How I went about writing this …

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This is my latest SI.com column—it’s a profile of Steve Larsen, the ultra-competitor who died last month at age 39, leaving behind a wife and five children.

This is how it happened …

A few weeks ago I was speaking with Bev Oden, my close friend and one of America’s best all-time volleyball players. Bev was in something of a somber mood, and then she told me how her college roommate/teammate, Carrie Larsen, had lost her husband. She gave me some of the details—crazy athlete, collapsed while working out, five kids. Absolutely heartbreaking.

I asked Bev, just off the top of my head, whether she thought Carrie would want me to write something for SI.com. She wasn’t sure … said she’d check—then I never heard back. Stuff happens.

Well, earlier this week I contacted Bev again, because I had yet to think of something to write for Friday. She e-mailed Carrie, who said I could call, but that she hasn’t been talking to the media … wasn’t sure what she could say.

Now, in the course of a journalism career, we all encounter difficult/awkward conversations. I’ve knocked on the doors of killers; I’ve faced ballplayers who wanted to strangle me; I’ve done some really, really uncomfortable stuff. That said, nothing compares to contacting a spouse or parent of the recently deceased. It’s terribly jarring. On the one hand, you have to be insanely delicate and careful. On the other hand, there are things you want to know. I actually just had this conversation with Bev last night—it’s strange how I, based on my job, was able to ask Carrie stuff that Bev wouldn’t. It reminded me of my first story of this ilk—a piece for The (Nashville) Tennessean in 1995 about a man whose wife was dying of cancer, and they were working togther to build a garden before she passed. I sat next to the woman—Lynn Thompson was her name—and asked, “How does it feel to know you’re dying?” I was 23-years old, wondering if I’d crossed a line. Then she answered, and it was wonderful.

Six years later, I wrote this article for Sports Illustrated. Similar sort of thing—Victor Ugolyn’s son had died in 9.11, and I had to ask him all about it. Horrible, horrible, horrible—yet wonderful. Victor was burdened with this 200-billion-pound weight, and talking helped, at least momentarily, alleviate it. Nothing I actually did—just the nature of chatting to a stranger, where one can speak at ease.

Anyhow, I called Carrie Thursday morning, and she was great. Quiet, sort of reserved, but also very open to any/all questions. I’d say the most poignant moment came when I asked her whether the whole thing seemed surreal. Carrie said yes, then became very emotional. “You keep waiting for him to come home,” she said. “But he’s not.” Afterward, I spoke with Larsen’s business partner, who gave me some good background, then with a cycling peer.

The key, however, was actually something of a surprise: Bev.

Though we’re close, and I usually don’t like quoting friends, Bev had an insight into Carrie that I knew I needed. As roommates and teammates, they shared a bond few outsiders could understand. Bev also knew Steve as Carrie’s young boyfriend, when he was just some kid with dreams and hopes and a goal of cycling greatness. Bev filled in an enormous gap.

This certainly doesn’t go down as the best thing I’ve ever penned. But whenever I write about people who have passed, it means significantly more than the ordinary column. I happen to obsess over death (in a very unhealthy way), so I tend to gravitate toward these sort of pieces. Along with giving others a platform to remember their lost loved ones, it’s—for me—educational and enlightening. How do we handle death? How do we move on? What, if anything, is to gain? If we can handle death, can we handle anything?

I believe so.

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