PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It’s so much bigger in person. Louder, too. Sharper, clearer, and, simply put, more impressive.
As a devoted Olympics watcher across all of my youth, my first experience in covering one has been a lesson in perspective, one to underscore just what an enormous stage this is, and be reminded again what a praiseworthy accomplishment it is for the athletes who made it.
The snowboard halfpipe is mammoth, dwarfing the spectators at its base, amazing the civilians unable to imagine dropping off of its walls with a board attached to their feet, yet it was no barrier to greatness for Chloe Kim and Shaun White, who made it look easy.
The ski jump is even more daunting, rising out of the snow like some sort of extreme sports joke, but it was no problem whatsoever for the skiers brave enough to fly off its precipice.
As disappointing at the US showing was in women’s figure skating, I couldn’t help but be amazed at seeing the artistry and athleticism of Bradie Tennell, Karen Chen and Mirai Nagasu up close, and couldn’t help but wonder how they continue to skate in a straight line, never mind beautiful loops and jumps, in the aftermath of their never-ending spins.
Yet it was the sound of collisions that might stay with me most, the human toll of the best hockey game I’ve ever seen in person still ringing in my ears. The US women’s shootout victory over Canada, the heart-stopping, nail-biting game between bitter but beautiful rivals, the one that couldn’t crown a winner until 60 minutes of regulation, 20 minutes of overtime, and six rounds of penalty shots were completed, will rank as a highlight of these Games.
It has plenty of company. The unexpected gold in men’s curling, as rollicking and rolling a sporting event as one can imagine, a Disney story in the making about plucky but undeterred underdogs realizing their Olympic dream. The rewarding wait for women’s cross-country ski gold, nabbed in the sprint competition by a perfect team of veteran and youth, bringing the sport’s best ambassador Kikkan Randall (also a kickass mom, in case you missed it) and its emerging star Jessie Diggins together across an exhausted finish line. Though I only saw the former in person, the latter resonated across PyeongChang as much as any of the 23 American medals.
And yes, the US medal count was less than the USOC hoped, and yes, it looks so much better now than it did midway through the Games, when too many fourth places and too many falls were dragging the American contingent down. When Lindsey Vonn, decorated American Alpine skier, warned of the danger of valuing those medals over the experience of being here, I truly tried to take in what she was saying.
I hear her.
These journeys are epic. They involve families and friends and sacrifice. They demand time and effort and energy. They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and require thousands and thousands of practice hours. They happen only after a deep emotional investment, one that even the athletes don’t often realize.
If you're feeling #WinterOlympics withdrawal this morning, let us brighten your spirits with the best reactions by athletes realizing they've medaled.— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 26, 2018
we're not crying, you're crying pic.twitter.com/mvgEwLNeMj
So when Nagasu rambles after a splat-filled free skate, complaining about the lack of hot water and the early-morning schedule, when she claims responsibility for saving Team USA’s bacon in the bronze medal team win and declares her free skate nothing more than a “Dancing with the Stars” audition, when she later apologizes for such comments as part of a greater emotional letdown, I believe her.
When Canadian hockey player Jocelyne Larocque removes her silver medal only seconds after it was placed over her neck, when she is moved in that instant to reveal the deepest disappointment an athlete can feel, when she later apologizes for the appearance of disrespect, I accept her.
When US men’s hockey coach Tony Granato can’t find his way to the handshake line against the Russians or has the temerity to complain about their use of a top-line power play late in a game they’d already won, when he later wishes his team could have had one more shot against the tournament’s obvious best team, I may not agree with him, but I do understand him. And when young Ryan Donato says he is so eager to trade all five of his Olympic goals for one win and one chance to play for a medal, I feel for him.
These Olympics will stay with me for so many reasons, some personal. Like the experience of arriving, 14 hours ahead in time zones, not knowing the language, not being in my comfort zone, and eventually realizing it would all work out anyway.
Korean hospitality was nothing short of perfect. I’ve worn more layers of clothing than I thought could fit under a Burton jacket, found my way to the correct bus lines (most of the time), eaten in some fantastic restaurants (sticky rice to delight your palate, hot and spicy soups to clear your sinuses, bibimbap to fill your vegetable cravings), and experienced the joyous lobby of the nearby Czech house, where beer flowed, goulash was poured, and humanity came together.
From all corners of the world, these different languages also ebbed and flowed their way across the morning cafeteria, finding their universal translation in eggs, beans, and toast.
From the US women who rocked these Games to the gay men who revealed its heart, from the teenagers who grabbed their moment to the veterans refusing to let go of theirs, the Olympic experience is unlike anything else I’ve ever covered.
I can’t wait to head home again, yet at the same time, I never want it to end.Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.