Our Stories: Melissa Dudek, University of Virginia Assistant Athletics Media Relations Director

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This feature is one of the many profiles we are doing to showcase our diverse CoSIDA membership during 2016 CoSIDA Membership Recognition Week. To see all the feature stories leading up to - and during - CoSIDA Membership Recognition Week, please click HERE.

OUR STORIES
Melissa Dudek
University of Virginia Assistant Athletics Media Relations Director      6058


Dudek is in her fourth year at Virginia, handling the media relations duties for the Cavalier women's basketball, field hockey and men's tennis programs. Previously, she served four years in a similar athletic communications role at the University of California, after beginning her SID career as an assistant athletic director for athletic communications at Lewis & Clark College, an NCAA III institution in Portland, Ore. Raised in Poway, Calif., she graduated in 1992 from Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles with a degree in communications.

Below, read about Dudek's various interests and how she makes use of her time outside of athletic communications. She has found time to be a Rio Olympic volunteer, participate in two reality TV game shows and in the House of Cards TV drama - and write plays and self-publish two novels.

You’ve had a varied career – first working nine years in minor league baseball before getting into college athletic communications. What was that minor league baseball experience like?
 
The beauty of working in minor league baseball is that you do EVERYTHING. I have done ever job there is except one - I was never allowed to mow the field. I am a terrible driver, so they didn’t trust me with the tractor.

During my time in baseball, I was, by title, the Director of Ticket Operations for three of the teams and Assistant GM for the last. I realized fairly early on that ticketing was not the career that I wanted, so I made sure that I was always volunteering and taking on extra responsibilities. I built our website and did most of the PR for one of my A-ball teams and my rookie team. Even at Triple-A, I was writing game program features and helping with recaps to build my resume and learn the craft.

I have, among other things, been in the mascot suit, flipped burgers, poured beers, kept the books and counted nightly deposits, set lineups, pulled so much tarp, tamped mounds and batters boxes, lined fields, booked travel, done curfew checks and airport runs, coordinated host families, mediated host family disputes, done photography, videography, music, and PA.
 
After the minors, you worked in media relations at Division III Lewis & Clark, then moved to the Pac-12's
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Dudek and California assistant athletic communications director Anton Malko covered their
current and former student-athletes at the Rio Olympics. Dudek also was an Olympic volunteer.
University of California before coming to Virginia. What have you’ve taken from each professional stop, and how have all these experiences contributed to your athletic communications role today?
Working in Division III is the best training that one could ever have. I was in charge of 19 sports with no assistant other than work-study undergrads who helped with stats and helped with some of the crossover. Two days after I started, I had to do my first basketball recap. I had never written one for basketball so I just jumped right in and figured it out as I went. There is a lot of “jump right in” in Division III.

To me, there is not a lot on this planet more challenging than learning volleyball stats. The pace of that game is unlike any other. If you can do volleyball stats, you can do anything. Football is a tremendous amount of work, especially when you are covering four other sports in the fall. Yet once I made the jump to Division I, I realized working with all those different sports came in handy. At both UVA and Cal, I believe I was the only person in the office who could score any sport, including any of the HyTek sports (swimming and track). I can help fill in gaps during crossover or if an emergency pops up. I was really nervous making the jump from DIII to DI, but once I did, I found that I was more than prepared because of all that I had done running everything on my own.
 
That being said, it was a big jump from a small school in Portland, Ore., to Cal in a top-10 media market where every year there was a week set aside to celebrate its national champions (notice the plural on that). Luckily, I had an amazing boss in Herb Benenson who taught me so much while also letting me figure a lot of it out on my own. He wasn’t going to let me fail, but also knew when I needed to take a couple of knocks while figuring it all out. The scariest thing for me was that when I was on the plane flying in for my interview, I read a copy of their Cal Quarterly magazine filled with these wonderfully-written student-athletes features. I was blown away with the stories and how well they were presented. I looked at the by-lines and realized that it was the SIDs who had written all of those features. I honestly didn’t know if I could write something like that.

Yet, by the time I left Cal, feature writing had become one of my favorite things to do and one of my professional strengths. I love being able to share the stories of our student-athletes with others.
 
