SEOUL, South Korea - KPRC2 anchor-reporter Jacob Rascon is in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Follow Jacob's Olympic journey below:
Going home: Farewell PyeongChang
You never know going into the games what the big story will be in the end. Many heavily promoted Olympians flopped. Others far exceeded expectations. There were, as always, historic victories and remarkable defeats.
Team USA brought home 23 medals, the least since the 1998 Nagano games. Norway, a country of just 5 million, stunned the world with 39 medals, the most in PyeongChang. But there is so much more to the games than just medals. There are unforgettable moments.
Like when the US Women’s Hockey Team bested Canada for the first time in 20 years. What a game! Decided only after overtime, a shootout and then a sudden death shootout. The Canadians looked so devastated and the American players and fans lost it.
Or that time Chloe Kim, just 17, tweeted about being hangry before soaring to gold in the halfpipe.
Shaun White, behind until the final run. And what a run! When he saw his score, he threw his board in the air and started to cry.
Marai Nagasu shut her eyes, clenched her fists and screamed after she became the first American woman ever to land a triple axel at the games.
How about the Nigerian bobsled team? Beaming with such pride you might have thought they won gold. Africa’s first bobsled team competed on ice for the first time only one year ago. Now they ride with the best in the world.
Pita Taufatofua was the only Tongan Olympian in PyeongChang. He started training on snow just three months before the games. Then he stole the opening ceremony, shirtless and oiled up in subzero temperatures, and didn’t finish last in his event. But the Mexican skier who did was hoisted up like a king at the finish line!
The US Men’s Curling Team lost badly early in the games, and was forgotten. Then they won five in a row, beat Canada and made it to the finals for the first time ever, and won! Their families could not stop screaming, crying, and laughing.
Czech Republic’s Ester Ledecka looked as surprised as everyone else when she won gold in snowboarding and skiing.
Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir reminded us why we love ice dancing.
Korea wowed in speed skating and the home crowd thundered.
Norway just could not stop winning at everything.
But some of our favorite moments had little to do with competition. The Korean people were beyond friendly, and so respectful and happy. They gave us gifts on Valentine’s Day, and sometimes just because. They made us feel at home.
Watching Byron climb the snowy mountain with a camera and heavy backpack in 10-degree weather was memorable. I’d have helped, but I was carrying my own pack, plus the tripod, and too busy laughing. “The next winter games better be in Africa!” Byron yelled out.
We couldn’t be prouder of the 12 Texas Olympians, some with stronger connections than others: Bobsledders Sam McGuffie (Cypress), Justin Olsen (San Antonio) and Chris Fogt (Fort Hood); Bobsledders representing Nigeria Seun Adigun (Houston), Ngozi Onwumere (Houston), and Akuoma Omeoga (Houston); Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender (McGregor); speed skater Jonathan Garcia (Katy); aerial skier Ashley Caldwell (Seabrook); and figure skaters Kaitlyn Weaver (Houston), Aimee Buchanan (Dallas) and Satoko Miyahara (Houston) representing Canada, Israel and Japan, respectively.
We leave Incheon Airport in Seoul Tuesday night, and arrive in Houston 16 hours later, on Tuesday night. Thanks for watching and reading!
Next stop, the rodeo!
We’re all set up near the Gangneung Hockey Center. A line of reporters and photographers waiting to talk to the champions. The ones who weren’t supposed to win, representing a country that had never been to an Olympic finals match in the sport. The best curling team in the world!
A crowd of fans waits 50 feet away. But not just any fans, it turns out. We meet Luke Shuster, the 7-year-old son of “Skip” John Shuster, the captain of the team. “What do you think about what dad did?” I ask. “Good,” Luke says. “What else do you want to tell me about your dad, and the team?” I say.
After pausing for a few seconds, he yells out, “GIVE ME A ‘U’!” The crowd of several dozen family and friends responds in unison; “U!” Luke follows with an “S!” an “A!” and finally, “WHO ARE WE?!” At once, the crowd chants “USA! USA! USA!” Luke could not have a bigger smile on his face.
“The best part of the whole thing,” team member Tyler George tells me later, “is to share it with our families, and to just bask in this moment and just sort of soak it in.” Another teammate, Matt Hamilton, tells me, “you look at the replays and you won’t find a team that had more fun than us.”
“I think it’s that mentality that honestly made all the teams playing with us pretty uncomfortable on the ice because we were having such a great time doing what we were doing,” John, the team's "skip," said.
Earlier today, we traveled to the International Broadcast Center again, but this time we sat down with Mike Tirico, the face of NBC Olympics coverage. He was very nice and engaging, and, it seemed, thrilled with his new assignment.
“You never know what’s going to happen” everyday, Tirico said. “So that gives you the energy to get back on the Groundhog Day schedule and do it again day after day.” There are 5,000 or so NBC personnel on site helping produce Olympic coverage, “working 10, 11, 12 hour days, or more,” Tiricosaid. “It is a massive operation.”
It wasn’t hard for him to pick a favorite moment. “It was watching the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team win that gold medal,” Tirico said. “It was just one of those genuine American Olympic moments that will stay with me forever.”
Traffic is terrible on the way back to the media village. It's snowing and very foggy. The driver, a guy from the U.K. who’s lived in France for the past 30 years, looks for a shortcut. It takes at least twice, maybe three times as long as usual to get back to the NBC workspace, where some teams have already cleared their tables. Hard to believe it's already been three weeks.
