In January 2017, for whatever weird reason, my interest in traveling became a big topic in my life.. At that time, it had been just under a year since my trip to the Inca Trail to hike to Machu Picchu and I was getting the urge to see and experience somewhere new.
And, for whatever reason, my mind kept going back to Asia, a continent I had never been to, but that I was feeling called to go visit. But why and how were still open-ended questions.
Several friends and family members know that I debated about booking a trip there by myself, I thought about going to a yoga retreat in Bali, and I even researched some group travel options knowing that Asia would be entirely different than anywhere I’ve experienced in the past. While one of my bucket list items is seeing every continent (anyone know how I can get to Antarctica one day?), and three had been checked off… I knew a fourth was in store in the near future. And, while I’m always one that tells other people to “just book the trip already,” I never actually made any action towards booking a trip or planning anything. Until December came around…
In December, I received an email asking if I would be interested in attending a portion of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PeyongChang in partnership with Bridgestone Tires.
It took me about two minutes to reply back with a, “Are you f’ing kidding me? YES!”
Enter February 22nd, the day before my birthday. My dad and I (the perfect daddy/daughter trip!) had both requested a connection through Dallas. Hopping on our 14.5 hour direct flight to Seoul – aka, three movies, a few hours of sleep, a couple hours of work on the flight, and several glasses of champagne (it was already my birthday in Korea!) – and we were there!
Rather than going through day-by-day, a few highlights that really stood out:
Highlights of South Korea
The Olympic Events
Bridgestone invited us to attend four different events, and they were kind enough to add in a fifth when I showed (extreme) interest in attending:
Big Air (Men’s Snowboarding)
As our first event, I had no idea what to expect, but it was the perfect way to start off our Olympic experience. After hopping off the bus in PeyongChang, we had a 15 minute walk to the actual event. Walking in, I was immediately amazed by how big everything was in person.
Coming from the mountains of Colorado, I somewhat expected that I would be familiar with most of the set up. But these slopes are MASSIVE and definitely don’t exist in nature. (If you’re interested in the exact engineering of the Big Air slope, check out this article from Wired.)
While the event itself was incredible, I found it even more fascinating to be in the middle of an event that was honestly entirely global in scale. There were fans from all over the world in one place cheering each other on. It instantly felt like a little community, like we were experiencing something together that most folks wouldn’t understand or appreciate.
Big Air itself was in the first year of being in the Olympics and the impressive skill level of the athletes was other-worldly. I cannot wait to see where this event goes in the coming years, because I guarantee the tricks are going to be wild.
- Max Parrot (Canada)
- Niklas Mattsson (Sweden)
- Kyle Mack (USA)
Mass Start Speed Skating
While this was the first year of this event being a part of the Olympic Games, I’ll be honest… this event confused the heck out of me.
It was amazing to see how fast these athletes go in real life, but there was some crazy point system in the qualifying race that I still don’t fully understand. But when the final race got under-way, I was hooked!
This is a distance race, so there wasn’t a lot of immediate speed coming right out of the gate. But, within that, you could quickly spot their various strategies. Some athletes immediately tried to get ahead and maintain their lead. Others preferred to remain in the middle of the pack, catching up as the early leaders tired out.
Most interesting to me, other than the actual event itself, were the announcers. While every event we attended included commentary in both Korean and English (sometimes British and sometimes American accents), a few things were familiar, no matter where you’re from in the world.
For one, everyone knew the wave, as the commentators led that portion of the evening. #classic The Korean kiss cam was also a reality. But even more impressive were the commentators going back and forth between languages without so much as a blink of an eye! It made the tiny piece of French that I still know from high school seem very inadequate.
Additionally, in the lobby of the arena, they had these crazy machines (one pictured above) cruising around offering to take your picture, give you directions, or play some pretty BA Korean pop tunes. That simple piece of technology still very much impresses me – a simple way to make life so much easier for the thousands of tourists in attendance.
- Lee Seung-hoon (South Korea)
- Bart Swings (Belgium)
- Koen Verweij (Netherlands)
- Nana Takagi (Japan)
- Bo-Reum Kim (Korea)
- Irene Schouten (Netherlands)
Figure Skating Gala
While I, unfortunately, was unable to attend any of the figure skating competitions, Bridgestone was kind enough to give us tickets to the Figure Skating Gala. The Gala is essentially a short ice show that features some key competitors, such as medal winners, record holders, and competitors from the host nation.
