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CNN reporter Sara Sidner's first stop out of high school was at UF, where she played two seasons on the volleyball team.

Friday July 5, 2013The Flashback Files: Gators Volleyball Player Sara Sidner

CNN reporter Sara Sidner's first stop out of high school was at UF, where she played two seasons on the volleyball team.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. Sara Sidner unpacked her belongings and some big dreams the day she moved into her Sledd Hall dorm room in the summer of 1990.

Arriving from Hialeah Miami Lakes High, Sidner was a freshman walk-on with the Gators volleyball team who planned to major in journalism. On a questionnaire she filled out for the team's media guide, Sidner was asked about future ambitions.

"An anchor on a major television [network]/or a movie actress."

Israel is a long way from Sledd Hall, but that is now where the 41-year-old Sidner calls home as a senior international correspondent in CNN's Jerusalem bureau. She recently spent an entire day following Israeli President Shimon Peres for this report.

Sidner joined CNN in 2008 and over the past five years has covered some of the world's most gripping stories, including the rebel takeover of former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in August 2011.

Sidner's fearless reporting from Libya earned her recognition around the world and delivered one of the more memorable quotes in TV news history.

As Sidner reported from Gaddafi's fallen compound in Tripoli amid a chaotic scene full of revelers and celebratory gunfire, Sidner asked a man in close proximity, "Sir, please don't shoot."

Sidner was based in CNN's New Delhi bureau covering India and South Asia until the summer of 2012 when she opted to take an assignment in Jerusalem to cover the Middle East.

She is currently recovering from a broken foot in California and expects to return to the Middle East soon to continue another difficult assignment.

"The Middle East is an endless story filled with everything from intrigue to heartache to love,'' Snider said this week from Los Angeles. "I mean it is just the quintessential endless story and a place that makes history so many times and is important to the world. One of the attractions there is that is has such a depth. It is one of those places where you can never know enough, you can never be fully an expert."

Sidner grew up a news junkie. Despite not having a television for much of her early childhood her mom Sally wanted Sara to be active and outdoors she discovered CBS' "60 Minutes" and ABC's "20/20" by high school. She became such a fan she could tell friends about the late Don Hewitt, a behind-the-scenes news executive who created "60 Minutes."

While a student-athlete at UF, dogged investigative reporter Mike Wallace was her idol rather than a professional athlete.

"I loved to watch those shows,'' Sidner said. "Even as a kid, as a youngster of 10 or 11, they felt like stories as opposed to the news. Somehow those two programs told these interesting stories that you would read in a book. They could find anyone, somebody you knew nothing about all over the world, and no matter who it was, it was interesting."

Her volleyball career at UF was slower moving than her journalism career. A 5-foot-10 middle blocker, Sidner played sparingly. Between her freshman and sophomore seasons, current UF volleyball coach Mary Wise took over the program.

Sidner played in four games as a sophomore and sensed that she might be better off devoting more time to school as the team's talent level improved significantly once Wise arrived.

"I was not the biggest recruit. I was not the best player for sure,'' Sidner said. "I remember walking in and I had played high school and club volleyball I remember walking in and thinking, 'this is so far above my level of play. How can I possibly play on this team?' It just seemed completely impossible.

"It was like walking into a room of redwoods. These girls were tall and thick. They had all been lifting weights. I had never done weights in my life. I had just played and played and played."

Over the next two years Sidner gained invaluable experience as a news reporter at WUFT News, where she experienced one of the most chilling stories of her career.

Shortly after Sidner started classes at UF, serial killer Danny Rolling murdered five UF students and made Gainesville the center of the news world.

The fear around town and campus was palpable as the hunt for the killer drew worldwide attention. Sidner witnessed photos from the crime scenes in her role as a reporter.

"Those images have never left my head,'' she said. "It just so happened that when the trial happened, I was a radio reporter for WUFT, and I was inside the court when Danny Rolling plead guilty. We all said, 'what?' because we couldn't really hear. Nobody expected him to plead guilty. Everyone was expecting this long, drawn-out trail. And then he quietly pleads guilty. It took a while for the courtroom to understand what had happened."

Following college Sidner began her TV news career at a small station in Cape Girardeau, Mo., perhaps best known as hometown of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. Sidner later worked at stations in Fort Myers, Dallas and San Francisco.

In her first year at CNN in 2008, Sidner's profile increased significantly as she covered the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, where she encountered a mob of angry onlookers who interrupted her live report.

