DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — Sunday night, as snow fell and wind gusted on a frigid mountain in South Korea, an American engaged the odds and elements with fearless abandon, beat them and emerged victorious in a true triumph of the Olympic spirit.
Also Sunday night, Chris Mazdzer gave the United States its first magical medal moment of these Winter Olympics, sliding through snow and wind and bitter cold to give the Americans their first medal in men’s singles history. Mazdzer was not expected to medal at all. He hadn’t made a World Cup podium in a couple years. He won the silver.
But his is not the moment of poignant perseverance to which I am referring. That moment is, of course, my escape from the Olympic Sliding Centre, where I had been covering Mazdzar’s medal.
First of all, Sunday night was the coldest night of my life. The PyeongChang cold is biting and bitter and helped along by the wind, which might as well be laughing in the face of everyone trying to make the best of things.
I knew it would be cold here. I bought a new coat, new boots, new gloves with a pouch for handwarmers and one of those hood things that makes you look like you’re about to rob a bank. I lugged a few dozen handwarmers in my suitcase. I bought warm socks.
But no amount of gear could have prepared me for the cold I experienced at that luge final. The Olympic Sliding Centre is on a small mountain — a particularly frigid and windy place. As the event went on, snow picked up and the temperature dropped. The night began with a feels-like temperature of five below zero. It ended 10 degrees or so colder.
The payoff was worth the freeze. I will always be able to say that I was there when the Americans won their first-ever medal in men’s singles luge. But importantly to this story, I use “there” and “see” rather loosely.
Reporters don’t actually get to see much of the luge race in person. They position themselves near the end of the track, all the way down where the riders slow to a halt. After a competition is over, they wait for the sliders to come through a series of fences, where they conduct postgame interviews. This is done outside.
After watching 18 riders slide to a halt from several yards away, I watched Mazdzer slide down the track on a monitor, saw him slide to a halt from several yards away and saw his splits go up on the same board the fans watched. I nearly lost a few fingers when I removed my gloves to tweet about it. My hands immediately lost feeling.
Knowing it would take a while for him to head our way for interviews, I sprinted about 200 yards back up the mountain and into the bathroom, where I used a hand dryer to regain feeling, and to make sure I didn’t have an email telling me I needed to hurry up and send my story. Then I sprinted back down in time for interviews, my own version of a race against the Olympic clock. I made it.
By about 12:30 a.m. PyeongChang time, I was finishing up my story but still hadn’t thawed. A voice came over the loudspeaker in the media tent. The snow had picked up, the venue manager said. The buses that took us up the mountain were no longer running to take us down — too dangerous. We would have to walk back.
I had only recently regained pins and needles in my extremities when I heard this news, but I finished up, packed up, bundled up — and started to walk down. I was alone on the road that wound around the sliding track, watching trees tilt back and forth in the wind, wondering if, after all those harrowing episodes of “Dateline” I’d watched, I might be poised to inspire a spinoff: “Dateline Abroad.”
After some very manageable distance that will almost certainly grow the more I tell this story, I came to a fork in the road. To the right was the road we’d driven up in the bus, one that went down to the highway and back to the media center. This looked like a mile or two more, on roads not intended for pedestrian traffic. To the left was a path that said it led to the media center but looked like no one had used it in some time. On the frostiest night of my life, I took the road less traveled.
At first, this seemed to be one of the smarter navigational choices I’ve ever made, which isn’t saying much. The road seemed to lead right to the Main Press Center, which was where I could pick up the bus to my apartment. Heartened, I picked up my pace. Then I saw it — a 10-foot fence with a gate in the middle. The gate was padlocked. My heart sank.
When all looked lost, when the cold and snow and fatigue threatened to engulf me, when a locked gate to a 10-foot fence threatened to strand me, I did what any courageous protagonist would do: I yelled “EXCUSE ME!” relentlessly in a panic until a merciful Korean security guard emerged from a tent nearby and walked to speak to me through the bars of the gate. He looked at me curiously. This was not the time to be wearing all black and a bank robber hood.
Perhaps the cold made him pity me. Perhaps the fact that I had ended up at a locked gate on a little-used path at 1 a.m. dispelled any concerns he might have had about me being a criminal mastermind. Whatever it was, he eventually decided to let me through and pointed me to another gate that would lead me to safety. A few moments later, I collapsed into a seat on the bus home.
Then the man in front of me coughed for about 10 seconds and I moved a few rows back, just in case. Unlike Mazdzer, my 2018 Olympic journey is not over yet. If Sunday’s misadventures in the elements were any indication, I’m going to need my strength.
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