Blogger Steve Meurett is a cross-country skiing coach for the Special Olympics team representing the United States at the World Games in South Korea this winter. Below are a series of reports written by Meurett over the last week:
Sunday, January 27, 2013
'Host town' may be a misnomer in a way. Seoul has 25 million in the metro area and 19 million in the city itself. We drove to a cultural village yesterday and the city never ended. It was nice to be in a quiet area with trees and old traditional huts and crafts. We ate very traditional food there and the athletes were not afraid at all to try it out. For most of the food, we had no idea what it was or how to eat it. They are learning quick to use stainless steel chop sticks, which are used at every meal here.
We had some art activities last night, while coaches sorted jackets and planned our attack for today. We head to some schools today to do presentations to classes on the Special Olympics. The Special Olympics is not known very well here and special needs students are taught in separate schools.
We're gone from early morning until tonight today with a visit to a military base for a meet and greet, too. Late tonight, we pack everything up again and prepare for our trip to Pyeungchang and the opening ceremonies. Hopefully, we can do the three hour bus ride and maybe get into housing before the opening ceremonies celebration, if not, it'll be a hard day to do all the travel, then the opening, then check into rooms late in the evening or early morning. To make that more challenging, we compete in the first races the next morning. It's is tough for athletes who haven't been on skis for nearly a week and their first touch of snow will be during their first race. I wish we could train the athletes like they should be with at least one practice here. We'll do our best.
Best wishes from somewhere in downtown Seoul.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
We are finally at Pyeong Chang where competition will start today. To say things have been crazy, is an understatement. Our stay in Seoul is a good experience and it was amazing to see a city so large that it seemed to take forever to drive out of. We hit snow about two hours into the trip yesterday and it is beautiful up in the mountains. There isn't a ton of snow and the mountains are not huge, but it's beautiful, just the same.
We arrived at about noon and the process of unloading and finding housing began. Of course, all the other countries are doing the same and it is a ski resort, so the public is staying here as well. We managed to cram into elevators, find our rooms (10 per room, on the floor, for the most part) and stashing duffles whereever we could. We ran to lunch in a large convention center, which didn't quite hold everyone who was there, and for me, scrambling to do a ton of things before we headed back, I scarfed down a Coke for lunch. The athletes have been great and they let it all roll off their backs without a problem. Next up was finding skis (they all arrived somehow) and moving those back to the room. We dress for the opening ceremonies and then wait for the bus.
We went through a tight security screening before entering a small stadium for the ceremonies. There were lots of police and security officers, but we eventually made it inside.
They did the parade of athletes differently. A fter everyone was seated and some preliminary performances occurred, they started taking teams out of their seats and down below to parade them into the center floor. It was pretty cool because we got to see other countries, actually almost all the other countries. The U.S. group was near the end and we made up the largest delegation. They didn't quite plan it so well as we started filing out (all 160 of us) of our seats and then more or less sprinted thru the passageways to enter the bottom of the stadium. It still was worth it and we enjoyed parading in and seeing all the people there. Seating for spectators was very limited, so most in the crowd were athletes.
Ther ceremonies themselves were about the most bizaar thing I've ever seen. Usually, opening ceremonies are filled with emotion-packed music and performances and a few speeches, but this one was made up of themes that left us scratching our heads. It's beyond description here, but I'll just say it had the birth of a snowman, the devil, some fairies, footage of tanks and jets, flowers and in the end, somehow some winged creatures made everything better. It was a fairly short opening ceremony and I was thankful.
The reverse process starts afterwards, and they didn't have a real good plan for transporting us back to our rooms. Our veteran coach Lester finally took the bull by the horns and plowed through the crowd and to a bus. Some arguing in Korean insuded, but in the end it was all ok and we made it back. There was an 11 p.m. coach's meeting in which we tried to figure out what was happening and then to bed.
