Q&A with SI's Heinz Kluetmeier
Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier has covered every Olympics for SI (with the exception of Innsbruck) since the Munich Games. He and his assistant, Jeff Kavanaugh, landed the signature sequence of the Olympics: Michael Phelps beating Serbia's Milorad Cavic to the touchpad in the 100 butterfly. Below, Kluetmeier explains how he got the shot and the difference between Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps as photography subjects. Click here to see the photos.
SI.com: You've been a pioneer for underwater sports photography. Getting the Phelps photo really started many years ago, right?
Kluetmeier: I have always been interested in underwater photography and the magazine has a history of trying something different and being ahead of the curve. Often what happens is we do it, it gets into the magazine, and the next year a whole bunch of people who saw it in the magazine and say, "Let's try that." The first time I got permission to put a camera underwater was Barcelona after months of negotiating. I had surreptitiously snuck the camera underwater the year before at the swimming world championships. One of the technical committee members said I could put it in the pool and if someone did not like it, they would pull it out before the race. The guy standing by who was going to help me pull it out of the pool in Perth, Australia was Mel Stewart, the then-world champion and record holder in the 200 butterfly. So in his honor, I threw a camera in the pool for his race in Barcelona. We had a fish eye lens and the water was so smooth during the first lap of his swim, you could read the scoreboard through the water up above him. When we were putting the camera in, I remember an armed guard said, "You cannot put this camera in. It might be a bomb." I finally said to the pool director: I will wear a swimming suit to the pool and if there is a problem, I will jump in and pull it out. There was no problem and it ran in the magazine. Today, more and more people want to do it, so you almost have to ration the space in the bottom of the pool. It is very valuable real estate but guys want to get stroke shots and pretty pictures.
SI.com: When did you start the process for the Phelps photo?
Kluetmeier: We started testing out the live feed from underwater at the world swimming championships in Melbourne, Australia. Then we did some more testing and switched camera systems after the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha. We knew what we wanted to do in terms of the underwater thing, but what we wanted was a live feed from underwater and also the ability to keep a camera underwater for days. So you have to figure out access because you never know what the rules will be when we arrive in Beijing. But people have been gracious and helpful and it is probably been one of the best experiences at the pool. Planning the picture itself took a year. Ultimately, the emotional plan was: Will Michael at this point in the Olympics win all his medals? So here we are at the end of his Olympics and I figure it was about winning or losing. When he swam against his teammate Ryan Lochte, there was a chance Lochte could beat him in the event. So I told the other guys that I thought this was about the touch: Win or lose, it will make a difference. In the 100 butterfly, he is somewhat vulnerable. It's a shorter race. People can thrash out. The pool looks like was washing machine at that point. We thought he might get beat. It is not a pretty stroke picture, but it is a wonderful journalistic moment to show winning and losing of that particular race.
SI.com: Who else works with you to get a series of shots like this?
Kluetmeier: Give complete credit to Jeff Kavanaugh (who has worked with Kluetmeier since 2001). He is my assistant and because I had an operation a month ago, I am not allowed to go in the water now. Jeff put all the stuff underwater and I'd be on the computer directing. We have now developed a system where you can get the image from underwater to the computer. You can look at live usage. We moved along with the technology and it's exciting and fun to go from Nikon to Apple. It is a techie's delight and photographer's dream. Jeff probably spent 40 minutes underwater just to move the camera less than an inch -- he probably used up a whole tank of oxygen adjusting the camera. I wanted to be able to see the full body length, plus the touchpad, plus also be able to start the picture before they hit the water. Then after all that work and all that sweat, things can go wrong. We got lucky. We are shooting eight frames a second. You can miss the touch with a hundred frames a second with a high-def camera. We got lucky because as Michael hit the wall, we got the picture.
SI.com: Where were you during the race?
Kluetmeier: At the top of the pool. Jeff runs the camera. At a certain point, when it is eight frames a second, we just let it rip. When they were done with the medal ceremony, Jeff said, 'You will not believe what we have here.' I looked and said, 'Wow, unbelievable.' The last time I took a shot like that was the Sydney Olympics, when it was a dead heat with the 50 men's race. We got the perfect touch there. That was in mind when I set up this camera.
SI.com: Where does this sequence stand in terms of your portfolio?
Kluetmeier: In terms of Olympic photos, it is near the top for me because it defines a moment that a lot of people did not believe. Look, the Serbians even protested. People don't trust things they cannot see and here we were able to see it. We worked our butts off, we did hard work to get it in place and we got lucky. As did Phelps. He was so lucky to win. Yes, he worked hard for years, he swam his butt off, but then he got lucky. The guy was drifting and Michael got in one more stroke. I bet you it was less than hundredths. I bet it was less than a heartbeat. That's how I'd define it.