An Unforgettable Trip to the Winter Olympics

Samantha Wong with American men’s snowboard slopestyle gold medalist Red Gerard.

 

Growing up, I watched the Olympics in awe, amazed by how athletes dedicated their entire lives to mastering one sport. I always wished I could watch the games in person, but never imagined that I would one day make it a reality. 

Yet, I figured out a way to raise more than $3,500 and miss nine days of class for a trip to Pyeongchang, South Korea. Last week, I was in the snowy mountains shivering in zero-degree weather while watching Torrance’s Chloe Kim snowboard her way to a gold medal. 

As a college student, it can be difficult to leave school for more than a week, but my mom helped me word emails to my professors to present the situation in a better light. My professors turned out to be very accommodating, many telling me not to fret about missing class.  

Samantha Wong at the opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium February 9. Photo Courtesy of: Samantha Wong

The money was also hard to come by, but a huge fan of snowboard slopestyle, I was determined to make it happen. I’ve been reselling concert tickets on marketplaces such as Stubhub for five years to make extra cash. After selling a second-row Ed Sheeran ticket for $700, I was quickly on my way to the Olympics. 

There were two things I was worried about for my trip: not being able to speak or read Korean, and my toes getting frostbite… (Spoiler alert: all ten toes survived.) 

Little did I know, my downfall would be an aspect of the games that I didn’t worry about until I arrived in South Korea: transportation. It was an absolute nightmare trying to figure out transit between the snowboarding events in Pyeongchang and the ice skating events in Gangneung. 

There were no direct spectator buses that traveled between the venues. Instead, there were many buses that only went to one or two nearby stops. It took me three hours and five buses to get from Gangneung to Pyeongchang. After the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, it took me four hours, two buses and one taxi to get back to Gangneung  and I was one of the lucky ones. The last long-distance train to Seoul left before the ceremony ended and the spectator buses left thousands of others stranded with few taxis available. During the following days, some buses never showed up or were delayed more than an hour. 

On top of spotty transportation, the weather was bitterly cold and the wind made everything glacial. I was freezing even during the uphill hikes, wearing seven layers of clothing. Shivering spectators left the opening ceremony early. Drinks froze within 10 minutes of exposure. Two students from King’s College London both told me they had never experienced anything as cold. 

Men’s snowboard halfpipe gold medalist Shaun White signs an autograph for a fan. Photo Courtesy of: Samantha Wong

Despite rough conditions, the sporting events were incredible. I witnessed American slopestyle snowboarder Red Gerard, and halfpipe snowboarders Chloe Kim and Shaun White each claim first place in their event. The women’s halfpipe competition was impressive, but the men’s competition surpassed it. I was speechless when White scored a 93.25 out of 100 points on his first run and even more in awe when he replaced that score with a 98.50 on his final run. 

However, my favorite part of the games was the precious sense of unity I felt with other Americans when our competitors performed well. Each time an American won the gold medal, the crowd would erupt in joy and start chanting, “USA, USA, USA.” We were so obnoxious that Korean volunteers shot us annoyed glances, but we were too ecstatic to care. 

At the men’s snowboard slopestyle final, I stood next to the Gerard family. It was remarkable to see not only Gerard’s reaction, but also his family’s and friends’ reactions in person when Gerard won the gold medal. I was sandwiched between Gerard and his cousin when he came by to hug his family members after the competition. To be so close to the family’s triumph made me feel as if the victory was also my own. I couldn’t help but share in their pride, as I cheered with the family every time a news outlet came by to take photos. 

I was truly moved by this rare expression of pure joy. All 18 members of Gerard’s entourage screamed and yelled, including Kyle Mack, Gerard’s fellow American competitor and roommate in the Olympic Village. I had never been surrounded by so many people selflessly encouraging and celebrating another’s accomplishments without resentment. It really does take an (Olympic) village to help someone succeed.   

Between the highs and lows of my trip, a constant factor was the generosity of the Olympic volunteers. Although they possessed a language barrier and general lack of knowledge, they did their best to accommodate each spectator’s needs by double-checking information with multiple sources and calling taxis on their behalf. 

Samantha Wong with American slopestyle snowboarder Kyle Mack. Photo Courtesy of: Samantha Wong

I only slept for two hours most days since I attended events late at night and early in the morning and spent endless hours traveling. The events themselves were great, but the highlight of my trip was meeting other spectators and sharing the Olympic spirit of friendship and solidarity. We shared toe warmers and snacks, and a secretary from the Japanese embassy even bought me dinner. 

I am still reeling from this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The trip seemed like such a mess at first, but, through many inspiring people, everything fell into place. I will be forever grateful I got to share this emotional experience with thousands of others from around the world. 

Samantha Wong

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