Back at the media village, the convenience store clerk tells me to grab a second Gosomi cracker box. "Two for price of one," she says. I buy the rest of the crackers, or 10 boxes. I'm going to need a few more.
The bus is late, and I’m craving Gosomi crackers. There’s a market a block and a half away, up and over the hill. I leave my backpack and camera with Byron and jog over to the store and grab a pack of crackers and a water.
A couple of guys at the cash register wearing Team USA coats tell me to “Throw it in! America’s payin!” I suggest they try Gosomi crackers, so they throw in an extra pack and pay for everything. “Gomsawhumnida (Thank you!)"
I jog back up the hill and see the bus is there. I’m a block away and I start sprinting. I think Byron is laughing, but I can’t be sure. At least I made it.
As usual, a giant flatscreen TV is on inside the bus. Instead of Olympics coverage, we’re watching a Korean karaoke competition, I think. The sound is off, and I don’t understand Korean anyway.
The day began at the Gangneung Ice Arena at the Olympic Park. Ladie’s figure skating was about to wrap up. It’s the only event media can’t get into without a ticket, and we don’t have any. We’re looking for aspiring Olympians who watched the performances.
We find a nice family from Park City, Utah. Little Parker, 7, dreams of competing in the Olympics as an alpine skier. She met Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn in Pyeongchang. Her best friend, Clara, dreams of competing as a figure skater. “We’ll come back to the Olympics for that one,” Parker's parents say.
Later, we meet Bradie Tennell, Karen Chen and Marai Nagasu. It was a disappointing night for all three. Karen was emotional, holding back tears during interviews. Bradie was a little more upbeat and Marai was smiling ear to ear. She was proud of her bronze medal in the team event.
Hard to believe it is Friday night in Korea. We’ve been here for three weeks. What an incredible experience.
What a thrilling game! Just amazing to watch in person. The women’s hockey team earned every ounce of that gold medal. Their first in 20 years.
They were hungry for redemption. And literally hungry afterwards. We saw them behind the Today show set with bags of McDonalds. “SO HUNGRY!” One player said with a hand full of fries.
We chanted loudly during the game but the Canadians were overwhelming. There appeared to be far more of them. I walked around and took pictures of my favorite fan outfits. We were up one nothing and feeling good.
World champion skier Ashley Caldwell was in the audience, siting with a couple dozen other Olympians. Bradie Tennell was nearby with her family. The parents of USA goalie Maddie Rooney said, "Hi." And two families from Houston!
By the time I sat down again the Canadians led two to one. Dang it! The Canadians were fired up. This was their game. Gold medalists for the last three Olympics. Just six minutes left in the game. We were going to lose.
But what a comeback! We tied it up. We owned Canada during overtime. Tied them in the shootout. Here comes the sudden death shootout, and we win!
The Houstonians we sat next to went crazy. “I haven't been this excited since the World Series!" They stuck around an hour after the game for selfies with superstars. “This is the best Olympics in PyeongChang!”
At the security tent, the Korean volunteers have a surprise for me. They know how much I love Korean Gosomi crackers, and they bought me a few packs. I found them on Amazon, by the way, and mailed my family some to try. Should arrive in a couple of days.
Packed in a van of journalists headed down the mountain. Another night at the Olympic sliding center, where the Americans took home the silver medal in women's bobsled, trailing the Germans by only hundredths of a second!
The Nigerian bobsled team finished in last place. But you wouldn't have known it by their reaction, and the reaction of their fans in the stands, in Texas and across Africa. The team and fans jumped and yelled, hugged, prayed and cried. There were watch parties in Houston, Nigeria and across the continent.
As I walk to the "mix zone" near the finish line, where athletes talk to media, I notice Seun Adigun, the team driver, kneeling in prayer right on the finish line platform. She must have prayed for a few minutes.
"After the hollering and yelling, the praying started," Seun told me afterward. "Just being grateful."
Her parents, who emigrated to the states from Nigeria, told me this is about more than the team. "It's about the generations that will come after," her mom said. "Africa is rooting for them," her dad said.
We also talked to the American women who won silver, and the Germans who won gold. One of them told me, "I don't even know how close it was, I was just focused on what I was doing." The Germans won by .04 seconds.
Earlier in the day, we interviewed a bunch of Americans leaving the men's hockey game at Olympic Park. They aren't hard to spot in bright red, white and blue outfits. Koreans treat them like celebrities, swarming them to take pictures.
Sometimes, we're stopped by Koreans looking for photos with American media. Everyone is so nice, and respectful. They greet each other, say thank you and goodbye all with a bow.
My eight-year-old daughter is trying to find me on the maps at our house. “Look next to China,” I say. FaceTime isn’t working and neither are my instructions. “Where’s China? What is C-A-R-O-L-I-N-A?”
“Wrong map. Look at the big one with lots of countries on it.” She finds Finland. “Keep going right.” She spells out Saudi Arabia. “Almost there. Sort of.” She finds China, and eventually, South Korea.
“WOAH. That’s SO FAR AWAY.” Maybe I’ll walk home next week, I tell her. “That would take your WHOLE ENTIRE LIFE, dad, and you would be so tired.” She’s probably right. “And you would get eaten by the sharks!”
We stop at the International Broadcast Center, or IBC, on our way up the mountain. This is the nerve center for all network Olympics coverage. NBC Sports, Olympic Broadcasting, Canadian Broadcasting, Japanese and every other outlet responsible for coverage of the games in their countries. Plus Reuters, the New York Times, and many other media.
