Culture
Mark Rendell

When Ollie Met Jennifer

How did a BBC sports reporter covering huge international events like the Olympics end up on the air in Yellowknife?

Several weeks before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, BBC Sport released the opening credits to their upcoming Games coverage. Across a bleak northern landscape skied an Inuit man followed by a pack of salivating wolves. A few slick snowboard tricks and a luge run later, and he'd defeated a wicked ice spirit with a well-placed curling shot.

Canada! Land of ice, beasts and bonspiels! Ollie Williams, then a 25-year-old BBC journalist, tweeted a link to the video, which he assumed to be nothing more than some good-natured fun. The tweet, it turns out, didn’t go down well with one Canadian journalist. And, it led, with the pitch-perfect logic of a Hollywood rom-com, to a marriage.

We’ll get there.  

“Do the British really think all Canadians do is desperately try to avoid bears and wolves?” came a scathing reply over Twitter from a Canadian reporter working for CTV. She was also covering the Games.

Ollie, known these days in Yellowknife as MooseFM’s spiffily accented news director, protests, six years on:  “I had nothing to do with them. I was the messenger being shot.” 

When he arrived in Vancouver, Ollie’s first story was about how media from different countries were covering the games. He needed to chat with a Canadian journalist and his only connection was that same reporter who’d been giving him grief over Twitter, Jennifer Lukas.

“CTV had like 1000 people at Vancouver 2010, so I had to go to reception and put up the name of the journalist, and they gave them a call. Five minutes later, I get this tap on my shoulder, and I turn around, and there’s the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my life.”

She never did give him the interview, pawning him off on a colleague instead. But they spent next two weeks together, and by the Games’ end, when Ollie took off back to London, they’d set the stage for a transatlantic romance that eventually brought him back to Canada and both of them up north to Yellowknife.

So how did you end up here?

“The short answer to this is love.”

Ollie grew up in the southwest of England, in the Somerset town of Taunton – “Basically it’s the shire, rolling green hills... birthday parties in people’s barns. A place known for cider more than anything else.”

He hadn’t harboured a youthful desire to be a journalist. Until his final year studying Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford – “If you ever need to know about the church or the economy of the 7th or 8th century... ” – his future seemed to be in teaching. However, a fortuitous invitation from a friend, who was the host of a show on the Oxford student radio station, changed this all.

“It got to one o’clock in his show, and I said, 'does anyone do the news?' They said no. So I got the BBC News homepage up and read it. After the show, the station manager, who was one of the other students, said, ‘That was amazing, do you want to be head of news?' So from the following morning I was head of news on the Oxford University Student Radio, which is hilarious, having been in the studio for all of two-and-a-half hours at that point.”

A few weeks later, he’d successfully applied for a postgrad in broadcasting at the London College of Communications. A year after that, he’d landed a job at a local BBC station west of London, an area that happened to contain a number of training facilities for the British Olympic team. Ollie soon found himself working for BBC Sport, and when 2008 rolled around, he worked as a London-based reporter for the Beijing Games, pulling overnight shifts from midnight to 8:00 a.m., penning live-blog copy from dozens of BBC streams.

Beijing led to Vancouver, and Vancouver led to Jennifer. For two years, the young reporters, both beginning promising careers but on opposite sides of the Atlantic, would only see each other sporadically.

“It’s a bloody long long-distance relationship. There are times we’d see each other for two days in half a year. I remember flying over to surprise her for Thanksgiving one year, where I literally flew in on Friday night, surprised her at the airport – because she was coming back home to Toronto as well, she had no idea I was going to be there – then I was gone again two days later. It was tough, but that was all the more reason to find somewhere to be together for an extended period of time.”

On the eve of the 2012 London Olympics, Jennifer tracked down a charity called the Frontiers Foundation, which placed volunteers in schools and organizations across the NWT. After the Games, Ollie made his way to Canada, then on to Fort Liard with Jennifer. The two worked in the hamlet office, with Ollie coaching soccer and falling in love with the Northern way of living.

“I had a huge amount of fun. I guess I had been wrapped up working for the BBC in a world where the number of followers you had on Twitter mattered. Going to Fort Liard and working with the kids made me realize that that was possibly the thing that mattered least in the world, who follows you on Twitter, how many followers you have on Instagram, whether you got this story or that story. That actually what matters is being with a bunch of kids, playing some soccer in this beautiful, tiny hamlet. And it revolutionized my thought process as to what I actually wanted to get out of life.”

Ollie and Jennifer got married in February in Fort Simpson in the same BBC and CTV Olympic jackets they’d met in – “Not because of any romantic connection, but because they were still the warmest things we owned.”

“I think we gave our family three weeks notice. Nobody flew out for it; the witnesses were the other half of the justice of the peace and a young lady who needed a ride to Fort Simpson to do her driving test. So that worked. As ceremonies go, it was pretty good. I think that wedding in total cost me $49.”

They decided to stay in the North, and Jennifer landed a job working for the federal government’s Giant Mine Remediation project in Yellowknife. Ollie got a gig with MooseFM, where he’s served as news director and program manager for the last year-and-a-half while also freelancing for major media organizations like BBC and CNN. 

As of next week, he’s leaving the station to freelance full time and cover the 2016 Olympics from Brazil this summer. But he’s not leaving Yellowknife: “I really want my journalism career to involve a lot of stuff up here. I love the people here and I want to continue to be part of the discussion here. I don’t intend on going anywhere.”

Does he ever regret leaving a high-octane BBC career?

“There were people, who, when I decided to leave the BBC to come here, didn’t think that was the greatest career decision. But it wasn’t a career decision, it was a life decision. You’ve got a certain amount of time to live this life, and this is a pretty damn cool place to be.”

“And I don’t have any great, profound, fundamental engine that has to be satisfied, there’s no sort of reason for being, not that I’m aware of anyway. I just get up in the morning, and when my wife and I talk to each other, say, ‘Hey, are we happy?’, it’s like, yeah … I can honestly say I’ve never once woken up in the morning and wished I was somewhere else.”