101 pins: Getting to the games, pins 4 to 5
February 9, 2018
BOKWANG PHOENIX PARK — Stay on the prescribed track while covering an Olympics and seemingly nothing can go wrong.
Volunteers are waiting to help as soon as you step off the plane at the airport, ready to point you where to go. There are desks set up to take care of your needs and taxis and buses waiting specifically for Olympic journalists. The drivers know where to go to get you checked into your hotel.
But, step off the prescribed track and all bets are off.
We inadvertently stepped off when we went to cover the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, against the insistence of the volunteer staff and, while mind-numbingly tired from our travel, we spent hours — literally, like four hours — riding back and forth on various shuttle buses over a span of roughly 1 mile, back and forth past the hotel we were desperately looking for without realizing it.
Step off the prescribed track at your own risk.
I stepped off as soon as we arrived in South Korea. Rather than rushing up to Pyeongchang to hunker down in our room and begin covering the Olympics, I booked a tour to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a surreal but worthy experience.
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I gave pin No. 1 to my parents, No. 2 to my brother and his wife and No. 3 to Luke Graham. I did not leave pin No. 4 at the border for Kim Jong-un, nor did I slip it to the stern South Korean guards standing watch as tourists gawked along one of the most tense borders in the world.
Five hours later, again desperately tired and sitting alone in a Seoul train station, I did need a pin to give away.
I was traveling with a pair of Denver Post sports writers but our Colorado-strong trio was broken up by the claim by the volunteer staff at the train station that there were only two remaining seats on the next train to Pyeongchang.
I offered to sit out and wait for the next one, three agonizing hours later. To be honest, I kind of expected a fight, to look like the hero, ya know? They were loading their bags on that train as the last words hit my mouth, and I don’t blame them at all.
Three evening hours in the Seoul train station is a daunting hurdle.
Fortunately, I had Mirae Cha on my side.
Whereas there are dozens of waiting helpers at the airport, where the vast majority of press arrives for transportation to the Olympics, Cha was one of just three at the airport, and I'm not sure that crew was the A-team.
She sure was nice, though.
First, she snuck me into an employees lounge in the station. I'd probably have rather found a beer and some food, but she was so insistent this was the move, I followed.
She then came back after half an hour wondering if I could warn the Post reporters and tell them she'd told them the wrong mountain station to get off at. (Warn them? Ha, you suckers think waiting in the train station is rough? Wait until you're lost in the Korean mountains! … Ok, I did call, and they'd already figured out the mistake.)
Cha was back a half hour after that worried that I needed to eat. She had suggestions.
"There’s a food court," she said, "but it's mostly Korean food. Maybe it would be best if you just had KFC or Burger King."
Good call, Cha. I was already feeling a little wistful for home, though I ended up getting a Whopper that had both a hamburger patty and a slab of crab, so it wasn't exactly like a stop at the Silverthorne BK.
Then I settled in to wait, at least until I heard from the Post guys one more time. As it turned out, their train, the 7 p.m., wasn't packed to the brim. It was nearly empty, and the schedule they were studying indicated there were trains every hour, not every three.
I'd missed the 8 p.m. eating my exotic Whopper, but there was a 9 p.m. potentially out there that would save me an important hour.
So, I went to hunt it down, deciding maybe my best bet was to leave Cha on the bench for this one.
And I was just about to buy that ticket from the computer kiosk when she saw me from across the station and approached at a sprint.
“What are you doing!?!" she shouted. "I’ve been looking EVERYWHERE for you! Burger King, the lounge."
I explained. I found a better train. I just wanted to take it. I just wanted to go to the Olympics.
"Ok," she said. "Let me see if I can get you a free ticket."
She did and 15 minutes later I was sitting on that train with just two other travelers in a car rushing toward the Olympics.
She was helpful, no question, but I couldn’t help but wonder how awesome that help would have been two hours prior.
I suspect Cha was a victim of the fact that volunteers at the over-manned airport typically have one specific task and all the contingencies can be mapped out. Volunteers are the train station have a world of issues to deal with.
Either way, for getting the job done and simply for really, really, really caring what happened to me, Cha earned Steamboat Olympic pin No. 4. She's awesome in my book.
She certainly earned it more than the kids who tried to scoop up No. 5 and 6.
A little gold lie
I wasn't even to my Olympic condo yet when I straight up lied to two volunteers about having pins to give away.
Once I was on the train to the mountains, I was back on the well-cared-for traveling track, and there were two volunteers waiting when I got off, eager, nay, overeager, to carry my bags.
My bags weighed a billion pounds, so I let one roll a suitcase but held on to the others.
We went maybe 100 yards, from the train platform, through a lobby and to an SUV, waiting with the engine running — life is good on the track, I tell ya — and they straight up asked for pins.
I wasn’t sure at that point how long my supply would last, and I'd only given away No. 4 after a young woman ran laps around the Seoul train station keeping tabs on me.
Sorry, kids. It’s going to take more than walking me to my SUV, and maybe try the slow play? I'm a person, ya know, not just a walking bag of pins. I have feelings.
My SUV driver, though, he earned one, too. Namgyu Uh — "just call me Jason" — did a lot more than roll a suitcase down a sidewalk.
He drove me to my condo, then insisted he help haul my absurd amount of luggage to my room. I'm not sure he knew what that meant, but as it turned out it meant going up a series of stairs from a parking garage to an elevator, then riding to the seventh floor.
Then, unfortunately, it meant hiking to the other end of the building and climbing one last set of stairs to arrive at the eighth floor.
He seemed genuinely shocked and happy when I pulled out pin No. 5.
"Maybe," I offered, "don’t tell those other kids I lied, please?"
With that, I was at Bokwang Phoenix Park, at the Phoenix Pyeongchang Euro Villa condos.
I was at the Olympics.