At the NBC Sports Desk, we meet Vivian Kim, who was my trainer at NBC News several years ago. She’s sort of in charge in PyeongChang, and has been here for three weeks (and off and on several times for a couple of years). “I’m so tired,” she says. “But it’s been really good. This is such an awesome experience.” Journalists who have been to many Olympics say this may be the most organized ever.
We talk to the NBC News Snapchat team, including Anchor Gadi Schwartz. We used to work together at the NBC station in Los Angeles, and then at the NBC News Los Angeles bureau.
We catch a bus up the mountain to the sliding center to watch the Nigerian bobsled team make their official Olympic debut on the track! In the stands, we find more than a dozen ecstatic Nigerians waving white and green flags and chanting. Their faces are beaming with pride. “THAT’S MY DAUGHTER! Seun’s dad says.
“Before that first run, we were so excited we didn’t even know what to do,” Akuoma tells me after the historic race. “We dropped almost a full second from our training time,” Seun says. They won’t medal, but victory is still sweet. From a wooden cart in a garage to the biggest stage in the world for their sport in less than two years.
“I think we were able to show that with more time, with more experience, and more opportunities for the continent of Africa, we can be just as competitive as anyone else,” Seun said. The Jamaican women’s bobsled team is also a first.
The two American women’s teams have some of their best runs, and at least of them is expected to medal. The final two runs for all countries take place Wednesday night in South Korea.
Feels like yesterday I was sitting in the laundry room eating crackers and watching figure skating. Already out of clothes. Can’t get enough of these performances. Or these crackers.
We followed Jonathan Garcia’s career for many years. The Houstonian inline skating champion turned speed skater overcame a lot of disappointment to qualify for Sochi and PyeongChang. He wanted to leave it all on the ice, and he did.
“I want to thank everyone for their support, I hope I made you guys proud,” he told me after the event. He won his heat, but did not medal. The competition was stiff. The Olympic record was broken twice!
We were told Jonathan’s girlfriend, Vanessa, and her family were watching from Section 206. Just before the race, I ran there to take a picture (no video allowed inside venues during an events). I’d only ever seen them in pictures.
When Jonathan’s name was announced, I saw several people in Section 206 jump up and down and yell his name. I climbed the stairs to the group and introduced myself. “Vanessa, right?” But the blonde woman who looked a lot like the pictures I’d seen said, “it’s Brooke.” She was sitting with her mom. They said “tell Jonathon we are so exited!” No time to talk. I took a picture anyway.
Later that night, I met the real Vanessa and I told her the story. We laughed, but I still have no idea who Brooke was.
The event was held at night here, early morning Houston time, during the show. The Gangneung Oval is a quarter mile or so away from the Hollywood Squares platform. When Jonathan’s event finished, it was almost time for my next live shot. I took off.
Sprinted up the stairs and to the opposite side of the venue, about a football field field away. Then a quarter mile to the live shot and up the stairs to our platform. Took off my badge and camera, hooked up my IFB cable; “20 seconds, Jacob!”
Wiped the sweat from my face and took off my jacket. Took a few deep breaths and it was go time. I’ve cut it close before, but that might have been a record for me. “I just ran the 400 meter live shot,” I told Rachel and Owen. But it was further than that. And with stairs.
Houstonian bobsledder Sam McGuffie just finished his first two Olympic runs. He was recruited by legendary bobsled pilot Steven Holcomb just a few years ago, “but I’ve been training my whole life, training my body to get me ready for, you know, a moment like this,” Sam said.
He was a star running back at Cy-Fair high school in Cypress. Known for hurdling defenders, instead of running around them. He played for the University of Michigan and Rice University before brief stints in the NFL.
A year after Holcomb recruited him, they won gold at the Lake Placid world championships. An amazing accomplishment as they prepared for Pyeongchang. Then last year, Holcomb died suddenly. Sam and others on the team wear bracelets in his honor. “We know he’s watching us,” Sam said.
His first runs aren’t as fast as he had hoped. “We got two more tomorrow, and we’re going to catch some people, so look for that,” Sam said. “I really think that, um, this is the beginning. This is just the beginning.”
A few minutes after the interview, I find Sam to take a picture.
“I forgot to make a shout out,” he said.
So we turn the camera back on.
“I want to shout out to my mom, 'Hi mom! Cypress Texas,' and every Houston school he ever attended, 'thanks for having my back! And my dad. Everybody!'”
Another Texan, bobsled pilot Justin Olsen, had his best runs ever despite undergoing emergency surgery a couple of weeks ago to remove his appendix.
“We’re right where we wanted to be,” Justin’s teammate, Evan, said. “The setback didn’t turn out to be a setback. I believe we’re capable of putting down some wins. It’s just a matter of nailing it when you’re going 75-80 mph.”
Hard to believe it’s already the final week of competition. Tons of skiing, figure skating, snowboarding, hockey, curling and other events still to go.
Curling, by the way, is the only Winter Sport with events every day of the games.
Sam, Justin and Houstonian speed skater Jonathan García race on Monday. Jonathan’s parents, girlfriend, and other family and friends are in town.
The Nigerian Bobsled team makes history on Tuesday and Wednesday. We like to think they’re also the Houstonian bobsled team. Four-man bobsled on Saturday and Sunday is one of the final events.
We also learned today that one of the Canadian ice dancers, Kaitlyn Weaver, was born and raised in Houston. She skates on Monday!
It’s two-nothing, Russia. But USA is hungry. A fight breaks out. Then another. Russian cheerleaders chant “ROO-SEE-UH!” The arena erupts in “USA! USA!” But Russia scores again.
