Olympic Adventure

So the other day my daughter Emma reminded me that it was one year ago that I left for the Olympics in Korea to drive for NBC.  I knew this anniversary was approaching but the actual day I really hadn’t looked at the calendar to figure out when it arrived. To mark the occasion I will share some recollections of that adventure.  I made a conscious decision before I left for Korea I was going to keep a diary of all the things I experienced. I had no idea that journal would swell to 65 pages so I’ve attempted to edit here.

A few preparations were made in the months leading up to my departure but until I got past New Years it hadn’t really registered what I was about to embark on. I may have been blocking it out not wanting to think of the twelve plus hours on a plane. Maybe it was the time away from family but until I actually started thinking about what I needed to pack the week before I left the scope of what I was about to do hadn’t really clicked. I always think I like to travel but what I like most is getting back to the creature comforts of home.  Saying goodbye to my girls was a bit surreal, the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing them is about a week. This felt more permanent and no one seemed to choke up about it except me. Saying goodbye to JoAnn at the airport was much harder because I know how much I rely on her, but don’t tell her I said that. We were both a bit teary-eyed though we tried to play it down.  For better or worse I was now on my own.

As it turned out the flying was pretty good, I had lots to keep me entertained however I didn’t sleep all night. Once on the ground in a terminal that opened just the day before I saw my first NBC sign held by a greeter to meet me and one other from Vancouver. We were walked over to meet a growing group that had gathered from a few arriving planes and we waited for the last few to arrive. My first experience at eating in Korea was a total fail as even 7-11 didn’t have anything I recognized as food. This may be harder then I thought. We were piled onto a coach for the three-hour drive across the country and I think I fell asleep before we got out of the airport as the next thing I remember was exiting a highway and seeing a huge cross-section of the Olympic rings all lit up. That was only minutes from my hotel.IMG_7303.jpg

As I checked in it really hadn’t occurred to me till I opened my room door that I might actually have a roommate. I recall reading that in the literature I was sent months ago and low and behold there was a fella lying on a bed watching TV. Was he a murderer or psychopath I didn’t know and I was too tired to care. I’ve been travelling for 18 plus hours and really didn’t want to be social but I made the best of it.  After pleasantries he offered me a stiff drink, this guy already gets me. His name was Mark and he’s a cabbie from London.  I already loved his cockney accent and it became apparent over beers in the bar that we had a lot in common.  The one downfall of this hotel we were both stuck in was that it was in the middle of nowhere. I mean there is nothing close by, no stores, no coffee shops, no bars, no town, just nothing. Who builds a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere? You either bought what the hotel was selling or you did without. It’s only redeeming quality was the entire lobby was full of Olympic memorability with actual gold medals from just about every game dating back to 1900. On our first full day in Korea, one of Mark’s cabbie friends who was already entrenched took us for a drive around town. It was just nice to get out of the hotel. I was pleased that same day to finally see a familiar face from home when Red who is the guy who got me involved with the Olympics dropped by.IMG_7446.jpg

After that day off to recover from our flights Mark and I learned we were both eerily similar in so many ways sharing the same compulsions and irritations to many mundane daily things. It’s a scary thought I’d been billeted with my UK doppelganger.  Day two began with classroom orientation where we met other new driving recruits. After many years working with drivers you start to recognize traits quickly and a couple of the fellas I knew I was never going to be buddies with but the guy sitting next to me caught my attention right away. A Welshman named Jerry living in Spain that test drove sports cars and he packed a wicked sense of humour. Both Mark and I liked him straight away. Next, we were all loaded into a few vans and shuttled into Alpensia which was where the main broadcast center and NBC’s facility was located. At this point, we had no idea how much time we’d spend around that place over the next 6 weeks. This was the main hub for Olympic broadcasting around the world. First off we got our accreditation tags. These had sent to us last month but now it was time to have it laminated and turned into jewelry we’d wear everywhere till we left the country.  If I knew the photo I had taken last summer was going to appear on a huge screen at every checkpoint I passed through I might have at least smiled. We were then combined with a bunch of other new arrivals that got started training a few days earlier, even more drivers from the UK. A lovely retired couple from Liverpool and another newlywed couple from Poland by origin that now lived in London and a Russian guy among others. We started our tour by looking at the main stadium for the opening ceremony then visited many snow venues.IMG_7008.jpg

On day two of our training tour, we met up with all the same folks and were driven down the mountain to the coastal city of Gaugnuan for the first time where all the ice venues were located.  We all took turns at the wheel and I for one was happy to drive because a few of the others scared the crap out of me. Gaugnuan was a huge city and I couldn’t help but think there was no way I would be able to drive here without getting lost. The learning curve at that point was pretty much vertical and it seemed like a lot to take in before the games started in three weeks. Some of us were given our vans on this day like Mark but not Jerry or myself which just helped solidify our friendship. We started training as a team, taking turns at the wheel and challenging each other on how to get to different venues. Having Mark with us was invaluable because as a cabbie this sort of knowledge-based learning how to dissect a city was something he was very familiar with. His approach rubbed off on us and I had no idea others were not training as hard. I finally got a van after a couple days but Jerry would still be another week before he got his so we continued to train as a duo.  As a test driver for McLaren he’s used to pushing vehicles to there limit but at times I think he was just seeing how far he could push me before I said slow down. I never did but I was uncertain how many photo radar tickets our van had been captured in so I smiled and waved at everyone as we flew by.IMG_8407.jpg