I went in knowing what to expect, having grown up figure skating, but what I didn’t expect was my emotional response. While a lot of the skaters were fun to watch, seeing Virtue and Moir (Canadian ice dancers and gold medal winners) perform their exhibition program while sitting in the front row literally brought me to tears. They are true living legends in the ice skating world – and they deserve every minute of glory they’re receiving right now.
Men’s Hockey (Gold Medal Game)
Somehow, within the past few years, I’ve been thrown into the world of hockey. And, over the past few years or so, my relationships within the hockey world seem to be getting tighter and tighter everyday. Which meant that I was very excited to see this gold medal game in action.
Germany and Russia (sorry, Olympic Athlete from Russia – enter eye roll here) played a somewhat surprisingly close game. With Russia scoring a shorthanded goal with less than a minute left, then winning in overtime, the game was fast-moving and fun to watch.
One (I thought) hilarious piece to note was that, even in Korea at the Olympics, cheerleaders were present. During every break, they would come out to the stands with their poms and perform a dance to a classic, 1990s, American tune and rally the crowd. Even though I grew up dancing and on pom-pom squads, it was not a place that I was expecting to see cheerleaders. But hey, now I have something new to aspire to – because dancing at the Olympics could be a lot of fun. 😉
The event that I was most excited to see going into the trip was probably the Closing Ceremonies, and it did not disappoint. From crazy shapes made out of drones high in the sky, to fantastic light shows and thousands of performers, both PeyongChang and Beijing (the next host nation is included in the Closing Ceremonies) didn’t hold anything back when they pulled together their performance.
Some special surprises at the event included the fact that each seat included a branded Olympic bag full of souvenirs for attendees – a branded winter beanie; a super fancy, branded poncho; hand, foot, and body warmers that are now lovingly keeping me toasty in Breckenridge; and a program of events that explained all of the performances. Also, PeyongChang was budget-conscious in building their stadium and built the 12,000 person space to be temporary so that they won’t have a random, empty stadium hanging around following the events. But they did include lights between every seat that could light up on cue. #fancy
I loved watching the Closing Ceremonies in person and comparing them to what I was able to see on television, too. While I heard from friends that the Opening Ceremonies were incredibly different to watch on TV versus in the stadium, most of the Closing Ceremonies seemed to be the same. However, the angles and different touches used for television made the show even more impressive. These ceremonies were definitely designed with a global audience in mind.
At each Olympics, various nations are offered the ability to create a “house” for all of the nation’s athletes, family members, and sponsors to visit while they are at the Olympic games. And, being a guest of one of the primary, global sponsors, our group got the incredible honor to hang out at the USA House between some of the various events.
Walking into the house itself was amazing – instantly seeing athletes I’ve followed closely for years, coaches that have been around for decades, and others that you knew were a part of someone’s journey to the Olympics felt more special than I would have expected.
The lugers were hanging out with the skiers. The bobsledders were hanging out with the hockey players. And everyone was surrounding the 11 televisions that were all focused on the men’s gold medal curling match (match? game? anyone know that answer?) cheering on Team USA.
I, of course, finagled my way into the luge/ski crowd and had a blast learning about their various journeys to the Olympic games, learning the difference between the various Olympics (many of the athletes had been to a few), and relating on random things such as the chocolate chip pancakes and breakfast burrito many of us have enjoyed at Base Camp Café in Lake Placid. (Note: If you’re heading to Lake Placid, I recommend checking it out!)
In all honesty, I never really thought about what I would chat about with Olympic athletes, but this experience made me realize that they’re just like us – only a lot more committed to their sport than I would ever be at this point in my life.
Holding an Olympic Medal
One of the perks of being in PeyongChang in partnership with Bridgestone is that they sponsor several Olympic athletes – and their athletes are usually very successful.
As an example, we got the opportunity to meet Elana Meyers Taylor, who won a silver medal at the PeyongChang Olympics for two-woman bobsled. (In fact, she’s also won a silver in Sochi in 2014, as well as a bronze in Vancouver in 2010. Nbd.)
Elana, besides being kind enough to speak with me at length about her history and just life in general, also allowed me to hold her Olympic medal.
To say I was fan-girling for a while would be a massive understatement. Seeing the intricacies of the medals in person, such as the Hangul letters on the edge of the medals and the traditional Korean fabrics used as the ribbon, was overwhelming. That so much hard work and determination had gone into receiving this medal, and many more just like it, was immediately felt once it was in your hands.
Not to mention that Elana has enough Olympic medals that she was comparing and contrasting them all to share which were her favorite and why. …A girl can dream.