In the middle of the Russian cheerleader section is a guy dressed in a USA jacket, pants and beanie, with dark glasses and red, white and blue face paint. He’s holding a gopro and a drink. And he’s not happy.
The Russian hockey team was expected to win, and they won big. Officially, they are “Team Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Some of the best, if not the best players in the world. Awesome to watch our guys compete. My first hockey game in at least 10 years.
We had the day off. I hopped on the KTX train to Seoul this morning. A super smooth, 90-minute ride at speeds up to 190 mph. At Seoul Station, I pay about $15 to ride a double-decker sightseeing bus.
What a massive, beautiful city! About the size of Chicago, but five times as many people. If you include suburbs, more like 25 million, or about half the population of South Korea. Seemingly endless skyscrapers, apartment buildings, peppered with flashy outdoor markets and shopping areas.
I jump off at Insadong neighborhood and find authentic Korean food. Below the official restaurant sign is a smaller one that reads, “Good Restaurant.” Nobody speaks any English inside. Kimchi and other sides are served first. Then dumplings and rice cake soup. The Olympics play on flatscreens.
There’s a karaoke spot at the nearby market. Third floor of an old building. One dollar for three songs. The room all to myself. But I don’t understand the Korean music. How am I supposed to sing along? I thought Koreans loved American songs, too. Then I figure out how to type English letters using the oversized Korean remote. “Unchained melody” it is.
After you sing, the giant flatscreen monitor gives you a score. Zero for the Korean song. Sixty something for “unchained melody.” I can do better. So I sing it again, until I get 100. How is this scored, anyway?
I walk to Seoul city hall, a giant curved, glass building. A couple of outdoor ice rinks and other PyeongChang-related venues are set up nearby. At one, kids step on skies and shoot darts at targets while videos of Olympic Biathletes play in the background.
I get a call from Mark Caldwell, the father of world champion freestyle skier Ashley Caldwell. They’re in town and want to have dinner. On my way to meet them, I walk through a thundering political rally. They wave South Korean and American flags in unison while chanting loudly and stomping on pictures of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un. I later learn they were demonstrating against South Korea’s president, who they accuse of being too soft on the North.
The Caldwells and I walk to the Itaewon neighborhood. Party of 10: Ashley, her three siblings and parents, her sister’s boyfriend, two family friends, and me. There are dozens of restaurants with every kind of food. Takes a while to decide what to eat.
We settle on Chinese after the Korean BBQ restaurant took too long to seat us. But it was fantastic, especially the spicy eggplant. It’s fun to hang out with an Olympian and her family. “I’m just a girl,” Ashley says.
On the train home, I sit next to a Korean volunteer headed to the Gangneung hospital. He helps treat injured Olympians, and translates for other doctors. He’s eating McDonalds. In Seoul, amid the authentic food, there were also Starbucks, Burger King and other American fast food.
Back in PyeongChang, I taxi over to the Gangneung Hockey Center to watch USA vs “Olympic athletes from Russia.” Afterwards, I go home to find a well-rested Byron Nichols. He traveled to the coast and ate authentic Korean seafood today. We swap stories and call it a night. Hasta mañana!
Expectations could not have been higher for Americans Nathan Chen and Mikaela Shiffrin. They were so heavily promoted, and deserved to be. They were the best. Same with Ashley Caldwell and a few other star athletes. But sometimes, it's just not your day. For every triumph at the Olympics, there are stunning defeats.
Turns out, Caldwell had pneumonia and sprained her shoulder before competition.
"Excuses are nice, they make you feel better," she told me the day after she crashed during her event. "But gold medals are nicer."
She's at the top of her game, and the sport, because she can land the most difficult tricks.
"But I don't feel like I'm at my highest level. I haven't shown the world everything I'm capable of, so it's not the end of my run," she said.
We meet the Caldwell family and friends outside the Gangneung Curling Center. They're looking for a place to eat. Caldwell's mom preferred not to take off her glasses for the interview. Her eyes still swollen from crying the night before.
"My heart is broken," she had texted me after the event. "This Olympics will take a while to recover from, but we know she will."
"I feel OK, despite the agonizing pain in my shoulder," Caldwell said. "The emotional pain is a little more difficult to handle. The shoulder pain will heal. The emotional pain sticks with you forever."
Her younger brother, Jack, sums up his feelings nicely, "I know that she competes her hardest, and inspires me to never give up and keep on being baller."
The Tongan shirtless flag bearer also inspires people to never give up and keep on being baller. Out of 115 racers in the men's cross-country skiing event, Pita Taufatofua placed 112th. He finished! He trained on snow for the first time only a few months ago.
What a week in PyeongChang! We dominated in snowboarding. Teenagers Chloe Kim and Red Gerard, Jamie Anderson and Shaun White knocked it out of the park. We also earned a bronze in snowboarding halfpipe, a bronze in the figure skating team event, a silver in luge, and several other medals. Norway, Germany and the Netherlands still dominate the total medal count.
Today was the day aerials world champion Ashley Caldwell, whose family lives in Galveston County, would compete in qualifying.
Ten years of training for this moment.
Her third Olympics, but the first time she was expected to win.
We saw Caldwell train this week at Phoenix Snow Park. The only woman who consistently lands triple back flips, always pushing the limits of her sport. Amazing to watch in person. She stuck every landing but one.
It was a pretty bad crash. Really hard to watch her bounce off the snow and lay there for several minutes. Coaches and volunteers sprinted to her side. Eventually, she got up and walked away.
