If there’s an important track and field meet going on somewhere in the world, expect photojournalist and Gazettes/Press-Telegram correspondent Kirby Lee to be there covering the event. From Moore League track and field finals to U.S. nationals to the Olympics, Lee has been all over the world, behind the camera capturing some of the most historic moments in the sport.
“I get just as much satisfaction covering the 100-meter final at the Olympics as I do covering the CIF-SS meet,” Lee said. “I just love track and field.”
Lee is currently a contributor to USA track and field and works within the IAAF Diamond League, which is an elite series of 14 meets throughout the world. He’s part of a pool of photographers and is one of 10 worldwide that travels around to cover the series. He also continues to cover local meets for the Gazettes and the Press-Telegram, where he got his start.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” Lee said. “Like any athlete, unless you’re LeBron James or something, you have to really work for it.”
Lee was a track and field distance runner in high school when he fell in love with the sport. He went to Cal State Los Angeles, where he got a degree in math and electrical engineering before continuing his education at CSULA’s grad school. He took a beginning photo class for fun and started to go to different track and field meets to shoot for the class. Lee says he got bad grades for his work because professors said he lacked originality, but he enjoyed submitting his photos and articles to the school’s weekly newspaper. He never finished grad school, but he applied for an internship at the Press-Telegram, where long-time sports editor Jim McCormack hired him on as a freelance writer and photographer.
“(Lee) works as hard as anyone I’ve ever known and he’s an exceptional sports photographer,” McCormack said. “Through sheer effort he has created a level of credibility and is an exceptional resource for track and field.”
Lee says he knew about the rich history of track and field in Long Beach and that’s what drew him to the Press-Telegram. He covered athletes such as Poly alumni Ariana Washington and Bryshon Nellum when they were in school competing for state championships.
“It’s amazing that this small region can produce this many incredible athletes,” Lee said. “It’s an endless cycle in Long Beach and I don’t think anywhere else in the country can claim that. It’s great seeing these athletes develop into world-class champions.”
In 2008 at the Beijing Olympics, Lee said he reached the pinnacle. In high school he wanted to one day be an Olympian and get to the Olympics, and he says that in some way he made it.
“When I walked into Olympic Stadium in 2008 I got a little teary-eyed,” Lee said. “The goal when you’re an athlete is to make it to the Olympics and I did it as a journalist. I never thought I would’ve made it there myself. But I went from covering high school on a dirt track and the next thing you know I’m at the 100m Olympic final. It was definitely emotional.”
Lee has covered the last three Olympics and is heading to his 11th World Outdoor Championship in London on Aug. 4. He has shot every one of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt’s world records and has seen all eight of his gold medals on the Olympic stage.
Lee also shoots NFL games and has covered every Super Bowl since 2009 when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals in Tampa Bay, Florida. His photo of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman offering to shake hands with San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree after the 2014 NFC championship game won an award for Best Feature Shot by USA Today. The photo is currently on display at the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
He's been recognized at the Arcadia Invitational and several other elite track meets for his work.
Lee says that most people still don’t recognize him when he’s on the field shooting. He claims that there have been a few times where people come up to him asking, “Have you seen Kirby Lee anywhere?” But his name is certainly recognizable by the track and field community — attached to the many photos and articles he’s produced over the years.