Julie Donaldson began the morning of her birthday as she’ll begin every morning during the Olympics: with a 3 a.m. wake-up call. The Comcast SportsNet anchor then hopped on a 3:40 shuttle from her Connecticut hotel to NBC Sports’s Stamford, Conn. headquarters, where her 12-hour shift began at 4, and promised to last more than 12 hours.
Monday, though, brought at least one unexpected birthday treat: a brief nap on a green room couch, in between some of the 10 to 12 updates a day she’s delivering for NBC’s online coverage. Tonight promises even more excitement.
“I’m going to go out to dinner, but it’s going to be the early-bird special,” Donaldson told me between hits Monday afternoon. “Unless you want me to be miserable tomorrow, I need my sleep.”
Donaldson, it goes without saying, was not in any way complaining about her current gig, which includes 21 straight days of 12-hour shifts in a part of the U.S. that turns out to be more wintry than Sochi. The CSN anchor has been freelancing for both NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network for several years; she eagerly jumped at the chance to be a part of the network’s Olympic coverage, which required CSN Mid-Atlantic to fill her normal hosting shifts for three weeks.
“They didn’t want to hold me back from an opportunity like this,” she said. CSN “is very supportive of all this extra work I do. They want me to succeed, and the better I do, the better the station does.”
It’s just that Donaldson’s Olympics would not be filled with atmospheric Black Sea moments or life-changing cross-cultural connections as much as middle-of-the-night alarms, around the same time she usually falls asleep after anchoring a 1 a.m. show in Bethesda. Her first two-to-three minute hit goes online at NBCOlympics.com by 6 a.m. She, her producer — Wally Bruckner! — and their team of writers and researchers monitor the games throughout the day, producing 10 to 12 additional updates as events end and news happens. This requires a basic comfort with every Olympic sport, the pronunciation of scores of unfamiliar names, multiple mid-day reapplications of makeup, and virtually no time for anything but eating and sleeping.
“I probably wouldn’t have known it was Monday — or my birthday — if people didn’t tell me,” she joked. “The biggest thing when you’re working 12 to 13 hours every single day is trying to make sure you stay fresh, because I can’t afford to have mental lapses. I really can’t. You’re doing 10 or 11 of these a day, and if my brain isn’t functioning, I have a whole crew of people that are not functioning with me. To do something like that for 21 days, I’ve never done anything like that before.”
(A word about Bruckner; the longtime WRC anchor is working his fifth Olympics for NBC, but he’s doing it off camera as a producer. Donaldson said Bruckner is working even longer hours than she, arriving at 2:30 in the morning and getting back to his hotel after dinner. And of course they trade stories about covering sports in Washington; Bruckner even wore an old-school Wizards jersey to work this week.
“People are walking around, saying, is that Wally Bruckner, my God, I grew up watching him,” she said. “He’s on point. He’s lot of fun to work with, and he’s making sure I look good.”
Anyhow, Donaldson would naturally take Russia over Connecticut if given the choice, but the main thing is that she is now a part of NBC’s close-knit Olympic crew. Staffers compared their Olympic notches at the beginning of the month; Donaldson was one of the few newcomers. She hopes to change that during Rio.
“I’m a part of it, even though I’m not an ocean away,” she said. “I’m honored and glad to be here — any role with the Olympics is really a cool role.”