Caldwell’s Olympic gold medal dream will remain, for now, just a dream. She fell during qualifying and failed to advance. Afterwards, she said: “I took a big crash a couple of days ago, and hurt my shoulder, and we did everything we could to make it feel good.”
Profound disappointment, no doubt, for Ashley and her family.
We saw the Nigerian bobsled team for the first time in PyeongChang! They live and train in Houston, and they are missing home.
“We’re freezing, everyone is just freezing!” Seun Adigun said.
We had never been to the Olympic athletes village in the mountains. We tried to take a taxi but the driver didn’t understand where we wanted to go. A volunteer led us to a man named Kang who gave us a ride. We learned halfway there that Kang designed the PyeongChang Olympic transportation system. He knew exactly where to go!
The Nigerian team has been overwhelmed with support from all over the world. The Nigerian ambassador in Korea hosted the team. Chris and Dudley Stokes, original members of the Jamaican bobsled team, did too. The University of Houston, where Seun and Ngozi graduated, sends its love constantly. Houston artists Tobe and Fat Nwigwe designed the Nigerian delegation outfits and created a music video for them.
We made it to the sliding center where Team USA men’s bobsledders hit the ice for the first time, including Texan Justin Olsen, who had an emergency appendectomy just last week.
“I don’t feel like I’m going to have any physical limitations moving into the race,” he told me. “I might be sore heading into the race, but that’s, we’ve been working way too hard for too long to let some soreness bother us.”
I got a call from Caldwell’s agent after qualification. Turns out, she suffered a “grade one” shoulder injury earlier in the week. As always in the Olympics, there are stunning performances and equally stunning defeats.
I’m told he never turns down a picture, so I think I have a chance. But Shaun White has had a long day. He’s about to leave the Today Show set and his handler says no more interviews.
I’m standing backstage near the guest room. Shaun and his entourage inside. Other media folks nearby have the same idea. But this is as close as we may get. Producers guard the door.
And then I spot Shaun’s friend, Cody, a few feet away. “Will you do me a favor?” He looks like a nice guy. He's one of Shaun’s snowboarding buddies.
“Will you take a picture of me and Shaun when he comes out?”
Cody says no problem “as long as security doesn’t like, push us away and stuff.”
But Shaun comes out first and Cody grabs him, “Hey Shaun come get a picture!”
Shaun shakes my hand with a huge smile, thanks me for the support and we take a picture. “Wait, I should hold the medal? Here we go, one more time.”
Valentine’s Day works a little differently in Korea. I’m told it’s all about the men, who get lots of chocolate and other gifts. Then in one month, on White Day, if they like the gift-giver, the men return the favor three-fold. Another month after that is Black Day for singles.
Security guards hand out chocolates to media and say, “Happy Valentine Day!” They teach me how to pronounce the name of the candy until I realize they’re just trying to say “chocolate pie” in English: “CHOKE-OH-PIE!”
We meet Houstonian speed skater Jonathan García at the Gangneung Oval after one of his final training runs. Dozens of skaters from other countries are also practicing -- the best in the world are flying across the ice!
How does Jonathan mentally prepare for the biggest day of his life?
“I re-watched game five of the World Series yesterday in my room. Just all the feels. It gets me pumped.” The Astros re-tweeted Jonathan earlier this week, and MLB.com wrote an article about it: “One of the highlights of my life!” He also watches Rockets games when he’s not on the ice.
Of all the dangerous things that might have happened in Korea, I didn’t think eating lunch would be one of them. The giant cafeteria tent starts to shake. Sudden wind gusts up to 50 miles-per-hour.
Photographers start recording, but we’re told to evacuate -- same with the entire Olympic Park.
Volunteers yell “seek shelter immediately” into megaphones. Giant tents dot the park, including the Pyeongchang merchandise superstore. Emergency personnel use fire truck ladders to fix holes and a couple of confession stands collapse.
I can only imagine what this feels like in the mountains, especially as an Olympian. Slalom skiing and other alpine events have been delayed repeatedly. Mikaela Shiffrin, one of Team USA’s superstars, was supposed to compete several days ago. Her event has been postponed twice due to wind.
Ashley Caldwell’s handler tells me she will be OK after her crash during training. That was hard to watch. Wind also to blame there, but conditions are supposed to calm down some on Thursday.
We throw on more layers than usual. Wool long johns. Our Olympics pullover. A medium puffy jacket, then the big one. Snow pants, scarf, beanie, a face mask and big gloves.
PyeongChang 2018 may turn out to be the coldest Olympics in decades. The coastal areas aren't so bad. But in the mountains, wind chills can make it feel like it’s below zero. There are seven venues up here, including Phoenix snow park, home of the moguls, aerial ski jump and half-pipe.
Takes more than an hour to arrive. Chloe Kim just won gold in spectacular fashion. Her friend Arielle Gold placed third. Hundreds file out of the gates. Americans still yelling and high-fiving.
We’re here to see Ashley Caldwell, the reigning aerials world champion, whose family lives in the Houston area. Hers may be the most extreme Winter Olympics sport. One giant jump. About three seconds in the air, sixty feet up. Complicated somersaults and spins that can only be appreciated in slow motion.
Training sessions can last a couple of hours or longer. Under normal conditions, that’s 10 practice jumps. But in this wind, she will only get five or six. One coach stands at the top of the hill, another in the booth, one at the foot of the jump, yelling commands when Ashley is airborne.
“Stretch! Stretch!” He yells. A wind gust hits right as Ashley leaves the ramp. It’s not pretty. She bounces off the snow and lays there for a minute. I can’t imagine falling from that far up.