After a week we were all moved out of our hotel in no man’s land and punted to the main media village on the coast.  The Athletes and Media Villiage was a security zone you could not enter without accreditation on your vehicle or around your neck. The whole complex was a series of 24 story condo towers. What I didn’t enjoy however were the fact they covered everything up with plastic from kitchen cabinets and sink to the floor and even some walls. I mean what kind of damage do they think we can do in a month? I can’t help but think the cost of this protection and the labour to install and remove it from thousands of suites must have been more money then any potential loss and damage could ever cost.  It was not very welcoming, to say the least.

The biggest issue I had with the village was checking in. Here’s a tip, having people on the front desk dealing with foreigners from around the world it’s a good idea they speak at least one other languages besides Korean. That part wasn’t well thought out and here’s where being on my own was trying. I was losing patience and this is where JoAnn would have taken over. The cafeteria to feed us breakfast every morning was a tarted up part of the parking garage under the condo complex with carpet and heaters. There were equally haphazard constructed laundry facilities also in the parking garages for us to use.  The initial hope was that my two UK pals and I would share one of the three bedroom condo’s we were moving into but that hope was quickly dashed and Mark was no longer my roomie.  Jerry too was separated and  I would never get to know either of my two new flatmates, I don’t even remember their names. Mark, Jerry and I did still continue to train together and we even enjoyed days off together.IMG_8128.jpg

We decided the DMZ was the place to see. Well, I pitched the idea and they both bought it, I mean how often do you get to see a country that makes the news every night for all the wrong reasons that are not the US.  It was the first touristy thing we’d done away from the Olympics and it was refreshing.  I personally thought we were going to die and make the news ourselves that night, when Jerry pulled up to the checkpoint with guys carrying automatic weapons, pointed our way that didn’t look amused.  We had missed the turnoff to get registered for the DMZ because the sign was in Korean (go figure). At first, we thought we were at the border to North Korea causing an international incident but these were South Korean soldiers protecting the entrance into the DMZ.  Properly registered we returned and the same armed guards smiled and let us proceed. The only photo of the three us together was taken here looking towards the North. It may be my favourite photo from the whole trip.baad3b9b-10d9-467d-8443-aa2cd1489359.jpg

At the end of two weeks of training, we were all pretty much ready for the games to start. We’d toured around and inside every facility pretty much whether we were allowed in or not. Jerry literally pushing me to the top of the Ski jump and I do mean the top, up the stairs, outside on the roof. Great view, but dam cold! Thanks, Jerry. At least our game missions were finally coming in. Both Mark and Jerry had been designated exclusive drivers and been given their assignments. I was in the motor pool and had no idea what I was up too till I was pulled into the dispatch office. I was given the task to drive around a VIP guest NBC had flown in, former news anchor Katie Couric.

We hit it off right away and I loved watching her transform from passenger to news reporter. She liked to do live Instagram posts so sometimes I would hold her phone and film her, I can now take being interviewed by a News anchor off my bucket list.  It was amazing to watch her delivering a cold intro as if a million people were watching her on the nightly news.  I just followed her around as she pointed things out or got into an impromptu interview with members of the Belarusian Olympic team on the beach. She was always engaging with the camera and ever conscious to never have dead air, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Her husband John had joined her by opening night and with the opening ceremony done now, it was all about having some fun. IMG_8511.jpgAll the early training we did with no crowds, no busses, no army of volunteers or security checkpoints couldn’t really prepare you for the actual games themselves. One way streets went into effect and many of the routes we were used too changed overnight so it was a quick readjustment to the new reality of the games. Once where there was no traffic could now take hours just to get off the highway. Our dedicated Olympic lanes and passes were no match for limited street access and the ridiculous number of highway buses now clogging every artery. The new reality of the games had me attending as many events as possible, not just with Katie and John but when they wanted to be picked up later I got up early to go see sports I was interested in. I had a full access pass and rock star parking for my van at every venue so why wouldn’t I attend?  It was weird to see the stadiums full when only a few days ago we were touring them empty. Witnessing Canada doing so well was amazing. The very first-speed skating event I ever attended Canada won gold. I saw many more Canadians win gold and I never tired of it though I saw a few heartbreaking losses as well as our Women’s hockey team. That one really hurt.IMG_9133.jpg

