As I sit here in Seoul’s Incheon Airport, I’m at the same gate/on the same flight as the U.S.’s gold-medal-winning curling team. Earlier, one of them watched my bags while I ran to the bathroom during the insanely long check-in process at the Delta counter.
I’d been sitting on a bus for three hours, I explained to Tyler George, who stood ahead of me in line. Would he watch my bags while I ran to pee?
“Of course,” he said, as I ran off in search of the loo.
This summed up my experience covering the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games: long waits punctuated by the kinds of moments that make us remember why we cover sports. Every so often, we catch an unscripted glimpse inside what makes these inspirational athletes tick.
Like Lindsey Vonn reflecting on her many injuries and comebacks after she finished third in the downhill.
Vonn talking to the press in the mixed zone.
“When you’re young, you ski and you win and you don’t appreciate things,” she told us, after we stood in the mixed zone (where athletes talk to the media) for 3 hours, 2 minutes waiting for her to tell us what winning an Olympic bronze medal felt like. (Because every TV station from NBC to the Serbians wanted to interview her, and TV is higher on the Olympic food chain.)
“I’ve been in the fences so many times, I know so many doctors on a first name basis,” she told us. “It’s ridiculous. If you need any medical care, I can hook you up with the right doctor.”
As if we were her friends. In previous Olympics and world championships, she has provided more rehearsed answers and not spent more than a minute or two with us in the mixed zone.
David Wise’s sisters, Christy and Jessica.
Or finding David Wise’s sisters in the crowd at the ski halfpipe competition, and them telling me that their little brother — who had just won his second Olympic gold medal — began freeskiing “in the era when they were doing one trick multiple times.”
“He’s been the one to be like, no, we need to spin both ways, we need to have variation in our tricks and grabs are important,” his sister Jessica said, which helped explain David’s role in the freeskiing world. And why he had just won his second gold medal.
Or watching the women’s XC team sprint in the stands with the American skiers’ friends and families. Before the race, I had been chatting with Jessie Diggins’s grandmother. At least I think it was her grandmother. It was hard to hear about the crowd noise. As we all hugged and screamed after Jessie and Kikkan Randall won the U.S.’s first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing, I saw tears in her eyes — streaming through the American flags painted on her cheeks.
Or Ester Ledecka coming into the press conference after she won the women’s super-G gold medal — beating the likes of world and Olympic champions Anna (Fenninger) Veith and Lindsey Vonn. Ledecka wore her goggles on stage and joked that she couldn’t take them off because she had to represent her sponsor. Then when pressed, she confessed that she had not expected to win a medal that day, so had not brought any eye make-up.
And what’s not to like about a champion who confesses that chocolate is her form of doping?
These are moments we journalists live for, through the grueling hours and sleep deprivation, long (hot!) bus rides, and lack of decent nutrition. It’s a MASH-like experience, where we forge friendships or at least kinship with those who are also freezing in the Siberian wind, waiting for hours for the American who finished sixth in moguls to tell us how he feels, and who also haven’t eaten a real meal in the past 15 hours. Korean Oreos, anyone?
But there are also moments that don’t make it to press. And it’s these moments, as much as the gold-medal-winning performances, that keep us coming back.
Here are a few of mine — in no particular order:
- Eating Korean BBQ with friends Elliott Almond, Christa Case Bryant, and Amy Donaldson. Is that salad? Or grass clippings?
- Coming home at night to my roommate, Karen Rosen, who often had me doubled over laughing. Was there a conspiracy to slowly bake us to death in our flat on the 13th floor of the Gangneung Media Village?
- Getting to know countless journalists — like Jason Albert and Gabby Naranja at Fasterskier, and Christa, Amy, Elliott, and all the others with whom I shared mixed zones and bus rides.
- Having dinner at USA House and realizing that 8 of the 10 people at our table were Vermonters.
- Playing miniature hockey “foosball” with my friend Aimee outside Sweden House in PyeongChang. Could they make the handles any bigger?!
- Joking with other journalists in the mixed zone as we waited for Mikaela Shiffrin after her GS win. Would Shiffrin make it to us before the sun went down? … Nope!
- Taking a tour of the DMZ. In the four other Olympics I’ve covered, I haven’t taken time to soak in the host country’s culture, other than an occasional meal. The Koreans bussed us to the DMZ, showed us the North Korean border, and talked about their hope for a unified Korea and for peace. And they fed us lunch, a soup made of what looked like primordial fish. It was delicious. As long as you avoided the floating eyeballs and fish organs.
- Reading the stories written by other journalists. They managed to weave two-minute snippets of quotes into lovely prose. And they did it with frozen fingers and minds as numb with fatigue as mine. Then we would laugh and remember that we’d get to do it all over again the next morning, on four hours of sleep.
It was, for me, as inspirational as any athletic performance in PyeongChang.