The view from PyeongChang: Local woman ventures to South Korea for Winter Olympics

By: 
Charlie Denison
Reporter

Lewistown resident Teresa Olson ventured to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea last month.

Photo courtesy of Teresa Olson

Teresa Olson had an opportunity to meet one of her idols, Scott Hamilton, a 1984 gold medalist in figure skating and a popular figure skating commentator.

Photo courtesy of Teresa Olson

Teresa Olson has always loved the Olympics – summer or winter.

“I grew up with the Dorothy Hamill haircut,” she said, “and I would always imitate gymnastic routines in the backyard.”

This love for the Olympics has only grown through the years, so this time around, as the 2018 Winter Olympics approached, she decided to go for it and take a solo trip to PyeongChang, South Korea.

“I decided to just embrace the experience – whatever happens – even if it’s weird, and I ended up having an amazing time,” Olson said.

From the get-go, she realized going solo actually enhanced her experience, allowing for all kinds of opportunities.

“There are huge advantages to traveling alone,” she said. “People are much more open to inviting you over to dinner or over to their house. It seems to really open up a lot of doorways you don’t have when you’re with someone else.”

This was a theme of her trip, as she continued to meet all kinds of people from a wide variety of countries.

The Korean people she rented a place from were especially pleasant, she said, and, thanks to Google Translate, the language barrier wasn’t even that big of an issue, so Olson got to know the couple she rented her apartment from.

“They were extremely helpful,” Olson said. “They gave me rides after the opening and closing ceremonies and took me to some famous local Buddhist temples in the area. We were really able to connect. It’s pretty impressive what you can communicate with charades.”

Olson also got along quite well with Finland.

“I met a really great gal from Finland whose husband worked for the International Olympic Committee,” Olson said. “He was busy nonstop working and she was hopping around. She knew the ropes and was a lot of fun to be around. We palled around quite a bit.”

Having a Finnish friend who knew where to go led Olson places she wouldn’t have imagined and introduced her to some remarkable people.

“I met Timo Solini, the minister of foreign affairs for Finland,” Olson said. “He showed up at a bar the evening after Livo Niskenan won the first gold medal of this Olympics for Finland. The president of the Ski Association for Finland was also there. It was sort of an impromptu, unofficial Finnish gathering place for fans and athletes to celebrate. A large group sang national songs and there was lots of cheering. It was great!”

Timo Solini, however, wasn’t on Olson’s list of people she wanted to meet, but 1984 U.S. gold medalist Scott Hamilton, was.

“He is one of my all-time favorite figure skaters,” she said.

Known for his figure skating commentary, Olson found him by his booth and stopped him for a selfie.

“He was just lovely,” she said. “He is as nice in person as he is on TV.”

 

The opening ceremony

After getting settled in PyeongChang, Olson was ready for the opening ceremony, which she watched with an older Korean man who was also there alone. Like many “strangers” on the journey, he became a friend as they took in the spectacle together, one neither of them will forget.

“It was the greatest show I’ve ever been to,” she said. “There were so many jaw-dropping moments.”

Olson said she couldn’t think of a better way to kick things off. The opening ceremony itself was almost worth the trip.

But this was only the beginning.

Olson tried to go to as many events as possible, but it was harder to jump from one place to another than she imagined.

“Because there were so many people attending, we had to rely on a shuttle system,” Olson said. “I’d say I’d spend on average three to five hours a day waiting in line for the shuttle and riding the shuttle. This was unexpected, but I made the most of it.”

An outgoing person who also loves to people-watch, Olson said there were many moments where she just stopped to take in the experience.

“I really love the different cultures and diversity,” she said. “That’s what makes the Olympics extraordinary. Out and about in the plaza, waiting in line or at an event I was usually within earshot of three to five different languages besides Korean. It’s pretty amazing to have access to so many people from so many different places.”

But, of course, Korean culture was prevalent, and Olson was intentional about learning as much as she could about he country. What she experienced, she said, was impressive and classy.

“I wouldn’t say I exactly sank my teeth into Korean culture, but what I saw of Korea I very much enjoyed,” Olson said. “Seoul was very modern and very first world. The food was terrific and the people were great, too. They were very enthusiastic and genuinely proud to be hosting the Olympics.”

Being in Korea and being at the Olympics were almost two different entities – as the Olympics are an experience all to themselves. Nevertheless, while in Korea Olson wanted to get a better understanding of Korea’s history, so she went to a Korean War Museum, which she found mesmerizing.

“It was very meaningful,” she said. “I had no idea the enormity of the war and the civilian casualties. I didn’t understand how the war broke down, how Japan had been occupying all of Korea until the end of World War II and the U.S. took occupation of South Korea while Russia and China occupied North Korea. Seeing this and getting a better understanding enriched my experience even more.”

Experiencing the museum also gave Olson a better understanding of what it meant when North and South Korea marched under one flag during the opening ceremony, which was a big deal for the host country.

“That’s pretty much all that was on TV,” Olson said. “It was a big, big deal and people took it seriously as a symbol for unification.”

 

“U.S.A., U.S.A.”

Just about everywhere Olson went she heard American music.

“I heard a lot of classics, and a lot of Queen,” she said. “Every venue played pretty strictly American music. It made me really proud.”

This was really fun for her, especially at the ice skating competitions.

“One of the highlights of the figure skating was just sitting in that auditorium with that sound system,” Olson said. “It just really made the experience triple fun.”

All the skating events were enjoyable, Olson said, including speed skating, which she found more exhilarating than she expected.

“Most of the fans were Korean, and they had some top contenders in speed skating, so that made it a lot of fun,” Olson said. “There was such a great competitive spirit involved.”

This was the case at most events.

“Overall, the atmosphere was light-hearted and focused on honoring the teams and athletes participating, and the journey they’ve gone through to get there,” she said. “We were all together in this, and you could feel it. For example, when an ice skater falls, everyone in the arena shares in feeling bad for him or her and feeling compassion. There wasn’t a really strong separation of national identities, other than the fun of rooting for your team.”

This was even the case when Olson witnessed the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team defeat Canada.

“That was an incredible moment,” she said. “We so deserved to win.”

As phenomenal as this victory was on TV, Olson said it was even more remarkable to see it firsthand.

“The atmosphere at the Olympics really is that wonderful,” Olson said. “It’s so inspiring.”

 

Would she do it again?

Olson is already considering it. Next time, however, she’d like to go as a volunteer.

“The volunteers really made the experience,” Olson said. “They are so much a part of it, and there were so many of them. They were so helpful and cheerful. They were always smiling.”

Olson said she heard there were more than 20,000 volunteers at PyeongChang, and they were treated very well.

“It’s a pretty good deal,” Olson said. “I encourage others to volunteer. The hosting city puts you up and feeds you, plus – if there are open seats – you get event tickets for free. It’d be a really great way to experience the Olympics.”

Whether volunteering or spectating, Olson said attending the Olympics is “a trip of a lifetime,” and she’s tremendously grateful she took the trip.

“It was well worth it,” she said, “but I’m pretty worn out. Being a spectator could be its own Olympic sport.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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