Information for sports has been lacking and finally I hunted Dean down, who is the cross-country head. He called and I found out when events start and when I need to be at the head coach's meeting today. They had cancelled all meetings yesterday for no reason and as Dean said, "Welcome to my world."
Entries that I was supposed to sign-off on and turn in at 2 p.m., weren't in hand until 11 p.m. It was the same story was with all other cross-country coaches I talked to. It was good ranting with my fellow head coaches from Finland, Canada and Norway. I guess we'll just see how things run today.
I better get dressed and headed to my early meeting as I'm not sure if a bus is coming by or not (no transport schedule) and I need to get a bunch of gear to the venue before the team arrives later. Wish I had coffee, but that seems rare here, too. Dang.
Best wishes and onto our first day. Every athlete skis today on our team, so it'll be a huge day to say the least.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Well, finally on the snow! With all the hectic-ness of the past few days, it was worth it to be on snow. The cross-country venue for the Olympics is really cool and is in the shadow of the ski jump facility. The snow was good and our skiers were happy to be skiing again, finally.
My day started with a trip to the head coach's meeting (after managing to find a bus that would take me there) and the impressive room filled with all the countries who are in cross-country skiing. I'd guess about 60 countries were represented in our sport.
I have some friends I've met over the years. Ainer, the head coach from Norway, is one. He has a booming voice, a mischievous way and always super friendly. He had moved to Detroit shortly after the 2009 games, but now is in Florida I think. Kemp is the Finnish head coach and got in trouble with homeland security in Idaho at those games. Super funny and never takes anything too serious, except when it comes to his athletes and how things are run.
Meeting went okay, and we started the day. Found out the organizers did not provide electricity converters, so we were stuck without power for our wax irons and equipment. Another glitch. Luckily, Ainer gave us an extra iron late in the day and skis got waxed. Today was the 100 meter and 1 km divisioning races and I was a bit worried because of reports coming in that the race course was really difficult, a hard climb and tricky decent. In the end, temps warmed and athletes handled both without much of a problem. I mostly worked the finish area and it was perfect for me to greet each athlete as they were done and excited about how they skied. They (and I ) were truly proud.
Today we have the 500 meter, 50 meter and 5 km, which will be fun. Temps are supposed to be +5 here (40 degrees) so that will be interesting.
Breakfast is on and I'll manage to grab some today before heading over. It's a pretty quiet time and that is welcome. Best wishes to all back there in snowy Wisconsin!
Friday, February 1, 2013
We got out in the dark around 5 a.m. for a walk. Not good news in the first few steps as I felt a misty sprinkle hit my face. It was pretty warm, too, and when I grabbed a handful of snow, it was still as sticky as mashed potatoes. The ski jury will decide if we ski today or not. If we're off snow, then I think a week's worth of unwearable, socks and ski uniforms need to soak and be washed in the bathtub. Ten guys in this room, and that's a lot of stinky clothes. No dryers, so maybe I can scrounge some rope to string around the room like a web to dry things.
When I returned from the far end of the complex here this morning, the mist turned to rain and every cement and blacktop surface was glare ice. It'll be an adventure to get the athletes over to the dining hall on the far side. Nothing is worth too great an effort to get to. Rice, fish, pickled cabbage, green beans and stewed pork-like meat are served for breakfast.
I haven't written much about the food here, but needless to say, the head coach from Canada and I agree we could go for a steak. Nice black coffee would be awful nice, too (my Foldger's coffee packs will not last in the room). Rice always, some kind of fatty pork with bones, fish (Ling fish yesterday), the cabbage stuff that I really don't care for, sea weed soup, salad (not bad), cold eggs, cold, sort of uncooked bacon and a sweet potato mush. Those menu items are pretty common for any meal. Seems to be a lot of sausage-type or meat loaf-style meats, some are okay, some scary. The bebop, or whatever it's called that we had earlier, is okay, but it seems a lot of the food is fishy in taste and flavor.