You transitioned from the West Coast to the East Coast, leaving Cal to join the UVA athletic media relations staff and have worked with Joanne Boyle, your current UVA basketball coach, at both stops. Talk about your transition from Cal to UVA.
 
This is actually my second stint in the south/east coast as I lived in Charlotte, N.C., for six years during my time in baseball, so I did know what I was getting into when I moved from Berkeley to Charlottesville, Va.
 
I adored my job with Cal and had no intention of leaving until a year after Joanne Boyle left for the Hoos and the UVA women's basketball SID vacancy came about. Joanne felt I needed to give serious consideration to the opening. Professionally, going from a Pac-12 job to an ACC job was a lateral move, but there were some very appealing elements of the new opportunity. The San Francisco newspaper business went into the same tailspin as has happened across the country, but it seemed particularly brutal in the Bay Area. All of the newspapers went through roundsvof layoffs and our coverage took a hit as well. One of the things that appealed to me about Virginia was working in a smaller media market again, a media market with beat writers and TV stations that cover olympic sports almost as equally as the revenue sports.
 
However, just because a basketball coach supports you for a position, when I interviewed I had to convince Jim Daves he needed to add me to his staff. I got the job and had to say good-bye to our department's breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge and say hello to Thomas Jefferson’s university.
 
I actually have two of the same sports now that I did at Cal, women’s basketball and field hockey. Basketball is pretty much the same responsibilities and routine, but ACC field hockey with its nationally ranked teams and multitude of Olympic players is a whole different level of coverage. I travel with the hockey team and have a real special relationship with these players. It makes pitching stories about them so much easier one you really get to know them.
 
In what must have been a career highlight, this summer you were a Rio Olympic Games volunteer as a member of the 6069Omega Timing and Technology Team at Lagoa Stadium, the rowing and canoe sprint venue. How did that opportunity come about and what were your duties?

Going to the Olympics was a two-year process that started with a random email from my field hockey coach forwarding a USA Field Hockey email that the Rio Organizing Committee was looking for volunteers. So I applied, figuring that I could remove myself for consideration at any time. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it could be an amazing opportunity. I actually applied using a code given to me by US Field Hockey, so I had thought that my most likely assignment would be the hockey venue.

I did not find out until June what my assignment was - on the timing and technology team for canoe sprints. I also worked the final day of rowing, so I was there to see the Americans win gold for the eight.

Hearing the Star Spangled Banner was a much more moving experience than I was expecting. So powerful. In all of the canoe and kayak races that I worked, there was just one American team. It is a European-dominated sport, to put it mildly, and one that I had never seen until my first day at Lagoa Stadium, but it was such an incredible honor to be part of the Olympics.

I am really proud of having done it and loved the experience. I had an absolute blast working at kayak and canoe. My job was to measure and install the GPS devices and put the lane numbers on all the boats. For rowing, I was up in the timing tower working the camera that was used for photo finishes.
 
I worked the final week of the Olympics, but went down a week before and stayed for several days afterwards. I was free that first week to go to competitions. Unlike London, tickets were readily available, and I saw almost all of the Virginia athletes and alums who were competing down there and sent back home photos, video and interviews that we used for our website and social media.

And yes, part of the two-year process of applying and training was learning Portuguese. Or at least trying to.
 
What caught my eye in reading about you is the varied experiences and interests you have. You have a recurring background role on the Netflix drama House of Cards. You've been a two-time game show contestant on The Weakest Link (2003) and on ABC’s Wipeout (2012). How did the game show appearances happen?
 
The two game shows film in LA, but I was living in Charlotte for one and in Northern California for the other when I was a contestant, so I wasn’t local. I auditioned for both. The Weakest Link [editor's note: A group of contestants work as a team answering trivia to try and win as much money as possible] had a regional tryout in Charlotte that involved a written trivia test and a screen test (talking to a producer while I was being filmed). I passed both and they called and offered me a shooting date. I had a game that day, so I turned them down and didn’t think I’d hear back. They called back a week later with an alternate date, so I flew out to LA to shoot it. It was a ton of fun, mainly because our team sucked at it. There was only $5000 or so on the line, so no one was too hostile about getting booted off as ‘The Weakest Link’. I was predictably the last one voted off before the finals. I knew it was coming.
 
