A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Q&A: Larry Olmsted, freelance writer

By Quill

Q: Where did you get your journalism training?

A: Self taught. I went to Georgetown University, where I majored in government and minored in economics, with the intent of going to law school. But I always had a great aptitude for and enjoyment of writing.

At the eleventh hour, I decided that law was not for me, and embarked on an entrepreneurial career in real estate and telecommunications for about seven years.

During this time I wrote a novel, a crime thriller. When I got bored and sold my business, I goofed off for a year, biking, skiing and playing golf while my wife worked. Understandably, she got tired of this. I had sent my novel to several publishing houses, all of which rejected it, but as far as I could tell, none of them actually read it. I still think it’s commercial.

My wife suggested I try writing something else, maybe an article. I wrote a piece and submitted it to a local magazine which bought it for $150. Voila. I went from there, marrying my writing skills with my entrepreneurial experience, and ran my freelance career as a business, taking the time to identify what kind of things magazines wanted, developing tight pitches, and delivering polished products on time.

I knew nothing about the industry when I started. I know an enormous amount about it now. For me, ignorance was bliss, because it is very hard to be successful as a freelancer.

Q: On your quest for stories, you have set two world records. How did you get the idea for these stories? Furthermore, why did you subject yourself to breaking the records?

A: I had been traveling in Europe a couple of years ago and read somewhere that the Guinness World Records was coming up on its 50th anniversary (in 2005). I am always looking for unique story angles, and I realized that here was something that enjoyed vast name recognition, was a huge brand, but almost nobody knows anything about it. Anything like that is a perfect armchair piece, especially since the records have a lot of humor to them and I enjoy writing humorous pieces.

… So I thought I would pitch a piece on the history of the Guinness World Records, including some of the odder examples. But before I got around to that, I was at an editorial meeting at Golf Magazine, the nation’s leading golf publication, and they announced an intent to shift their editorial focus to become perceived as less stodgy.

They were looking for “out of the box” fun ideas and put me on the spot. For some reason, Guinness popped into my head and I blurted out about it being the anniversary, and how about if I wrote a funny first-person piece on my attempt at breaking a Guinness World Record in the golf category. They loved it and told me to figure out the logistics.

Q: What golf record did you break?

A: I looked at all the existing records. Many are skill based, such as the lowest score in a round, most money earned in a season, that kind of thing, and they are held by people like Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus. Being a better traveler than player, I decided to break “The Longest Distance Traveled Between Two 18-Hole Rounds Played in the Same Day.” I checked out the Guinness rules, took out a map, started checking flight schedules.

Using the International Date Line to my advantage, I found the best route for me to shatter the existing mark was to play in the morning in Sydney, Australia and the afternoon in Los Angeles. So I did it, and set a new record at 7,496 miles. The challenge was more logistical than physical, though flying to Australia and back in a short span is tiring. … I was all over the news in Sydney, and Channel 9, their largest station, sent a crew to the course and then to the airport to cover me. In the U.S., I was featured on Good Morning America, local news shows all over the country, and was named a Top 10 Play of the Day on ESPN. The article I ended up doing for Golf Magazine was also quite successful, and to this day, I meet people playing golf who remember the story.

Q: You also set a world record for poker playing, correct?

A: I have been writing a lot on the poker craze in the last couple of years, since I am a longtime and avid player, and over the years I have written a lot of travel features on Las Vegas, and I have seen first-hand in casinos how hot poker has gotten. So I decided to tackle poker.

…Unlike golf, there were no poker records, so I had to apply to Guinness for permission to set one. We worked out all the details, since they are fanatical about fine print and witnesses, and I arranged to set the record for the “Longest Continuous Casino Poker Playing Session”.

I was allowed a 15-minute break every 8 hours to use the bathroom, brush my teeth, etc., but could take no naps, and had to eat all my meals at the table while I played. I played 7-card stud in the same chair at Foxwoods, the world’s largest casino (I liked the record within a record motif), in Connecticut, for 72 hours and 2 minutes.

Along the way I had massive hallucinations, dementia, slurred speech, blurred vision, short term memory loss, you name it. At one point a worried casino manager asked me my name and I could not remember it, but I bounced back.

I later read a U.S. Army report on the effects on soldiers after 72 hours in the field with no sleep, and I had every condition listed. I have done a lot of endurance sports, including riding my mountain bike for 24 hours through the night, and this was by far the hardest thing I ever did.

Q: Do you plan on breaking any more world records, or have you decided to hang it up?

A: Yes and no. I am working on a book proposal about my experience breaking Guinness World Records, a humorous first person series of essays, along with a historical background of the records themselves.

Now I have two good experiences, both humorous, from which to develop sample chapters. If I can sell the book for a reasonable amount, I’ll do several more. Or if a magazine wanted to pay me to do another story I would. But I am not in it for the glory or 15 minutes of “fame,” I am in it to get paid for my writing.

When you are a full-time freelancer, a professional writer like myself, you cannot afford to waste a lot of time. These records take longer than people realize, because they have to be meticulously planned months in advance, working with Guinness, then they have to be equally meticulously documented after the fact.

The time from when I applied for permission to break the golf record to when I received my diploma-like certificate was 9 months.

Q: Do you have any words to live by?

A: For journalists: “Don’t promise what you can’t deliver, and always deliver what you promise. Don’t worry about being such an artiste.”

For would be Guinness Record Breakers/Setters, to paraphrase Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

For my accountant, to paraphrase Tug McGraw: “I blew most of money on booze and broads. The rest I wasted.”

For my wife, to paraphrase Dorothy: “There’s no place like home.”

For everyone else: “Live life. You can rest when you’re dead.” Also, get a dog, preferably a golden retriever.

Q: What some of the publications have you written for?

A: Investor’s Business Daily (columnist for last 8 years), Playboy, Golf Magazine. T&L Golf, Cigar Aficionado, Inc Magazine, Worth, Men’s Health, New York Magazine, AAA Westways, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Unlimited, Virtuoso Travel & Life, Caribbean Travel & Life, Backpacker, Sports Afield, Vim & Vigor, Casino Magic and more.

Also, I have written two books, one on winter sports and one on golf travel. I also co-authored another coffee table book on golf travel. I have contributed to several guidebooks, including Michelin and Frommer’s Unofficial Guide series. My work has also been included in anthologies.

Q: Have you ever thought about getting a regular beat for a publication?

A: I have been doing a column for the national newspaper Investor’s Business Daily called “News For You,” for about eight years, covering anything of lifestyle interest to the Wall Street reader, such as business and leisure travel, golf, skiing and sports, and food and wine. Unfortunately, they just decided to refocus on more hardcore business coverage and dropped the column. I would love to get another column, or become a travel contributor to UPI or API, and it something I will be working on very soon.

Q: What has been your most proud journalistic moment?

A: When my mother finally stopped asking me when I would get a real job. Seriously, there have been a few. When my first feature for Cigar Aficionado came out, and it was the biggest magazine story I had ever done, and Arnold was on the cover, and I called all my friends and made them buy it. That must have been about eight years ago. The first time I was asked to go on network television as a guest expert, for Today New York. This year I was asked to participate in industry round tables for four top hotel chains due to my stature and expertise in the travel industry. That’s nice recognition.

But I would have to say my proudest moments, and they don’t come often enough, are when editors I don’t know call me out of the blue and say “I saw your piece in XYZ magazine and was hoping you could do something for us.” That happens maybe once a year, and it is evidence that someone out there is reading my work, and not only reading it, but really liking it, and with a trained eye. That is about the best it gets.