A dozen Olympians are taking turns. Ashley is clearly the best. Her tricks are the most complicated. She sticks every landing but one. The others fall almost every jump during this session. Winds are expected to die down a bit by qualifications on Thursday.
Wherever we travel, the most common question is: “Where are you from?” We like to follow up with, “What do you know about Texas and Houston.”
“Lots of cowboys,” says one photographer form Moscow. “Very warm, and lots of dust.”
“Basketball. Yes, basketball team,” says one Korean volunteer. “James, uh, James Harden!” A Kenyan man says “I don’t know but I think everything is bigger in Texas?” His teammate has never heard of Houston.
We meet Savannah and Hoda on the Today show set. I show them pictures of my family, Hoda FaceTimes her family. We talk about Korea, Olympic champions and Houston. So good to see them again. When I worked for the network, I rarely made it to New York to say hi in person. Always field reporting.
Favorite moment of the day has to be Chloe Kim’s gold medal win, and what happened just prior. In a best of three rounds, gold was hers after the second.
The teenager had made history. She tweeted about not finishing her breakfast: “Now I’m hangry.” Then she pulled off an even bigger third run. Back to back 1080s! She cried on the podium. Her Korean-American father called it “the American dream.”
What a story!
The instructions are in Korean. I think that one means hot water but I can’t be sure. As long as I put the soap in the right spot I’m sure the clothes will turn out fine.
Media Village self-service laundry is free, just bring your own soap. A Korean volunteer saves the day. I was pushing all the wrong buttons.
Journalists tell funny stories about clothes that dry for two hours but don’t get dry. I make sure the Korean volunteer sets mine on high heat. But just in case, I split the clothes between three dryers.
Figure skating plays on Korean TV in the laundry room. I watch for about half an hour while eating my ramen and crackers. Mesmerizing performances. So many years and countless hours of training for a few minutes on the biggest stage in the world.
We are putting together a story about pin trading, the unofficial Olympic sport. The only one with as many winners as there are players. Amazing what a tiny piece of metal can accomplish.
Trading pins is an ice breaker with anyone, no matter their language, age or position. We trade pins with Olympians, volunteers, civilian and military security guards, the cafeteria staff, vendors, and of course, other media folks.
Savannah and Hoda are in town. We try to grab Olympians after they appear on the Today show, including Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless Tongan flag bearer. He had his clothes on for our interview.
He told me Polynesians believe warmth and strength comes from the inside. That he wasn't cold in the least during opening ceremony: “The pride of a nation kept me warm. How could I be cold with all that energy?”
I took off a few layers to test my inner warmth. He told me to keep going but unfortunately, we ran out of time. He told me he knew he wouldn't win a medal. But he hoped his example paved the way for more Tongans to compete and eventually win at the Winter Olympics.
We also talked to Red Gerard, the snowboarder who fell asleep watching Netflix the night before his event, slept through his alarm and lost his jacket, fell during his first two runs, only to come back with a gold medal run at the end.
At 17, he is the youngest snowboarder ever to win an Olympic gold medal. He said if he could do anything right now (instead of a couple hundred interviews), he would relax on his couch at home with his family.
Hard to believe we are going into our 10th day in PyeongChang. Really an amazing place, and people. So much to look forward to, especially for athletes who have trained most of their lives for this moment.
Day two of the figure skating team event. Our first time inside the Gangneung ice arena. What a beautiful venue, packed with Koreans and fans from every country in competition. But mostly Canadians, Russians, and Americans.
I watched in awe as Americans Alex and Maia Shibutani skated. So synchronized! Must help that they’re siblings, skating together since she was four and he was seven. Then there was American Bradie Tennell. Also a flawless performance. Finally, Texan Aimee Buchanan, skating for Israel.
“It was just so amazing, to skate my best skate on Olympic ice,” she told me afterward. She lives and trains in Dallas. “I have been dreaming of this moment for twenty years. And to be here. Oh, it’s just, I’m in seventh heaven.”
We never pass up a chance to trade pins, and noticed Aimee had some. We asked to take a look, and she did the same. In the end, we felt bad taking one of hers so we just gave her what she wanted, plus a KPRC Olympics pin.
We give those out to everyone. Security guards, cafeteria volunteers, bus drivers, other media folks, Olympians. Dozens of random people in PyeongChang now repping channel two.
Team USA won its first medal! There were a few dozen of us in the NBC workspace. TVs tuned to snowboarding as we worked on reports for our various stations. American Red Gerard, from Colorado, fell during his first two runs, moving to 11th place. The Canadians expected to sweep the podium.
But it’s best out of three. And Red was gold! I remember when it was a big deal for snowboarders to pull off a 1080, three spins. The Nintendo 64 game “1080 Snowboarding” was a family favorite. Came out in 1998. But today Red threw a “backside triple cork 1440.” I had to look that up.
He turned backwards off the jump, “backside,” and spun four times, “1440,” while flipping three times, “triple cork.” Makes me dizzy just writing that.
Everyone in the workspace cheered. What an awesome comeback. And Red looked surprised. Apparently never dreamed of being an Olympic champion. “More of an X-Games guy,” he said.
The Today show set is ready to go after weeks of work. The studio was built from scratch outside the Gangneung Hockey Center, next to the “Hollywood Squares” where everyone else goes live. Today show producers have arrived. Engineers test and retest every light, microphone, graphic, and camera movement.