For Wipeout [a reality competition where contestants try to navigate an extreme obstacle course] I flew down to LA to go to an open call. I had a plane voucher and free time on my hands, so I was deciding between flying to Washington to watch a football game or down to LA to audition. My nephew loved the show and thought that his auntie should go on it, so I gave it a go. Once again, it was interviews and a screen test. I was in the Honolulu Airport with the Cal women’s basketball team when they called me and asked me to be on the show. That was a long flight home as the reality of what I had gotten myself into.

It filmed the last week of January, so I trained as best as I could for those two months, mainly swimming. I watched a lot of film and just tried to come up with a plan. Most of my plan was centered on not breaking my neck in the process. I flew down on a Thursday, shot the episode on Friday, and was back on Saturday in time for our Battle of the Bay game against Stanford. If I had been better at it, I would have had to continute to fly back for more episodes. Well, I really was bad at Wipeout, but was effort was good enough to be featured in the show and I was also in the season promo commercial - I get clocked pretty hard with a door! It was excellent television. I did make it over the
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Dudek (center) at the Rio Olympics with members of the Cavalier field hockey program.
big red balls and won $500 for accomplishing that!
 
And, the House of Cards acting opportunity happened because ...

House of Cards films in a small Maryland town, a four-hour drive from here. My friend who lives there wanted to go to an open-call audition and was looking for someone to go with her. My lacrosse team was eliminated earlier in the NCAA Tournament than we expected and I had some unexpected free time, so I joined her as moral support. A month or so after the open call, the casting agent sent out a notice looking for press types. I sent some pics of me in action on the other side of that equation and they offered me the job. It’s a recurring role, but one that I can turn down when it doesn’t fit into my schedule. It has been weird that the dates they need me on set have more often than not actually fit into my schedule that doesn’t have a lot of openings! The first episode I filmed was three days after getting back from spending two weeks in Omaha the year UVA won the College World Series.
 
Switching gears to talk about more of your ventures. You found the time between 2001 and 2005 to pen two self-published novels and you now write screenplays. Why the novels and what was your inspiration behind those two books, 2001's Wildfire Summer and the sequel in 2005, Catchers, Cows, and Nachos?
 
I haven’t slept since approximately 1986, so that helps.
 
The first book, Widfire Summers, was very much a love-letter to the sport of baseball, particularly minor league baseball. The second book, Catchers, Cows and Nachos is a follow-up that looks at what does one do with ones life after ones baseball playing days are over. I was an SID by the time I wrote the second book. The problem with writing fictional books about baseball, especially minor league baseball, is that there isn’t an actual genre of baseball fiction. Some of the people who read the book thought it was a real-life story. I would like to think that is just a testament to my skills as a fiction writer, but it is more of the reality of how crazy baseball fans can be. Both books are more about characters around the world of baseball than the sport itself. The second one also touches on my obsessive love of nachos.
 
You were the winner of the 2003 Carolinas Contemporary Playwrights Competition with your full-length play Serenity. What was that about, when did you write it and do you have other plans for playwriting?
 
I’ve had several one-act plays produced as well as having Serenity receive a staged reading at the festival. It is absolutely surreal to see something that I have created come to life. The production of Serenity included a cast of accomplished, professional actors and a director who really loved the piece and lobbied hard to be the one to bring it to life, and their interpretation was fantastic. It was also interesting to see some of the choices that they made, both the director and the actors, so that at times it didn’t actually feel like mine anymore. They made it better, trust me, but so much of it was true to how I envisioned it in the years I had been laboring away on it.

For most of the one-acts, I sat through so many rehearsals and did some rewrites on the spot, I felt more of the process and it was a lot less surreal.
 
I still write plays. I finished one recently that I think is one of the best things I have written. I really enjoy writing dialogue so it is probably the art form that is best suited for me, but it is really hard to share these works. Novels are a lot easier for others to read. Only theatre nerds can truly get into reading plays ... These days, I am turning my attention to short story writing before gearing up for novel number three. It will not be about baseball.