After I said goodbye to Katie and John at the airport I was put onto another guest of NBC, being SNL comedian Leslie Jones. I knew very little about her but I saw the first Instagram video she posted in Korea knocking the driver that picked her up at the airport for playing a 3 hour Andy Williams playlist. I had appropriate tunes programmed the next morning when I picked her up for the first time and nothing was ever said about my musical selections to me or on Instagram.  She had a small entourage which meant I had to give up the van I’d gotten so used to for 5 weeks for something bigger and far less comfortable for everyone.   She was indeed a personality but like many actors what you see on screen is not what you see in private. In public it was like a switch that went to 11 but in the van, she was more the person I expect she is most of the time. I enjoyed the public persona because she made us all laugh but I liked the private Leslie and felt privileged to be able to see that side of her.  She had no formal duties to attend too so it was all about going to events and making viral videos. I loved being paid to watch the games live. That was literally my job description as I was also offering security and guidance to get them into the venue and safely back to the van.  After a week she and her posse left town I was without a purpose for a few days and then I saw what the motor pool really did.IMG_9434.jpg

It was during this time on my way to a hotel in Alpensia early one morning I had the most unexpected emotional moment of the games. I had taken a banana from the breakfast buffet and on a quiet stretch of road approaching Swiss house, I finished it and as I have done so many times before I lowered the passenger’s window and I whipped the peel out towards the frozen ditch. I was instantly having a flash of my father and had tears streaming down my face. You see, I never came up with this move on my own, it was a learned manoeuvre I’d seen my dad do for years in the mornings on the way to work. I started chucking banana peels out of my car 30 years ago because he did it and every time I do, I think of him but this was my first time doing so in Korea. Here I am on the other side of the world from home having a moment thinking of my dad. Would he be proud of what I was doing participating in the Olympics or just think I was a fool for travelling so close to North Korea? A little of both I suspect, he was like that and I missed him even more.

I remember all the hotels and venues but not who I transported in my few days as part of the motor pool it was all a blur. The one exception was my last ride during the games. I was tasked with picking up some VIP’s from the hotel Mark, Jerry and I met at and taking them to the closing ceremony. I had no idea who was getting in my van till they appeared. The gold medal men’s curling team who I watched win gold live just the night before but I wasn’t able to stay to see them awarded their medals. No worries they were all still wearing them less than 24 hours later so this was my first close up with a medal from these games. We had to wait for one more rider who turned out to be Olympic Skiing Royalty Lindsey Vonn. She was not wearing a medal but she has a few golds to her name. That was a heck of a last ride. Like an idiot, I never took a photo because my day job back home dictates you just don’t do that.

The next morning the games were over and it was startling how fast all the volunteers and security personnel disappeared. No more checkpoints, no more busses, no more crowds, where did it all go overnight. I’d been suffering from homesickness for the better part of a month and as departure day approached it seemed like time was slowing down. I was sad it’s all over on one hand but very anxious to get home.  I chatted with JoAnn via text daily or at least we tried, the 17 hour time difference made scheduling chats a challenge plus life was still going on in my absence back home. I had only face time with the girls a couple times so I missed seeing or just hearing them, I missed our home, I missed our bed and maybe most of all I really just missed having someone look after me.

My last working day in Korea it did something I had not seen since my first day, it started to rain on the coast. I was even more homesick as it was starting to look like BC. I did a victory lap around the city of Gaugnuan visiting all the places I’d become so accustomed too from the Hotels to the beach to the Olympic Plaza and the media village. I knew this city so well now and I had no idea if I’d ever return.  As I headed up the mountain one last time towards Alpensia the higher I got the rain turned to snow. With every mountain tunnel, I came through it was snowing harder. This snow was not only sticking it was starting to pile up. It had been pretty warm for a week like spring was on the way but this was one last blast of winter the likes we had not seen during the games. Checking into the hotel for my last night was a treat as I couldn’t get my van up a hill through the now very deep snow. I ended up working till nearly 6 that last night returning vans in the driving snow teaching Brits how it’s done, they all just fell in line behind me. We had to have had 2 feet on the ground by then. I even had to rescue Mark who got his van stuck checking into the same hotel as me. The two of us then had our last meal in Korea together, which resembled our very first, a couple of convenience store bought noodle bowls with a couple of beer chasers.IMG_0314.jpg

Like our first night, we headed to the nearest bar which meant slogging through the snow to get there instead of just an elevator ride to the lobby. Unlike that first night where we had just 2 rounds, I lost count after about 7.  I was properly pissed when we finally stumbled out into the snow hours later. I was just glad I wasn’t leaving till 11 am. Mark met his ride to the airport at 6 am. He would have been lucky to have 2 hours sleep so I can only imagine what he felt like at that hour knowing how bad I felt when I woke up.  I was missing my doppelganger when I got up knowing he was already in Seoul. I was glad I made a couple new friends that shared this adventure with me because the people I cared about most were not here to share any of it. I posted more than I usually do on social media to try to keep them in the loop but its just not the same. For me, that shared experience of what it was like to really experience the games first hand will forever be shared with a couple guys from Great Britan whom I now count as friends. I miss everyone I met really, far too many to name as they all share a part in this chapter of my life. I hold out romantic notions of doing this again one day but I know I’ll never recreate what I experienced in Korea. Looking back now I don’t think of the actual games themselves, the venues, the streets, the traffic, the driving or the constant security I went through daily, I just remember the people I met along the way, they made this experience what it was. I thank them all for being part of this Olympic adventure with me and maybe we’ll do it again in three years.img_0303