Yesterday we had a birthday. Jimmer, who is in my room, turned 18 and his goal was to let everyone know. This goal was pretty much fulfilled . I'm sure it was his best birthday ever because he had the uninterrupted attention of the Korean girls who are volunteers. Of course, we started singing happy birthday a lot and soon everyone in earshot joined in using every accent you can imagine. The head coach from Korea chatted with him in the staging area and offered to bring a cake over to our hotel. Really? Well, I didn't expect that to happen, but late last night, the coach and a couple of Korean athletes stopped in and we shared a beautiful chocolate cake in the dining area. Just another incredible small thing that sometimes happens at a World Games.
The big race of the day was the 5 km. Alpensia is an Olympic worth course and I'll be anxious to see it during the 2018 Winter Olympics. It is very hilly and twisty. We had five skiers in the race and they had all they could handle on the climbs and decents. We did a nice pre-race warm up, skiing the entire loop, and practicing the finish a bunch of times. Temps were in the 40s with bright sun. Of course, my advice to the athletes to wear sunscreen, wasn't follow by me, so I was a bit sunburned by day's end. Some of the course was okay, but a lot was soft and mushy. Our athletes did well and finished strong, with Big Bryan (6'5, 275#) putting in the race of his life to finish.
The time at the cross country venue usually consists of arriving early (which I like to do, getting a jump on the day) picking up the day's start lists and results, chatting with Dean for a minute or Steiner the Norwegian official.
The 'wax bunkers' are steel containers with a door and electric outlets and we have several rows of them for all the teams. Team USA has two because of the size of our team. One bunker is used to change in and the other to wax in and to use as my office, of sorts. The Norwegians are next door and we banter quite a bit. They are good guys. We usually check in with each other on the weather, snow conditions and about which athletes we have competing that day. Kimmo, the Finn head coach does photography too, and we stray from skiing once and a while to talk about that. As usual, the Canadian team is always fun to visit with and their head coach Greg and I shared a large part of the day on the 5 km course.
It's pretty easy to start up conversations with most of the coaches as we're all in the same boat when issues come up. Whether it is transportation, rooms, athletes or just daily life here, we have plenty to talk about. Language usually isn't a big barrier ... we figure it out.
The team arrives a bit later, gathers their skis, boots and starts warming up. It takes all hands on board to pull off filling spots in staging, at the finish line and with a few coaches left on the course. It's a lot of planning, but we have a great staff and it goes well.
It's time to get to breakfast. I'm waiting for a call on if we're rained out today or not. My guess is not, so better get the tub ready for laundry duty.
Written later: We ended up getting rained out, a total wash. It rained from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m.. All events except snowshoeing we called off. We bussed to another town and watched floor hockey and speedskating, then took a long bus ride back. The cross-country athletes enjoyed the day off, I think, and a chance to see their Team USA teammates.
Today went from a light day of events to a really busy one, with our rained out races rescheduled. I'll head in shortly to start waxing skis. It cooled down overnight and the wind is up, so we should have fast snow. Some of the Norwegians have gotten sick, so I hope nothing is spreading. Okay, off to the races as they say.
Saturday, February 2, 2013
Every so often at a World Games I happen to arrive at the venue very early in the morning, even before the officials arrive, the buses start dropping athletes and coaches off and before the sea of yellow jacketed volunteers show up. Such was the case yesterday. With our rescheduled events taking place, skis that would have been prepped the day before needed to be done. I didn't mind. I needed to pick up paperwork and get my head around the day, so firing up the waxing iron would be a good way to ease into things.
I love the smell of melting ski wax. Most wouldn't understand. That smell signals skiing and of course for me, that is a good thing. Most of the wax 'bunkers' were quiet, so I turned on some Doobie Brothers on the iPad and started melting wax and scraping. Soon the 5 km skis were done. The bunker serves as my home base, with results and start lists strewn around among the layers of clothing. It's nice and peaceful in here at this time of day.
