

Just as sportspeople study their opposition to anticipate their every move, Lovrich has learned the best photo position for each athlete. “Tom spins across the circle when he throws, whereas Val glides. For Tom, the best place to shoot from is behind, and for Val, it’s to the side. You get your action shots of the throw, and then it’s about capturing the emotion of the final,” she says. 

Conditioning also plays its part. It takes a good level of physical fitness to carry bulky camera equipment around, and to get into the often-bizarre positions required to nail the perfect shot.

Lovrich credits her pole vault training for making her stronger and more robust to the rigours of her job. (She’s still competing to national level, but when it comes time for the national champs, she’s always on the back end of the lens). 

As well as the physical requirements and technical knowledge of lighting, framing and sporting nous, she actively trains for her moments behind the lens.

“There are apps you can have on your phone which train your reaction time,” she says. “That’s so important as a photographer, so I’m often using Tap Tap, where you have to move your fingers around quickly. It translates to being able to make adjustments on my camera on the go, so I don’t miss a moment fluffing around with my equipment.”

That’s vital, because like anyone performing at the Olympics, there’s a lot of pressure. In between snapping pictures, Lovrich uses a quick rating system on her camera, before sending the best images to a communications team who are in the stands, waiting to send them out to a wider media audience.

“Speed is so important in that whole process. We live in an instant world now, and while it’s hard to compete with the big media outlets, we still have to get it right for sports fans as soon as we can,” she says.

NZ pole vaulter Imogen Ayris clears the bar. Photo: Alisha Lovrich. 

There’s even an Olympic spirit amongst international sports photographers, who build up a camaraderie in the trenches of the photography zone. “People know what country you’re from, and the athletes you’re there for,” Lovrich says. “They push you forward and get out of the way for you to get the shot of your athlete, especially if they know they’re going to medal. It’s very sweet.”

Lovrich believes sporting smarts plays a big role in a successful shot.  “When you’re in sport, you know how to read sport,” she tells. “You know the flow of a game, you know how to read emotions. You can’t predict everything, but you can predict enough to know what will make a good shot.

“When I’m photographing running, I place myself halfway around the bend, because the athlete will run through the line, and then start celebrating as they round the bend to slow down. If you’re shooting from the finish line, you’re only getting their back.”

Among the highlights of her career, Lovrich lists capturing Usain Bolt in his last race at the world championships in London.

“All the photographers are sardined in together, there’s hardly any room. And you don’t risk going to the bathroom,” she laughs. “I’d been there for five hours, capturing [NZ distance runner] Camille Buscomb, who raced before Bolt, and then just stayed in the prime spot.

“It’s that moment where you only have a handful of seconds to get it right, and your adrenalin is firing up. Bolt didn’t win, but he did run through and I got a cool shot. That whole experience, from the athlete himself, to the atmosphere and reaction of the crowd, is probably my highlight.”

Lovrich was also nominated for World Athletics Photo of the Year, with an image of a rainbow-haired Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and her son. The photo made an exhibition in Monaco. “It’s one of my all-time favourite shots, because it’s so cute, but also shows that emotion and humanity side of sport that’s instantly relatable,” she says.

Double Olympic champion sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce with son Zyon. Photo: Alisha Lovrich.

Trips to Doha and London for world championships, to the Gold Coast for Commonwealth Games and Tokyo for the Olympics may sound glamorous, but the reality is far from it.

“Think two-minute noodles while you’re editing and napping on the media room floor,” laughs Lovrich. “The days are long, you’re often not eating or drinking properly because you don’t want to sacrifice your spot to have to go to the bathroom, so you just have to eat when you can.

“You really have to think like an athlete. I wear good shoes and good socks because I’m on my feet all day. I take my roller with me because my back is often munted. I take electrolyte tablets with caffeine in them, and often munch on something like dates with heaps of potassium so I don’t cramp.”

Similar to the athletes, her timeline in Tokyo has to be well-managed. “I started a schedule months ago, based on the New Zealand team likely to be selected. Transport is going to be difficult, and the organisers have limited the number of photographers allowed at any one event, so I had to pre-book my spot for the big Kiwi days.

“I’ve put in for all the hockey pool games as well as Kiwi track and field events, and pretty much every day, there’s something I’m shooting.”

When she’s not vaulting over poles or jumping between sports shoots, Lovrich has found commercial work to help make photography her fulltime job. She works with corporate clients providing everything from headshots to campaign imagery and has also set up an online print shop capturing landscape works.

Alisha Lovrich has the tools of her trade prepared for the Olympics. Photo: supplied. 

She’s even able to relate wedding photography back to sport. “Again, it’s about being in the right place at the right time. You can pre-empt the big moments, the reactions to certain moments. It’s just like sport, but slower… and in prettier clothes.”

Known for her sense of humour, she has a following amongst the athletics community for making her outtakes into memes, often shared by the athletes for a laugh.

Being at a Covid Olympics is a mixture of excitement and duty for Lovrich.

“The thing I love most is the athlete interacting with their closest people, and we won’t get that this time,” she says. “I’ll miss the hugs, the tears, the atmosphere.

“I feel like it’s a privilege because I’m one of the only people in the world who will get to see the action live in person. So I feel a responsibility to athletics fans, hockey fans, and the people of New Zealand to replicate what I’m seeing in the field to show those people back home.”

In doing so, she’ll achieve a childhood dream. “I always wanted to go to the Olympics. I dreamed it would be as an athlete, but I’ll definitely take this.”

Heather Dawson works in communications and has a particular interest in the intersection of sport, business and societal impact.

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