Pita Taufatofua, the shirtless Tongan, will be on set Monday. We may get to talk to him afterwards. The first Tongan to qualify for the Summer Olympics in Taekwondo, and for the Winter Olympics in cross-country skiing. His first time training on snow was three months ago!
We’re starting to get the hang of the schedule. Traveling between venues has been more time-consuming than expected. Most buses come every thirty minutes. At least, they’re supposed to. It can take well over an hour to get to a mountain venue from the workspace. Cab drivers don’t speak English, and aren’t easy to find.
Big week ahead in PyeongChang. Lots of medal events for popular competitions, including aerial skiing. Ashley Caldwell’s family lives in Galveston county. They’ll be in town soon. High expectations for the reigning world champion!
Same for bobsledders Sam McGuffie, from Cypress, Justin Olsen, from San Antonio, and Chris Fogt, an Army Captain who was stationed at Fort Hood. Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, who grew up in Waco, also competes this week. Back for redemption! She finished fourth in Sochi by four-hundredths of a second. This is her fourth Olympics, a record in her sport.
Speed skater Jonathan Garcia, born and raised in Katy, will compete in the 500m a week from Monday, followed by the Nigerian (and Houstonian) Bobsled team that Tuesday.
Figure skating is always one of the most popular Winter Olympics sports. But so far this year, it’s the talk of this town for the wrong reasons.
Almost everyone fell during men's singles in the team event, including Nathan Chen, the world champion American figure skater expected to win the men's individual skate.
Commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, former Olympic figure skating champions, were brutally honest: “Abysmal,” “A disaster,” “The worst I’ve ever seen from him,” they said of Nathan and others.
It’s also how they described my interview with them today. No,just kidding, they’re nice people.
Tara is one of the Texans at the games. She moved to Sugarland when she was 9. At 15, she became the youngest figure skater ever to win Olympic gold in an individual event, a record that still stands. Now she’s the face of Olympic commentary on the sport.
During my morning run around Gangneung, I found trails winding through the hills. It really is a beautiful place. But once, I took a wrong turn and ended up in someone’s backyard with a half dozen big dogs. They barked and lunged toward me, and I got ready to sprint the other way. Then I realized the dogs were chained up.
Hundreds of media folks line up for breakfast every day. The cafeteria is open 5-10 a.m. and the earlier you arrive, the better. Eventually, the line stretches out the door and down a long hallway, nearly outside.
I watched opening ceremony highlights on Korean TV on the bus. It was so funny that the Tongan athlete didn’t wear a shirt, just like he did in Rio. Back then, he competed in Taekwondo. In Pyeongchang, he will cross-country ski. He stole the show at the opening ceremony two Olympics in a row.
It's warmer in the mornings here now, around freezing. But at night it gets colder, and windy. It feels like it’s in the teens. It's much colder still in the mountains.
My friend who works for NBC Sports is quarantined in her room. Anyone who displays flu-like symptoms is asked to do the same. Over 1,000 people have been quarantined so far.
Now, I'm back at the room and ready for bed. It's the earliest night for us yet -- just after 11 p.m. local time.
Probably shouldn't write and run. But I'll be running for a while, and I was supposed to do this last night.
Just below freezing in PyeongChang, the warmest morning in a week. Usually single digits.
I stop by the 24-hour convenience store near our building to buy snacks.
"Three hours run?" The Korean clerk thinks he misunderstood. "I can't believe."
Training for The Woodlands Marathon, which takes place the weekend after the Olympics. My final long run before race day.
To trade or not to trade? That is the real question. In between live shots, interviews, editing, eating, writing and traveling, we trade pins.
Photographer Byron Nichols' pin game is strong.
"Whatcha got?" He points at a Korean soldier's uniform. "I'm sorry, but I want," the soldier covers his unique pins. “"But I got two pins for that one. You can trade for more." This is Byron's seventh Olympics. He knows what he wants.
"Ohhh, ok." The soldier folds.
We brought bags of KPRC Olympics pins. So did most other local stations, network and Korean channels, Olympic teams and many organizations involved in the games.
Korean volunteers' game is second to none. Especially at the NBC cafeteria. They trade with hundreds of media passing though. "No thank you. Special pin only."
We report live from the "Hollywood Squares." Six square media platforms. Two floors. Nice view of the Gangneung Oval. Small heaters inside. Dozens of reporters taking turns.
Before the opening ceremony, we catch up with Houstonian Sam McGuffie, Team USA's coolest bobsledder. He wears a bracelet in honor of Steven Holcomb, the face of U.S. bobsledding for many years and Sam's mentor until his sudden death last year.
"In a strange way, it made us stronger," Sam says. "We know he's watching us."
We rush to the nearest bus. Almost time for the 10pm news. Bus is delayed so I grab a cab. "Gangneung Hockey Center!"
Twenty minutes later we arrive at the wrong Hockey Center. "Gangneung Hockey Center. GANGNEUNG." I think my Korean is good. "AH, GANGNEUNG," driver says. "GANGNEUNG?" I'm pronouncing it wrong.
Same with PyeongChang. NBC initially told media and athletes to say it right (PYONG-CHUNG). Too many people were confused, apparently. Americans now say PYONG-CHANG on air.
Opening ceremony is spectacular, as expected. And historic. Nigeria marches for the first time in a Winter Olympics. Their athletes live and train in Houston!
North and South Korea march under one flag. Russian athletes dress in neutral uniforms under the Olympic flag. Team USA marches in... heated puffy jackets.
At the NBC workspace eating Korean chocolate and popcorn. Man, that is some really good chocolate. But I've had way too many.
