- From the emergence of Chloe Kim to stumbles on the ice and an unforgettable hockey game, these are the lasting impressions of the Winter Games from SI's staff in South Korea.
As we depart South Korea, SI's staff wants to share our lasting memories and parting thoughts after three weeks covering the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang. The Winter Olympics featured highs and lows, new stars and familiar faces, and so much more to remember.
Between runs of the women’s Alpine combined race on Thursday afternoon in the mountains, I went outside with some friends to get our picture taken. This is something of a silly tradition that we made even sillier. There were Pat Graham of the Associated Press, Bill Pennington of The New York Times and Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post. The four of us cover Alpine ski racing almost every day here, and we had stood for a similar photo four years ago in Sochi. Four of the guys in that photo are not here this time: Chris Dufresne, John Meyer, David Leon Moore and Nate Vinton. So we left gaps in the picture to approximate where they had stood. (Alan Abrahamson of NBC was in the original and he’s in Korea, but we couldn’t find him.) Anyway, silly.
These are my seventh and last Winter Olympics. I love the Games and I love writing about skiing, but it’s a grind that can’t be explained to those who haven’t experienced it. Alpine in particular—with hours out in the cold, followed by hours in stifling artificial heat. The stories are a joy, but it’s time for somebody else to write them for Sports Illustrated four years from now in Beijing.
But this is about a moment. After shooting our photo, the two South Korean volunteers who snapped it asked us to sign their parkas. We resisted. They insisted. They were beaming as we scrawled our names on the gray jackets. I don’t know why they wanted American sportswriters to write on their clothing.
But they were very happy, so I was happy. Because not every Olympian moment is about somebody winning a medal.
The Winter Olympics began with the shocking news that they were happening in winter. Yes, it was cold—especially in the mountains, and especially at night. I never expected anybody outside Korea to care. The only shame of the weather was that it messed with the Alpine skiing schedule, which meant it messed with Mikaela Shiffrin’s Olympics. She still won a gold and a silver, which is a heck of a haul. She might have won another medal with a normal schedule.
Still, these Olympics gave us young Chloe Kim and old Shaun White and enough highlights to keep everybody satisfied. The best event I witnessed, by far, was the women’s gold-medal hockey game between the U.S. and Canada. It is such a treat to watch a game and know before it ends that, whoever wins, everybody involved was lucky to be a part of it. The Canadian women can’t see that now. They will someday.
Very often, the Olympics are about dumb luck. Often this is true for the athletes. With one tiny miscue by an opponent, your silver morphs into gold. But luck also applies to the reporters covering the Olympics. Sometimes amazing stories appear before your eyes when you’re not even looking.
On Wednesday night in South Korea, I ventured out to the cross-country skiing venue to gather reporting about Norway’s secrets to Olympic success. (One Norwegian quirk: In organized youth sports, the kids can’t keep score. Poor Norway, having to function without the nine-year-old AAU biathlon national championships.) I headed out to the “mixed-zoned,” the area where reporters jostle with one another to stick a tape recorder in the faces of Olympians (good times), ostensibly to ask the Norwegian skiers about their country’s philosophy on sports after they won gold or silver in the women’s sprint relay event.
I glanced out at the snowy finish line, up in the mountains of PyeongChang, to see two racers neck and neck. The crowd screamed. Flags waved. A photo finish, how cool is this? Both racers crossed the line and one joyous skier tackled her teammate. I looked up at the scoreboard. In first place … the United States of America.
Change of plans. I knew I would not be spending the rest of my night interviewing Norwegian skiers, as delightful as they are to chat with. (They are. Norway seemed bemused, and flattered, that American journalists cared about their success.) Kikkan Randall—a five-time Olympian and the only Team USA athlete who’s also a mother—and Jessie Diggins had just won America’s first Olympic gold, ever, in cross-county history. In the U.S., cross-country’s often an Olympic afterthought, something that pops onto your screen at odd hours during the Games between figure skating programs. No more. One of the Team USA coaches, when he saw that Randall and Diggins pulled it out, fell to his knees and cried.
