Surrounded by Athletes at Dawn, Surrounded by Guns at Dusk

Imagine waking up every morning when the sun hasn’t begun to even rise.

It takes two hours by public transportation to get to your job, and then you’re surrounded by the world’s best athletes until after dusk, when you have to return to one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro.

Karen O’Toole lives this life for the three weeks of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympic Games.

“I am not a professional translator/interpreter. I am a person who has just lived all over the world, so I pick [languages] up,” says O’Toole. “I don’t have a degree in translating and have never studied a language. I just pick them up.”

Speaking five languages fluently, O’Toole is an interpreter for Olympian athletes. These languages include English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Quechua — a Quechuan language found in rural Ecuador and Columbia.

After working as a production coordinator for 20 years, she moved into the book business as an author and copyrighter concerning animal causes and stories. She is now an International Relations and Protocol NOC Delegate Assistant at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

She first became involved with the Olympics because she was interested in learning Portuguese, and, after setting her mind to it, she became fluent.

“I just wanted to pick up Portuguese because I was in the mood to learn it. I had always wanted to learn Portuguese, so I flew to Rio and hung out there for a while,” said O’Toole.

After spending less than a year in Rio, she became fluent. She then realized the Olympics would be in town the following year, and she decided to apply for a position. In order to be chosen as an interpreter for such an event, O’Toole explained, you have to go through extensive tests in the languages you wish to interpret—audio, written, and oral with questions you are unable to repeat/listen to more than once.

After days and days of tests, and then playing the waiting game, O’Toole was chosen as an interpreter.

O’Toole isn’t only being surrounded by the world’s best athletes, but she is also surrounding herself in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Rio.

She is living in a favela during her almost month-long stay.

“I have always believed that if you are living a bit dangerously, you are actually living,” said O’Toole. “And the only word I can describe about favelas is fascinating.”

O’Toole explained the favela she has been staying in has been on a bit of rocky soil recently —the killing of a police officer by the favela community has caused an upset among the military police. On Tuesday, the police killed five favela community members, including two teenagers, in retribution of the officer’s death by the favela community.

“I had someone knock on my door, and say, ‘Stay in, stay down, and stay away from the windows,’” said O’Toole when asked about the current circumstances of the favela. “I know it probably sounds crazy: Why would you live here? Because it’s dangerous! That’s exactly it. Every moment you’re living here, you’re alive. You’re fully focused and living.”

O’Toole says she feels safer living in a favela than she does walking along Copacabana Beach. She explained the community atmosphere is incredible, and no one within the favela would steal from the favela.

“Living in a favela is a community thing. You know the local person who sells you bread. You know their kids, and it’s really sweet,” O’Toole said. “The ethics about the favela is that you will never be robbed.”

Even with the intensity and fascination of where she is staying for the games, O’Toole enjoys interpreting for athletes. She said sometimes it does get stressful, though. When speaking to one athlete in French, trying to speak to another person in Spanish, and ending the translation in Portuguese, one’s mind truly has to be focused and fluent.

When asked about her interest and love for the Olympics itself, O’Toole compared the event to be similar to that of “a giant college campus.”

“You have the food and dorms — every dorm is a nationality,” she explained. “You have everyone biking, skating, speed-walking or running by … it seems everyone is doing some sort of athletic thing.”

MadelineGrosh is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Followthem at, @bsuatthegameson Twitter and Instagram, and Facebook.  

Madeline Grosh

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