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It all started in 2014. My father, Jonathan Sass, volunteered at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. I was twelve at the time.
I recall him telling me the various stories of his time there, the work he was doing, and the people he was meeting. A memory that sticks in my mind is him skyping me from the Olympic ski hill, a beautiful slope behind him and crisp wind crackling into the microphone. Once he returned from his month-long stay, he told me his newest dreams of taking his children, me and my sister, to the 2018 Korea Olympics.
I loved the idea of traveling around the world to ski. Especially since I had never been out of the country before.
Things turned out differently than expected, though. Because of my age, I’m 15, I couldn’t apply as a volunteer for the actual Olympics, so my dad contacted someone he had met in Sochi and got us in to working the Audi FIS World Cup in PyeongChang, a test event for the upcoming Olympics. We became part of the limited international crew for the event.
Since I had never been out of the country before, I spent the time leading up to my trip wondering how I would react to being in a much different culture than the one I had grown up in. I actually had no expectations for the upcoming event, considering that I had never worked on a World Cup course in the United States, either.
In preparation for the event and traveling outside the U.S., my father told me that a way to gain more respect in a foreign country is to learn some of the language. “Knowing at least a few words will gain you more respect as an American,” he told me. So my father and I began taking Korean lessons from Insook, a woman who lives in Reno now but was born in Korea.
Our adventure started off in the San Francisco airport on Feb. 18, with a seven-hour delay for a 12-hour flight. I thought the flight would be long and obnoxious, but I slept through most of it. When I awoke I could see the lights of Russia below me.
My father and I landed in Seoul at 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 20. A taxi had been arranged to pick us up at the airport, and drove us the 2.5 hours from Seoul to PyeongChang. My first introduction to South Korea was an easy trip through customs and a crazy cabby — to say he was a scary driver is an understatement! All of the driving takes some getting used to: the drivers all text, go over the speed limit, and lack understanding of aspects of their cars such as defrosters.
By the time we arrived at Phoenix Park — our accommodations for the duration of our stay — it was 4:30 a.m. The location of the World Cup ski hill was Jeongseon, about a 50-minute bus ride from our hotel — and the buses would leave around 6:20 that morning. So, after a long trip, we hopped on a bus to go to work only a few hours after we arrived!
Once at the alpine ski hill, my father and I had our first taste of the local food. The first breakfast consisted of rice, kimchi, a vegetable, a mystery meat, and a soup. Three meals a day for the next two weeks, this is what our food looked like. I had tried some variations of Korean food before arriving, so none of it was super out of the ordinary for me to see. It did take some getting used to eating rice and kimchi for breakfast; I soon realized they don’t have what we consider a proper breakfast food in Korea, and they eat the same food three meals a day.
After breakfast we were placed on our assigned teams. My father and me were placed on an air fence crew, which consisted of three Canadians and three Americans, including us. Our task was to construct air fences; they are one aspect of safety on the race course. After day one my body and my feet were sore, but I was still full of excitement to return to the hill the next day. Most of my excitement resulted from the fact that this was an Olympic class hill I was able to ski, and that there were minimal to no people and I could go as fast as I wanted!
Our days on the hill were about twelve hours long. After breakfast we’d go up and work on whatever task had been assigned to our crew, which usually was either building air fences or re-filling air fences. At noon, we had lunch, then went back to work for another couple of hours. Around 4:30 p.m. we rode the bus back to Phoenix Park, where we showered, went to dinner, went to bed, and then repeated this cycle every day. Although some days were exhausting, I always returned to the hill with a smile on my face.
Since everyone on our crew was either American or Canadian, we didn’t have much interaction with the other international crews. We tried to at least be friendly with the other crews that were mainly Russians or Koreans. My father and I tried to put our knowledge of the few Korean words we had learned to use. Although we may not know a lot, once in Korea, it was quite fun to be able to read all the signs, despite not knowing what they meant.
Knowing only a few words seemed to work in our favor. One day, while we were waiting for the bus, my father remembered the word for “hungry” in Korean and said it to a woman inside the lodge. She had a big smile on her face, and then she handed my father and me some beef jerky and chocolate.
Although we may have not had much interaction with the Russians and the Koreans in the beginning, as the week went on the faces all began to become familiar, as well as the people. The Koreans welcomed me with open arms, including one who wanted to set me up with his son. It was nice that each morning before getting on the bus we would all say hello in Russian and Korean. On the hill I would see the familiar faces skiing by.
As my first trip outside of the country I was glad it was to South Korea. To me, it was a different version of traveling. Our rides, food, and accommodation were all taken care of through the Olympic committee. Korea took me in with open arms and treated me well, I gained knowledge of geography, a new understanding of other cultures, as well as some insight into the Olympics and the World Cup.
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