The make-up day was long and tiring. Every day is full-bore beginning at 5 a.m. or earlier and not really slowing down until midnight. I realized that I only sat down a couple of times yesterday, on the bus ride and at a few meals. These days are just hard and crazy and fun and tiring and sleep comes quickly at the end of them. I think because of that pace, the competition seems to be hurtling toward the end as we are going to be deep in finals and awards today and tomorrow.
The first medals were given out in the 50 meter and 5 km races yesterday and if anyone should ever doubt the worth of Special Olympics, then stand and watch an awards presentation. Emotions run deep on the faces of the athletes standing on the podium and the fans cheering for them. My thoughts yesterday at seeing one of our girls win gold was, "Yeah, this is all worth it, every bus ride, every haul of baggage and every hassle and cold meal." Yeah, worth it as she jumped up and down on the first place stand.
Probably one the most surreal things I've ever seen in a Special Olympics event happened during the last race of the day and to the very last skier, our athlete form Colorado, Bryan Terry. The 5 km was his longest race ever and the Alpensia course is very tough. The race includes two laps around and he'd struggled two days earlier on it. My advice to him was to leave everything on the course and be proud to finish.
All the other skiers had long been in and Bryan was left to ski by himself out there. The stands still had people in them and they seemed to be waiting for him to arrive back in the stadium. Here in Korea, these events are televised, so all the way around the course are huge TV cameras and in the stadium, a jumbotron displays what the TV coverage is. I'd made my way back to the finish area to wait for him. Another coach stood alone on the final corner, waiting and watching the trail and screen. Just then, Bryan appeared, the cameras capturing him from two or three vantage points as he tried to scrub speed off the steepest downhill. From his posture and position I could see what would happen. A second before he would have ended up in the fencing, he hit the ground in a pile. The crowd watching reacted. Camera angles kept switching and I felt like I was watching Wide World of Sports.
The cheering grew louder in encouragement for him to untangle and continue. He was out of sight from the stands, but the drama unfolded on the big screen. Finally he pulled himself up, found his poles and unsteadily snow plowed down the hill. Other cameras took up the view and he crested a small hill before dropping in to the stadium floor. He just needed to ski around the base of the course and get to the finish line. I couldn't stop looking at the coverage on the screen and back to him in front of me with the crowd going now crazy. 50 meters to go and he managed a good double pole, now with the fans in a frenzy and an announcer urging him on.
Crossing the line, photographers and TV crews swamped him. Three of our other coaches helped him off and for me, and I know a few others, tears welled up a bit. It was a similar feeling I had when seeing some of our first place finishers today. Yeah, it's worth it.
Time to grab some coffee and get to the wax bunker for today's events and melt a little wax ... just because.
Tuesday, February 5, 2013
Yesterday was the final day of competition at the Alpensia cross-country ski center and the running of the 4x1 km relays. We had two more coaches go down sick, although not as bad as some of us have been, and another who struggled all day recovering. But, as has happened all week, the rest of the team, and even some "assistant athlete coaches" stepped up to cover wherever we needed it.
The final day at a World Games venue is always somewhat difficult. We really want to have our very best day on snow, and we did, but we also know that this is it, probably none of us will ever be here again in our lifetime and for most athletes, this is their last day competing as a World Games athlete. I also knew that logistically, all gear needed to be collected and organized, the wax bunker packed up and perhaps a souvenir banner or two needed to be procured.
There is also a moment that I know I need to take, away from all the action and just look out over the mountains and the course, and think about the 8 days we've had here, and all that has happened. It can be overwhelming sometimes thinking of the beauty of the place, the joy on the awards stands, the total effort of athletes and skill and perseverance I'd witnessed. I saw more than one of my coaches do the same during the course of the day.
We started with the 2.5 km race, on the difficult course and for most of the Team USA skiers, they performed exceptionally. For the coaches, it was crazy getting staging, finish line, awards and all other athletes covered, then sprinting to catch our athlete on the podium, then shoving them off to lunch so they were ready for the relays later.