Click here to watch the video of Sidner's report from Mumbai.

Sidner returned to UF a couple of years ago to speak to students in the College of Journalism. She also met up with Wise and spoke to the UF volleyball team and toured the facilities.

"UF is still very much part of my life,'' Sidner said.

Here is a Q&A with Sidner about her UF volleyball career and her much more successful journalism career:

Q: What stands out to you about your time as a UF volleyball player?

A: The reason I actually chose the University of Florida was for the school of journalism. I knew the volleyball team was a huge attraction and I wanted to see if I could make it. And then you start playing and your level of play goes up when you are playing against people whose level of play is far better than you are. I also remember one of my first games and I forgot to pull my kneepads out and my friends were there. That was rough. I remember being so embarrassed later on, 'wow, I finally got to play, my friends are sitting over there and I look like a complete fool diving for a ball with no kneepads on.' Welcome to freshman year.

Q: What is your memory of Coach Wise, who is entering her 23rd season?

A: We had a coaching change and there was this woman who walked into the door and I remember thinking, 'she has it all. She's got a husband and kids and she comes in and has this amazingly calm demeanor and knows exactly what she is doing.' When Mary came in, it changed things for everybody. Of course, I'm thinking, 'there's no way she is going to keep me on this team.' She did and it was an amazing experience watching her coach and how absolutely skilled she was. She knew exactly what she wanted and she knew a lot about what the other teams were doing. She was unbelievably impressive and yet she had a whole another life outside of volleyball.

Q: What sparked your interest in a journalism career?

A: I think some of it was the sense of curiosity, and not just random curiosity, but curiosity about people's lives. I have this terrible habit that is still with me today. When I go out to eat or I'm sitting somewhere, I can't help but listen to other people's conversations. If I can hear them and they are loud enough, it's like I stop concentrating on what I'm talking about and I start listing to what they are talking about. And it can be some innocuous stuff, but somehow everyone seems interesting. I wonder what their life is like. Even if it's somebody who has a very slow, sedate life, everyone's version of life is always interesting to me.

Q: Why the interest in covering the Middle East after a memorable stint in India?

A: It's just a wealth of information. And again, in some ways it was a selfish thing. I wanted to experience being there and experience what the struggle is all about between the Israelis and the Palestinians and what all that means and how all these different religions sort of coexist and yet struggle with one another and have struggled with one another for thousands of years. And it's hard. India was difficult on many levels. I want to keep doing stuff that feels hard. There are days when you wish you had chosen an easier assignment, believe me, because everyone has an opinion. There [Israel] everyone has a generally set opinion about who is right, who is wrong and what should be done. If you make a mistake, you are lambasted with some of the worst stuff that I have ever heard in my life, been called in my life. If you want to have a tough skin, you need it. It is one of those very hard places for journalists and anyone who has worked there will tell you, you've got to deal with a lot of criticism. And you have to deal with it, you have to accept it.

Q: How did you land at CNN?

A: A lot of that is really attributable back to WUFT, back to the school, back to the journalism offices, back to the teachers. They would tell us all that you will never get a job, that you will never make any money, so if you are in this business to make money or to get famous, then forget it. Get out now. Basically what that did for a lot of us was to terrify us to the point where we just worked until we dropped. Any opportunity, anywhere, anything, we went. We knew you couldn't say, 'I want to be in New York, I want to be in whoever says yes, it doesn't matter what city, it doesn't matter if it's the worst place on earth, go.'

Q: What is the most memorable moment of your career?

A: That's easy, in Libya during the fall of Tripoli. I don't even know how to really describe it. On a personal level, it was one of those moments that while you're in the moment, you realize that this is big moment. A lot of times things happen and years later you realize, 'wow, that changed this or that made a difference in history this way.' You kind of get that 20/20 vision. But this was one of those times when you are in the middle of it and you can feel this energy pulsating through everything the noise and the gunfire and the squalling and the cheering. That was one of those moments where you realize history is being made and I'm here. I won't have to read this in a book because I remember it and I experienced it. It's an unbelievable gift we're given [as journalists] to experience such moments.

Q: Do you have a timetable on how long you want to be a foreign correspondent?

A: I always told myself that I would ride the train until someone tells me to get off, or until I decide that I'm getting motion sickness and I can't take it anyone. Neither has happened. I've always said ride the train as long as you're happy doing it and then figure something else out. That's kind of how I have led my life.

Editor's note: The Flashback Files is an occasional feature on GatorZone.com.

 

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