My time at the Olympic Games
Story & Photos By: Emma Kalka
To say I’ve always been an Olympics fan is a slight understatement.
I grew up watching the Games every two years like clockwork. We’d sit down and watch the opening and closing ceremonies as a family. Then Mom and I would spend every night on the sofa watching our favorite events. So many memories and so many historical moments.
I remember cheering when Tara Lipinski won gold and then gasping in shock the following Games when Michelle Kwon did not. I cried when the Magnificent Seven stood on the podium and was proud that Shannon Miller was a fellow Oklahoman. I remember watching Shaun White win his first gold at Torino. After I moved to Korea, my best friend and I would live tweet back and forth during the Opening Ceremony – completely judging Team USA’s outfits – even though we were in different time zones.
I was moved to tears watching Kim Yuna’s gold medal performance at Vancouver.
Mom and I would always talk about how cool it would be to go to the Olympics. It was a dream and I made it a goal that someday I would go, hopefully with my mom. It became a top priority bucket list item.
I remember working at a broadcasting company in 2011 in Seoul when they announced Pyeongchang as the 2018 Winter Games host. It was around midnight and I was in the newsroom watching the feed live with all the reporters and ADs. A cheer went up and I immediately messaged Mom, telling her that if I was still in Korea in 2018, we were going to do it. Shortly after, I got a message from my college best friend asking if I planned to stay in Korea that long and if so, we were going.
Fast forward several years, and I’m sitting in Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang next to my best friend, quickly turning into an icicle, but so full of joy and excitement that it didn’t matter. As the first act started, I was immediately overwhelmed and tears started to fill my eyes (though I quickly wiped them away, terrified they’d freeze to my cheeks). My mom couldn’t be there, but I spared a few glances up to the sky, imagining her sitting in Heaven with a bucket of popcorn watching right along with me.
It’s been an exciting Games to watch in person.
I got to see Red Gerard win his first gold medal at the age of 17, in a come-from-behind win at slopestyle that makes watching the Olympics so breathtaking. He was in the bottom after two runs and pulled out an amazing last run to shoot to the top of the podium. Watching his reaction after he landed and then again a few minutes later after it was official the Olympic gold was priceless.
A couple days later, I saw the phenomenal Chloe Kim win her first gold, also at 17, in the women’s halfpipe. She scored high enough in her first run that just before she went on her third and final run, it was announced that she had won gold. With nerves of steel, she took the pipe, determined that even though she already had the medal, she was going for history now. She landed back-to-back 1080s – a first for a woman in Olympics history.
Fellow American Arielle Gold joined her on the podium, winning the bronze. She had a true comeback story. As the youngest member of the snowboard team for the Sochi Olympics, she suffered an injury just before the Games and was unable to compete. So, she waited four years for her second chance and pulled through with amazing results.
The following day, I stood decked out in my Team USA gear, cheering on Shaun White as he made his attempt for his third gold medal at what could be his final Winter Games. I had been watching him on TV for over 10 years, it seemed, and I nearly couldn’t believe that I was standing there about to watch him compete in person. Despite the snow that quickly turned my toes into ice cubes or the crush of the crowd. Or even getting to the venue at 8:30 a.m. – two hours before competition started – so we could get a decent spot to watch (at 5’5 and 5’0, we pretty much had to be in the front at all events if we wanted to see anything), I was on cloud nine. Thankfully, we made friends with a group of fellow Americans and cheered as a group for all four Team USA members in the finals – Ben Ferguson, Chase Josey, Jake Pates and Shaun White.
The reaction of the crowd when he won was nearly indescribable. People from all over the world were cheering him on – as evident by the many Shaun White signs. He burst into tears as he hugged his mother and we were all pretty much screaming our heads off. He was also gracious enough to come over and speak to a few of us – thanking us for watching, cheering and waiting around three hours in the cold to chat with him – before he was ushered off to a press conference.
A couple days after that, I got to experience true Olympics spirit when my friend and I found ourselves sandwiched in between groups of Team France, Team Italia and Team Czech Republic during women’s snowboard cross. As we walked to our seats, a group of men in French hens hats started chanting “USA! USA!” and waving at us. A woman from Team Italia chatted with us throughout the entire competition. Both groups cheer with us for our ladies and we ended up cheering with them for theirs. Despite the fact that Lindsey Jacobellis didn’t make the podium at the end, we weren’t upset. Choosing instead to congratulate the family of silver medalist Julia Pereira de Sousa Mabileau in front of us and then the Italians behind us for gold medalist Michaela Moioli and then waving towards the Czech Republic group for bronze-medalist Eva Samkova.
Being at the Olympics, for me, was the experience of a lifetime.
Despite the frigid temperatures that I was positive would kill me the first three days, and the somewhat unpredictable shuttle schedule that would sometimes have us waiting an hour, but then other times had us arriving an hour early, I enjoyed nearly every second. I enjoyed watching the athletes compete. I enjoyed making friends with folks from all over the world. I enjoyed celebrating with the athletes’ families whenever we ended up near them – which seemed to be nearly every event. I got to meet people who were on their third, fourth and once even eighth Olympics. I looked over at my best friend and we both grinned, deciding that someday, that would be us.
So for me, even though my PyeongChang experience is over, I’m happy with the memories I’ve made. More than that, I’m already looking forward to Tokyo 2020. Summer Games, here I come!