Sidebar: lunch today was KFC chicken sammies (warm) and two chicken nuggets! It's the first thing I really ate in many days and athletes from all countries devoured it. Damn, that was good!
The relays were absolutely crazy! 35+ teams starting at once in a one km race, so that means the exchanges are all taking place in a mass of bodies skiing into the zone, tagging and skiing out, while others are being pulled off the course by coaches and volunteers and shuffled into the tunnel to wait for awards. I jumped in and helped yank skiers out of the way from any country that needed help, then moved to the course to direct them to the finish line. The workers needed the help! Team USA had five relays, and we took gold, several silvers and a bronze, so it was a pretty proud day for us!
In between all that, I was informed the closing ceremony busses need to be loaded earlier, so that means we really need to hustle to get everything done at the venue. It's sad to pack things away, skis, poles and waxes, irons, American flags and boots ... things we've used all week, but we were able to get it done. My coaching friends from other countries were connected with one last time and I managed my longest conversation with Dean all week.
With an hour to go before we were to load closing ceremony busses, we left the venue for the final time, and headed back to the hotel and began unloading, dressing for the closing ceremony and loading onto another bus. We managed to get it all done and, as to somehow signal a successful day, it started snowing. I'll take that.
More ... later.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
So I had a little surprise today, well, actually a couple days ago, when my sports manager said there would be an abbreviated parade of athletes at closing ceremonies. Whole teams would not march in like the opening night, but rather limited representatives from each team. I hadn't thought much about it until I headed down into the area tunnel to line up at an appointed time. They had the country's names taped to the wall and "USA" was hand written there between Uganda and Vietnam Nam.
A snowshoe athlete was waiting there and it was then that I realized Team USA had selected one coach and one athlete from the entire team to represent USA! Holy crap ... it struck me that this was a pretty big honor and somehow through the fog of the week, I hadn't realized it. All the teams' representatives were filed through corridors under the arena, then out onto the floor to a blast of music, lights, cheering and TV coverage. The athlete and I joked around a little, because nerves would have gotten the best of me. As we were about to march onto the stage, the Korean director said "USA, USA" smiled and motioned us to go on. Wow. We stood for a second, waved to everyone, then proceeded (without tripping) down onto the floor and paraded across to the other side. We'd heard the cheers for each country as their name was read off, but was pretty heart warming to hear a REALLY loud one when "TEAM USA" was announced! We waved and smiled and it was just an awesome proud thing to be a part of.
The rest of the closing ceremonies included the usual speeches (way too many and too long) then a mosh pit of trading shirts, pins, jackets and hats ... it's truly insane and something I stay away from. I'd rather give a few things away to coaches I've met and they tend to do likewise. My Finn friend dropped off a few shirts and Ainer, the Norwegian head coach did the same. They had some music and some figure skating for entertainment, but overall, it lacked much emotion ... either that or we were all too tired to appreciate it.
Loading the bus after the ceremony was crazy and there was a lot of pushing and shoving to get on a bus. It took a while and we ended up with a downhill skier who had gotten lost, a coaches worst nightmare. Our official called the alpine team's contact and we told them that we'd bring her back to the hotel. There was a little more packing when we got back and we all crashed for the night. Our sports manager got sick too, so I handled collecting things for the management team and getting our schedule for today.
At breakfast now, toast and coffee for me (the rest I can't look at anymore) then back to get everyone packed up. We load buses for our trip back to Seoul, where we spend a day. We will be at the ritzy Hilton, so food should be something that we all will look forward to there! It snowed, so I hope travel today goes okay.
Beyond that, I'll wait on for now.
Steve Meurett lives, works and plays in West Central Wisconsin and spends about every free moment outdoors where his passions lie. His outdoor interests take him on and off trail, pursuing mountain biking and skinny skiing, photography and hunting, while keeping an eye on wild mushrooms and the next fruit for craft wine. Steve is the Trail Director at The Levis Mound Trail System and member of the Clark County Trails Advisory Committee. He resides, teaches and is a photographer in Neillsville. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.