PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The mom already had hugged the dad, and already had received congratulations from people to her right and her left and behind her, and then she moved along the fence line. There had to be a break in the mesh, a gate, a way to get from where she stood to where she desperately needed to stand.
“Excuse me,” said Boran Yun Kim, directly to me. “How do I get to my daughter?”
I was standing on the right side of the fence, the side where Chloe Kim had just won gold. And because I wore a media credential, I must have looked like some sort of official.
“That way,” I told her. “Go that way.”
And she disappeared back into the crowd.
The only people at the PyeongChang Winter Games who receive more attention from the cameras than the athletes are the athletes’ parents, and sometimes the race is pretty close. Almost any Olympian’s story includes support from his or her parents, sometimes to over-the-top degrees. Mikaela Shiffrin’s mother, for instance, has traveled the world with her daughter and serves as one of her coaches, always by her side. That sounds extreme, and it is. But every Olympic family has some sort of story of a detour taken to help realize a dream.
So when the team is named, here comes the next detour. Could be to Russia. Could be to Brazil. Could be to South Korea. Doesn’t matter. The parents, they’re coming.
“If she was going to be here,” Mark Caldwell said, “we were going to be here.”
Caldwell’s daughter Ashley is a freestyle skier who competes in aerials, which involves jumping and flipping and twisting and — most important, and most difficult — landing properly after said jumping, flipping and twisting. Caldwell and his wife, Leslie, who originally raised Ashley in Ashburn, Va., brought Ashley’s three siblings from their home in Houston. They went to Vancouver. They went to Sochi. They know the drill — and how it plays back home.
In Vancouver in 2010, “NBC brought us right up front,” Mark Caldwell said. “They had a camera pretty much right in our face the whole time. And when I say ‘right in our face,’ I mean maybe two feet away from our face.”
The parents, they become characters in this reality show, too. Except the reality isn’t always like this. The journeys to the Olympics aren’t about mingling with your kids at their most significant moments.
“The U.S. team made that very clear,” said Elaine Marino, whose daughter Julia is a snowboarder competing in two events here. “Don’t think you’re going to be seeing her every day. It doesn’t work like that.”
Elaine Marino and her husband, John, traveled with a large family contingent here for Julia’s Olympic debut, which came last weekend in the slopestyle competition, an event that was essentially neutered by high winds and should have been postponed. And that brings up another element for Olympic parents: What if your daughter isn’t safe?
“She said before the event, ‘I didn’t come all this way to take a safety run,’ ” John Marino said.
So the Marino clan sat at the bottom of the hill. The wind howled. It’s one thing to watch this harrowing competition develop from the comfort of your couch. But what if you’re standing in the gale, and that’s your kid?
“Not too many female riders go inverted like Julia does,” Elaine Marino said. “When you go inverted, and an updraft gets you, it’s like you’re on a sailboard. I was definitely nervous. That’s a scary thought.”
That experience was particular to the Marinos. But pick a day at the Olympics: Somewhere, a parent is biting his lip or clenching her fist.
“I just hope that my family will be able to keep their eyes open while I’m skiing,” freestyle skier Brita Sigourney said. Four years ago, Sigourney competed in Sochi. When she was done, her sister admitted she didn’t watch the run. “She was too nervous.”
Elsewhere four years ago in Sochi, Devin Logan made a slopestyle skiing run that produced a silver medal. She found out afterward that her mother had been facing the other way the entire time, watching not her daughter but the scores that came up on the board.
When Logan reached the bottom of the course, she didn’t know that. But she wanted to see her mother — badly.
“I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” she said. “And then, gave my mom a hug and just — waterworks. It’s just something about your parents that you can lose it.”
Those tears are what NBC — and, if we’re honest, the rest of us — will focus on. But think of the little things, too. Mark Caldwell came here to support Ashley, who arrived as a medal contender but didn’t advance to the finals in aerials. But the entire family got pictures, provided support, bonded.
“We’re making memories,” he said.
Julia Marino spent Friday quarantined with the flu. She has qualified in the big air competition, which is making its Olympic debut here, on Monday. But her needs before that were more basic.
“She said, ‘Mom, could you bring me some chicken soup?’ — which is so sweet,” Elaine Marino said. “It’s comforting to know we’re here, even though we’re not really with her.”
Back at the halfpipe snowboard competition Monday, Boran Yun Kim needed to see Chloe. When she finally found her, they embraced as a sea of photographers and reporters crushed in. Those post-medal embraces are what you’ll see back home, what we’ll write about here.
But there are a million little parental moments about which we don’t have any idea. The kid who wants chicken soup. The mom who can’t watch. The dad who’s trying to get the best photo. That’s as significant a part of the Olympic experience as there is.
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