Jenn Virskus with the Olympic rings on Gyeongpo Beach in Gangneung, South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Jenn Virskus with the Olympic rings on Gyeongpo Beach in Gangneung, South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Jenn Virskus with the Olympic rings on Gyeongpo Beach in Gangneung, South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. (Photo: Courtesy)

How a Midwestern girl ended up covering the Israeli team at the Winter Olympics

Our reporter in Pyeongchang fills us in on getting around in Korea, where to find the best tofu and the events she’ll be watching.

Writing as a profession is something like travel: You never know where it’s going to take you. Mine took me to Asia for the first time – to Pyeongchang, South Korea – to cover the Israeli Olympic Team.

PHOTOS: Israel at the Winter Olympics

Outside of writing, my passion is outdoor sports – cycling, sailing, running, and especially skiing and ski racing. (Editor's note: Jenn, you might want to read our story about avoiding sports injuries.) When I first started contributing to From the Grapevine I covered science topics – there’s a lot of research being done in both medicine and technology in Israel – but it was natural that eventually I would marry my passions with my work.

Israel has sent its largest-ever delegation to the Winter Olympics – 10 athletes in four sports. I’ll be attending several of the alpine skiing events, including the men’s slalom and giant slalom where I’ll be sure to catch up with skier Itamar Biran. (I went skiing with his dad on Wednesday.) I met Itamar for the first time a few years ago at the 2015 FIS Alpine World Championships in Beaver Creek, Colorado, where he was the youngest competitor on the start list.

Since the first article I wrote about Biran at the World Alpine Ski Championships, elite sport has become something of a beat for me at From The Grapevine. I wrote about Israel’s Cycling Academy team when they made their first appearance in the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado, and during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, I wrote a series of articles about Israeli athletes across several events – track and field, sailing and gymnastics. We're doing a similar series of articles for the 2018 Winter Olympics, but with an added bonus – I’m in Pyeongchang!

You never know who you're going to meet at the Olympic Winter Games! Jenn (in the lime green coat) is making all sorts of new friends at the Olympic Winter Games! (Photo: Courtesy Jenn Virskus)

I grew up in Michigan and I’ve never been to Israel, but I’ve always loved stories about underdogs and athletes for whom victory isn’t a medal but a personal best. Athletes who might be long shots to win a Winter Olympic medal, but who continue to compete for the challenge and the opportunity to represent their country – after all, that is the Olympic principle.

The flight from San Francisco was pretty easy: Take off at midnight on Friday, land in Seoul on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. After a quick breakfast of assorted Korean dumplings at the airport I got on the brand new KTX high-speed train to the mountains.

The geography of Pyeongchang and the logistics of the Games are complicated to say the least. There are two main areas of competition: the Mountain Cluster, which is in a city called Daegwallyeong in the heart of the Pyeongchang region, and the Coastal Cluster in Gangneung about 20 miles away. In Gangneung, all of the ice events are concentrated in a single park that stretches about a half mile long from end to end, while the snow sports and sliding events are spread out at several ski areas in the region of Pyeongchang.

This makes getting around difficult, but I’m hoping to catch up with AJ Edelman in skeleton at the Olympic Sliding Centre – I’ve never seen a bobsled, luge or skeleton event and I’m really looking forward to that. Tickets for short track speed skating are nearly impossible to get because the sport is so popular in Korea, but if I can score a ticket I’ll be cheering for Vladislav Bykanov. Alexey Bychenko opened the figure skating team event with a second place in the men’s singles. The men’s individual singles competition should be a great show, too.

Working at the Budnamu Brewery in Gangneung. Jenn working at the Budnamu Brewery in Gangneung. (Photo: Courtesy Jenn Virskus)

Watching the Olympics can feel as exhausting as it is to be a competitor with so many events packed back-to-back, and inside the venues, it’s not like being in Korea at all. The line to get into McDonald’s at Gangneung Olympic Park was about 150 people long. In between events, I’ll try to get out of the bubble a little bit to experience some of the local culture.

I’m spending the first four days with my brother and his girlfriend who joined me from Japan. We had lunch on “Tofu Street” in Gangneung after the figure skating team event final at a small soup kitchen. The tofu is unique to this tiny area of Korea, as it's made with seawater. It has the consistency similar to Italian burrata cheese. There were three choices – spicy seafood soup or two different vegetarian options. The spicy was very spicy, but the soft tofu created a nice balance.

Stuffed, we took a walk along Gyeongpo Beach where we enjoyed a public art display called Fire Art Fest. The sculptures are part of the Olympic cultural program and we learned that they’ll be set on fire during the closing ceremony – that will certainly be a must-see event! We had dinner at a hole-in-the-wall brewery where we met the U.S.A. men’s hockey team. The most fun part of the Olympics is meeting new friends in unexpected places.

I’ve only been in Korea for about two days, but already I love it. The food is mouthwatering, so many new flavors and textures and all delicious, and the people are incredibly warm and welcoming. The community of Pyeongchang has really come together to welcome the world. These two weeks are going to fly by, but we’ll all be coming home with a lifetime of impressions and experiences, and likely a lot of new friends.

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