BONGPYEONG, South Korea — Most days at the Olympics, you go out to find the Olympics. Some days at the Olympics, the Olympics come to find you.
The Olympics stopped by impromptu Monday at a cafe in a hotel lobby. They turned up at the next table that quickly became a bit of a bustle: a mother, a father, a media representative and somebody who just had to be an athlete. The apparent athlete plopped into one chair and propped her leg up on another. It appeared she had just competed. It appeared that competition had been okay but not ideal. Nobody wailed or swore.
Somebody fetched a bag of ice that took up shop on her right knee. Some gabbing ensued. Some people stopped by the table and went. Yes, the athlete had skied, surely in the freestyle skiing ongoing out the back window of the lobby. It seemed to have gone okay but not optimally. Somehow it grew quickly clear that she possessed one of those rarefied relationships with physical pain, as if she had made peace with it, as if it had come to be even a welcome companion, mandatory alongside all her feats.
Then, at some point, she had lifted whatever clothing had covered her right leg, and if you glanced over there and caught the sight of it, two words might have flashed across your brain.
It was a sight that could star in nightmares or maybe even keep you up nights. This sprawling wound, this colossal bruise, this atrocity, this — hematoma? — had taken the right leg of a 25-year-old woman and subjected it to some sort of bonkers invasion. It had bloomed and unfolded until it looked like some drawing on a gerrymandered map or some reddish-purple river spawning streams and rivulets here and there. It looked like hell, and it also looked like . . .
It looked like that bottle of beer that had arrived to the table for her, right there around noontime, had an honorable, medicinal role because of that thing on the leg. The bottle sat there on the table as if saying, I am here to help. Anybody who begrudged her that beer given the conflagration raiding her leg would qualify for a hall of fame of prudes.
She gulped some of it, mercifully.
Who was she? Those who knew for sure milled around her and talked. If you’re someone who covers Olympic sports only occasionally, with all the unfamiliar games and fairly familiar names with less-familiar faces, you couldn’t have discerned for sure. You couldn’t have matched the face with the silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics after these four years, couldn’t have known that at age 6 she had a poster of two-time Olympic medalist Picabo Street on her bedroom wall in Long Island, couldn’t have known that when she did a phalanx of post-medal interviews at Sochi and began to get weary, she learned her last one would be with Street, a thrill that made her pulse quicken and her palms sweat.
All the above was true, but you wouldn’t have known: She has a sister 10 years older, a sister nine years older, a brother six years older and a brother three years older, and she and that last brother would get into it as kids, and their mother had been a great softball player in high school, just when women’s sports were blossoming. Both her sisters played softball in college, and her mother once told her she was welcome to try out for football. Her brothers made her ski the hard routines.
You could know, though, that sitting there in the year 2018, she meant something, especially relative to, say, 1975 or 1955. It could make you think all the way back to high school, to the yeoman female athletes then, to how people perceived them as commendable but not quite serious. There sat the Olympics at the next table, but there sat a concept bigger than that, about women and sports.
“It’s looking better,” Devin Logan, the 2014 silver medalist in freestyle skiing slopestyle, said in an interview Friday. She finished 10th in the slopestyle nearly a week earlier and 15th in the halfpipe Monday. “It’s still a little swollen in there, but the bruising’s definitely gone down. It was kind of dark, and it’s now spreading just because it has to go places. But it looks way better this morning, like a lot way better. . . . Since I’m putting it on my Instagram, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, my God, like, that’s the biggest bruise I’ve ever seen. You okay?’ I’m just like, ‘It feels fine. It’s just the muscles are sore. It’s just like a nuisance. It’s just there. It doesn’t really hurt that much. It’s annoying.’ ”
Matter-of-factly, she said her doctor said her foot might turn black and blue and that the blood drains down, something to do with lymph nodes. She told of a wretched saga most of us would consider a big deal, from during these Olympics, when her doctor tried to drain blood from the knee with a needle, and her only bummer about that whole thing had been that no blood came out to quell the swell. She showed a harrowing photo of the swollen knee covered in clothing, the joint so distorted it was hard to recognize it as a knee. She said she had spent an evening between her two competitions with the leg up the whole time, asking her roommates whether they could bring dinner, which they did.
She said that everybody in her sport has a hematoma here and there, of course, and that she had banged the thing in slopestyle training but not in any way that made her think about it, and then the next day in the finals she had made a run and come back up. “And I picked up my pant leg, and I saw, and I was like, ‘That’s pretty big.’ ” Then, of course: “ ‘Let’s just put the pant leg down and not worry about it.’ And then the next run I come back up before my final run, let’s see, and it has gotten bigger.”
She reeled off a laundry list of body parts broken in her life: “I’ve broken my ankles a couple times. I broke my ankle when I was younger on the trampoline. I got double-bounced by my friend, and I came down, and it just snapped right away. I roll my ankles all the time. It’s really bad, so I’m used to cankles and like that. Broke my hand. Separated my AC joints. I’ve blown out my knee. Hit my face a bunch. It just happens.”
Postscript: In the case of the trampoline, she never stopped to surmise her ankle might be broken until the next morning, when her mother noticed it had just about blown up.
“My doctor tells me I have a really high pain tolerance, so that’s a good thing,” she said. She said she has noticed that, at least in her circles, women seem better than men at handling being sick and getting on with it. She’s clearly a champion friend. She postponed an interview one day so she could help two male skiers, Aaron Blunck and Torin Yater-Wallace, navigate the emotional aftermath of unwanted finishes.
Her second Olympics seemed emotionally easier than her first, but she hadn’t gotten to practice enough, preserving her energy for two events and dealing with that thing and other pains and nuisances. She remarked on the strange nature of Olympic events, how they require years of preparation and then they whir by in seconds. She noted a cultural reality that still needs improvement, about endorsements, how having “a pretty face” still matters, how “if you look cute” in some outfit, “you’ll get paid. I’m just going to let my skiing do the talking for me. If you like my skiing, that’s awesome. If not, that’s fine, too, but I’m not going to be that girl that puts the face on just because.”
American women have had a big Olympics, and the U.S. hockey team demonstrated how female athletes compel the country with an intensity that long since seems normal. As a memorable serendipity of these PyeongChang Games, here sat a female athlete, leg propped up, ice on knee. She looked like all 2018. She looked like an emblem for where culture has sprouted. She looked like all the widened possibilities of what it means to be female. She looked comprehensively badass.
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