Random Musings from the Olympics
There are several details that I could be listing out in this post, but for length, I’ll share a couple in purely bullet point form…
- Pin trading is a hot commodity. While I honestly thought it was a joke for a while, pin trading is a legit art… and I am terrible at it. I fell for fake “collectors pins” in trading away some of the pins Bridgestone gifted me left and right. People also stood in lines for hours to get special collectors pins. Let’s just say that I do not see pin trading as being a profession in my future.
- Being a writer, I cannot tell you how annoyed I was that Russia was being called “Olympic Athlete from Russia,” instead of “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Especially when their hockey team won. If this situation happens in the future, I expect more out of the OAC.
- In the USA House, there is an amazing picture from the Opening Ceremonies that the USOC prints out to be wall-sized overnight. Then, as each athlete visits the house, they sign the picture next to their face and the picture ends up at the US Olympic Museum in Colorado Springs. I can’t imagine the honor it must be to sign your name.
- One of the top perks of being an Olympic athlete has to be the gear. I know that it may be hard to believe, but the USA gear looks even better in person and they all get a ton of swag. (Which makes sense… they worked their bootys off to earn it!)
- Also, even in person, Canada still has the best gear. Though I’d say that we are a very, very close second.
- Bridgestone was awesome and was very focused on letting us try traditional Korean foods while we were in town. This included making rice patties from scratch and lots of fresh seafood.
Seoul Old Town
With much of our time in Korea spent at the Olympics, I didn’t get much time to spend in Seoul proper, but the time I did get was primarily in visiting Seoul Old Town.
Facinating to me was seeing how Old Seoul melded seamlessly with new, global trends. A thriving metropolis of almost 10 million people surrounding the Han River (in comparison, Chicago proper has almost three million residents), visiting the beautiful homes and galleries in Old Town immediately takes you back to experience what Seoul must have been like hundreds of years ago.
While there is still an Imperial Family, and much of Seoul is rooted in tradition (as an example, many elders still write in Chinese recognizing it as their traditional language), walking the streets of the Bukchon Hanoik Village, just North of the river, helped us to experience where Seoul truthfully came from – and how fast they’re migrating to the future.
Highlights of Tokyo
Just a day later, and our small group was on the short flight out of South Korea, heading straight to Tokyo.
From pictures I viewed online and from the massive amount of videos I’ve seen that make Tokyo look like a big Times Square, I thought I knew what to expect. But I was way off!
For one, the population of Tokyo (including surrounding areas) is about 38 million people. The population of California, for comparison, is about 39 million people. That’s a massive city!
But also, while the city expanded as far as my eye could see, it didn’t feel quite as large as our major cities in America. It was as if, in the busyness of it all, residents of Tokyo were constantly searching for a solace of silence.
Yes, I shopped at an eight-story stationary store that was highly unnecessary. Yes, there were certain times when I felt a bit overwhelmed by the people surrounding me.
But overall, I felt relaxed and at-ease. There were Japanese gardens to walk through, Buddhist temples full of honor and prestige (one highlighted below), and even the bar in our hotel was full of history and tradition.
Every piece of Tokyo felt like it had a story, and I felt honored to be experiencing even a small piece of that tradition.
The one place that I highly recommend everyone visits in Tokyo is the Senso-ji Temple. While we’ll be discussing religion in a post later this month, you could just feel something special in the air at Senso-ji Temple.
Being Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji includes a five-story pagoda, the temple itself, a Shinto shrine, a Asakusa shrine, and many traditional shops full of hand-made goods.
When we walked into the temple, we could hear the rarified sound of monks chanting and the smell of incense filled the air. Our guide walked us through the ritual of cleansing ourselves before walking into the temple – first you light a bundle of incense and cleanse yourself with the smoke in the air, then you cleanse both hands and your mouth at the purification fountain so that you are entirely clean walking into the temple.
In the temple itself, we were permitted to throw a coin into the shrine and say a prayer with a bow towards the Shinto god (called “kami.”)
The process felt rooted in tradition and deeply meaningful. Similar to what I felt when I reached the Sungate at Machu Picchu, I still can’t think of the words to use, but I know that this feeling will stick with me for the rest of my life. I feel honored to have it be even a piece of my experience in Tokyo.
There are very few words I could use to describe my trip to Asia (even though I’ve used thousands thus far.) I cannot thank Bridgestone enough for allowing me to be a part of this experience. This trip is something that will stick with me for the rest of my life, and I am so honored to be even one, small piece of the Bridgestone family.
Lastly, thank you so much for our group members (especially my father) for allowing me to be a part of your 2018 PeyongChang Olympic experience. We became a small family over there, and I’m so happy to have met you and that we’ll be able to follow each other’s journeys for so many years to come.
Thank you, Bridgestone!