“Oh my gosh,” Diggins said after Randall tackled her. “Did we just win the Olympics?”
They did. Time to pay attention to cross-country.
More so than any other Olympic skating competition I’ve covered, this one really hit some epic highs and lows. There were gold-medal favorite Nathan Chen’s two disastrous short programs—two chances to get it right, and two times the carefully choreographed routine that Chen had been performing time and time again in both competition and practice all season, went horribly wrong. There was Canadian Gabrielle Daleman’s painful free skate, in which nearly every jump she attempted unfurled with her on the ice as she struggled to find her legs.
While it’s hard to witness those moments, they are an inevitable part of competing, and the athletes know that. Because they also know that good things happen too, spectacular things, that can bury those painful experiences and dissipate them like dust. And those are what I will take away from these Olympics—Chen rallying back with a long program punctuated with the sweet redemption of five clean quadruple jumps (and another with a stumbled landing), a first for any skater at the Olympics, that will stand in the history books for many years to come; Mirai Nagasu’s historic triple axel for the U.S., Vincent Zhou landing the first ever quadruple lutz at the Olympics; and the Olympic Athlete from Russia Alina Zagitova, just 15, who held off her training partner to win gold in the ladies event with a dazzling display of technical prowess that no other skater came close to matching.
The ice is slippery and we’re taught to take the bad with the good, the lows with the highs, which is not always an easy lesson to learn. But moments like those should help.
It turns out the Winter Olympics are a team sport.
All teams have some camaraderie, but when you participate in a sport with no expectation of fortune or fame, you surely establish tighter bonds. The U.S. women’s cross-country team gave a press conference early in the Games, and the rapport was obvious. The matriarch—literally, the only mother on Team USA—is Kikkan Randall, 34, competing in her fifth Olympics. The star of the team is Jessie Diggins, 26, from Afton, Minn., who won a World Cup race this season. She is a sunny presence, evident by her predilection for painting her teammates with glitter.
This is my eighth Winter Games, and at every one, the U.S. is about to win a medal in cross-country skiing. It’s one of those sports—like team handball or, say, soccer—that Americans figure Americans should be good at. The U.S. has won exactly one medal in cross-country skiing since the sport joined the Winter Games in 1924: Bill Koch’s silver in the 30km in 1976.
But on the night of Feb. 21, the U.S. did win another medal in cross-country skiing, and it was gold. It came in the women’s team sprint freestyle relay, and the participants were Randall and Diggins. And if you haven’t seen the finish, shame on you.
If you were still sitting down at the end of that race, you are dead inside. You can be redeemed, that is, unless you remained seated during the U.S. women’s hockey team’s victory over archrival Canada. Suffice to say it was a team victory too.
The Winter Olympics are all about teams. The whole Norwegian delegation behaves as one; they do everything together. Every four years, I’m reminded: Keep an eye on how Winter Olympians treat each other, whether from the same country or not. At the Winter Games, everyone’s a teammate.
After covering my first Olympics, what I’ll remember most are the athletes. That’s probably cliché, but the top story of the Olympics should always be the athletes. I’ve spoken to players in locker rooms after big games in other sports, but there’s something different about the weight of the Olympics when you’re in the media scrum in the mixed zone after an event.
I’ll remember talking to Simidele Adeagbo, minutes after she clocked in with a last place time after two heats of skeleton. But she had also become the first Winter Olympian ever from Nigeria and was so happy just to have gone out there and competed. I’ll remember talking to Maame Biney, minutes after she was bounced from the women’s 500m semifinals in short track speed skating. The teenager became an instant star at the Olympic Trials for her permanent smile and persistent laughter. Then I stood two feet from her as she wiped away a tear, thanked her dad, talked about how valuable the experience was for her and vowed to be back in four years. I’ll remember talking to hockey players and curlers and going snow tubing with a luger.