You have lots going on! Let's turn back to your work at UVA. What are the most gratifying things about being an athletic communications professional?
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… the student-athletes. If you don’t love getting to know your student-athletes and watching them grow and blossom into wonderful people, you are in the very wrong business.
 
People ask me all the time if I was an athlete growing up. No, I was not. I grew up in the theatre and went to film school. Luckily, when you graduate from a liberal arts college, the degree says “Bachelor of Arts in Communication” so no one has to know you went to film school and majored in screenwriting until after they hire you. What appealed to me about this career path is that sport is really theatre without a script. You have amazingly diverse characters trying to overcome obstacles with all sorts of antagonists creating drama along the way. And I love being right there, front and center, to chronicle the drama.
 
The things that have been gratifying to me have been moments when parents come up to me to introduce themselves and to thank me for something they read and really enjoyed. It’s not the ‘thanks’ that is important. It is knowing that they have enjoyed it. I had a mother of one of my golfers at Cal offer me one of the most sincere thank-yous that I have ever received in my life. Her daughter, Emily, was a good golfer in a highly-competitive Pac-12 sport and an even better person. Emily gave me a great interview for a feature and because she was so easy to write about, it become one of my better pieces Her mother was in tears as she thanked me for sharing with other people what a beautiful person Emily was, saying “I just want you to know how much this article has meant to me and our entire family.”
 
Other gratifying moments have come in the victories. I have been witness to some amazingly thrilling moments on the field, including being fortunate to be part of two national championships. My boss, Jim Daves, loves to remind us when we use the royal “we” in regards to victories for our teams, our name is not on the box score. For me, the victories I am referring to are ones like when the local paper told me that they could hold until 11 for my national championship tennis recap, and match point happens at 10:47 p.m. - and somehow, in and among trying to manage the insanity that happens in the next 13 minutes following a championship, I met print deadline. Other gratifying moments included knowing that you help win awards by compiling and writing nomination criteria - like when one of our Cal basketball players won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award and the year that Joanne Boyle won the WBCA’s Carol Eckman award. 
 
With all your activities, how do you maintain work-life integration and what advice would you give any SID who might be struggling with this?
 
All SIDs struggle with work-life balance. With as many hours as we work and often as many days in a row that we work, it is easy to feel like you are absolutely drowning. I have just made having outside interests a priority. When I was at Lewis & Clark, I joined the Jaycees. I could not make it to every event or activity that they had planned, but I worked really hard to make myself go to the ones I could. Sometimes I was so worn out, I would try to talk myself out of it, but then I would get there and have a good time talking to people about things other than sports, that I realized how crucial it was to my mental health.

The main thing is to find things that have flexible schedules. I volunteer one morning a month at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a wildlife treatment center about 20 minutes away from our Grounds (our campus). I can pick that schedule, but I never drop a shift. Once I find a morning that works, I am going to be there. Sometimes I have to really talk myself into it, but I never regret it when I get there.

Your UVA staff gets together for "Family Lunch" which seems like a great way to disengage a bit from daily duties while engaging with your colleagues.
 
Yes, this another little thing that you can do that we do in our office. We call it “Family Lunch.” Every day, several of us get together to eat lunch at the conference table in our office. The only rule at Family Lunch is that you are not allowed to talk about work. You can tell funny stories that are work tangential, like crazy things that happened on a road trip, but you can’t talk about actual work. We talk about the news, about other sports that aren’t our own, TV and movies, concerts, and real life. It is a lot harder than it seems and some people in my office get sent to timeout all the time for trying to talk work (!), but it really does make a difference.
 
What keeps you in this profession?
 
I can’t imagine going out into the “real world” and getting a normal job and doing the same thing every single day. I love the unpredictability of this job. I love the people I work with and work for. I love the pace, the energy, the high-wire juggling act that is a random Tuesday. I like going to new places and seeing new things. I love never knowing how a day is going to end. I love the creativity, the mixture of using words and images in various ways to tell stories.