The athletes are what make the Olympics the Olympics, and getting to interact with the ones who were so happy to be here made the experience special for me too.
Having only covered this Olympics and the 2016 Games in Rio, it’s hard for me not to directly compare the two. One was hot. One was cold. I couldn't understand Portuguese or I couldn't understand Korean. Each experience was unique, but you encounter so many of the same struggles while covering any Olympics. The Olympic grind. Getting around quickly becomes tiresome. Media shuttles and taxis are never there when you need them. Food options are limited and the thrill of eating a new cuisine fades with each day.
However, despite my penchant for complaining, I can't forget to thank our hosts. Koreans were nothing but excited to welcome us to their country, share their culture, and cheer on the athletes. Whether encouraging us to try the kimchi, or fighting their own fears of speaking a foreign language, Koreans did it with a smile.
But the Olympic grind isn't as noticeable when you get caught up in the excitement of the competition—blindly rooting for athletes whose names you may not know in sports with rules you may not understand. We cheer because our country's colors are displayed and it's just what you do. Thank you to our hosts, my coworkers, and the job that gave me this opportunity. It has been fun.
This Olympics was a very different experience for me than my one past experience in Rio. Although PyeongChang had its fair share of exciting moments—namely, in my opinion, Shaun White winning halfpipe gold and the U.S. women's hockey team ending its 20-year gold medal drought—this Olympics seemed more subdued than past Games. The temperatures were freezing and the venues were spread out, but the food was great, and the Korean people couldn't have been more welcoming or friendly.
The Olympics are amazing no matter where they are held or which country walks away with the most medals. But this month was a long one, and I'm ready to return home. Until Tokyo 2020!
The Winter Olympics are held once every four years, but for many it’s only once in a lifetime. Whether you’re competing, spectating or documenting, it’s a rare opportunity for the world to come together in a foreign land.
Being able to be a part of this event halfway around the world and interact with people from all over the globe has been an unforgettable experience. I’m thankful for the experiences that my camera has given me that I likely wouldn’t have gotten without it, such as having a conversation with a monk over tea, seeing the sunrise on the beach during the Lunar New Year, eating ice cream made from squid ink (it’s very good!), bonding with Olympic medalists over common interests and many more. I know some of these may seem like things I could do without it, but the people and circumstances make it even more special.
The biggest takeaway for me from these Olympic Games is that while countries compete against one another and fans cheer for our respective countries, there’s an overwhelming sense of togetherness found at every level. It has been refreshing to just be, and leave all our perceived differences behind for a few weeks.
I’d never been to an Olympics before 2018—but neither had most of the rest of the world. And let me tell you: These South Korean Winter Games were smaller than you might think. Big, yes, with regard to crowds and the Opening Ceremony, but almost pedestrian in the in-between. There was no NBC music swelling in the actual arenas or buses, no automatic close-up view from the stands on the beaming faces of the competitors’ families, no color commentary playing in your ear. You saw the work—the victory and the defeat—from dozens or hundreds of feet away, sometimes minutes after a Kenny Chesney song had played over the speakers. You talked to the athletes in the crush of a press zone after they had just been anointed or undone. Nathan Chen is tiny! And Chloe Kim, tinier still. Yet there they were, flinging themselves into the air, waiting for a roar to signal that they had landed again.
There is no majesty at the Olympics the way someone watching on TV at home might imagine. You miss things in person that you overlook or ignore. But if you are lucky, you will get close, now and then, to the real thing. And you’ll think about, small as she is, how fast Chloe Kim can go—and how high; how Gus Kenworthy really did have to give half-handshakes with a broken thumb two days after competing, and that we too rarely see the bruises and breaks on the bodies of the people we cheer, speeding over snow and ice; and, yep, how Adam Rippon’s teeth are exactly that white in person and his quips so quick you’ll swear they were pre-scripted.
Perhaps like nothing else the Games affirm a sense of life’s true scale. You will never remember the stadiums or the slopes or the sky, for all of their size. But you will not forget their faces.