KPRC2 photojournalist Byron Nichols sits next to me editing our report about the U.S. military base in Seoul, and Texan soldiers there. Couple dozen other media also working late.
On the bus home from workspace now. Many of these are karaoke buses. Fancy, colorful lights everywhere. Beads and other decorations, too. Korean Broadcasting Network displayed on flat screen near the front.
Fell asleep on the bus. Now back at the apartment. Bowl of Korean Ramon, crackers for dinner. After midnight here.
Traveled to the mountains again today, this time for a press conference with Team USA speed skating. Amazing that many on the team have know each other for a decade or longer. Best in the world is a small circle.
Difference between fastest and slowest on team may be a second or two. I'm here to see Houstonian Jonathan Garcia.
Before each race, Jonathan puts on his left boot, then right. Then he ties his left boot. Then right. Every time. He may wear his Houston Astros hat on race day.
Music helps him get ready too. Yesterday it was WuTang clan. Then OutKast. Before big races, it's Pearl Jam.
I accidentally call Jonathan Joey once, as in Joey Mantia, a teammate and world champion skater.
"Whoa, don't say that. He has bad hair," Jonathan said. "I have way better hair."
Both have pretty good hair.
I get a text from Sam McGuffie, also from Houston. A few years ago, he was bouncing around between NFL teams. Now he's U.S. Bobsled's top brakeman, a real medal contender. Tells me we can meet tomorrow before opening ceremony. His first Olympics. He's so excited.
Olympics eve! It's Wednesday night in PyeongChang. First events are Thursday, then Opening Ceremony on Friday.
Streets are busier. Buses filling up. More security. Soldiers instead of civilians at venue checkpoints. More volunteers, mostly students, always eager to help and very curious.
"Where from?" One asks. I answer and a dozen or so volunteers gasp at once. "Ohhh! Texas!!" Apparently they've only ever seen a Texan in the movies. They insist on taking a picture.
I tell them about our trip to the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
"Actually, we don't care about them," one volunteer said, referring to North Korea. "We're not scared."
"It's not very fair to our team," another said, referring to the decision for North and South Korean athletes to compete together under one flag.
"No, no, it's good. It's very good," another volunteer countered.
Tough assignment to stand outside all day. Volunteers and security I've talked to work 12-hour shifts. Seven degrees this morning in Gangneung. Below zero in the mountains!
Warmed up this afternoon though. High 20s. What a difference! I didn't need my hat or gloves. Until I got cold again, then I needed them.
Robots roam the carpet in many buildings. Some display weather and Olympic events using a projector. If you stop near them, they approach and talk to you. Other robots vacuum the carpet. Huge ones, like four feet tall.
Unusual snacks at the gas station. To me, at least. Dried squid? Butter chips? Those weren't bad actually. Passed on the squid.
FaceTimed with my family. When I'm going to bed they're going to school. Elena doesn't understand FaceTime. She's eight months old. "Are you here or not here? Pick one." That's what she's probably thinking.
Curling Doubles makes its Olympic debut tomorrow. U.S. brother-sister duo Becca and Matt Hamilton will face Olympic Athletes from Russia. There is no Russia delegation, barred by the International Olympic committee over doping allegations. Russian athletes who qualified will compete under a neutral, Olympic flag.
Ski jumping will also kick off on Thursday here. Pyeongchang will host 102 events total, a Winter Olympics record. Two Sochi events were eliminated, six new events added.
Let the games begin!
The Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strange place. We left Gangneung Media Village before dawn and returned after dark.
We were told to carry passports and follow instructions with exactness. No photos or recording without express permission. North Korean officials would apparently be watching.
We packed into a large bus with a few dozen other media. Stopped first at Yongsun Garrison, home base for U.S. Military in South Korea for nearly 70 years. Met soldiers from Texas.
The Demilitarized Zone divides the Korean Peninsula roughly in half. It’s 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide. When we arrived, a soldier warned us not to take pictures yet. “You only get one warning.”
The Korean Armistice Agreement established the DMZ in 1953, and called for a peace treaty, which never happened. Technically, the North and South are still at war.
There have been many conflicts at the border, including a few months ago. Security camera footage captured the dramatic escape. A North Korean soldier defected. Shot five times as he ran for his life.
We were taken to that very spot. At the Joint Security Area, North and South Korean soldiers stare each other down. More often, North Koreans turn their backs to their enemies. “It’s a sign of disrespect,” an American soldier says. “And, they watch out for defectors.”
They stand guard at the Freedom Houses, where North and South Korean officials negotiate. That hadn’t happened in years when, unexpectedly, both sides met in January to negotiate a united Korean Olympic delegation.
We were given a few minutes to record video. North Korea right in front of us. South Korean soldiers look like statutes. Dark military suits and dark glasses. Blank facial expressions.
Media stand in two single file lines. Unexpectedly, we are led into a Freedom House. A microphone on a table in the center of the room marks the border. We cross into the North Korean side. We had two minutes to record video.
Another DMZ checkpoint. This one overlooking the North Korea’s “propaganda village.” Built to appear enticing and prosperous. But all for show. Nobody lives there, we're told, except those keeping up the facade.
On the South Korean side is Freedom Village, occupied by farmers. Contact between villages is forbidden. North Korean soldiers can be seen in the distance roaming open fields.
We planned to stop next at the “bridge of no return,” where hostages were once exchanged. But we only drove by, told that a “security concern” got in the way.
Fascinating place. Not just for show. Threats of war, angry rhetoric and nuclear tests have all escalated in recent months and years.
South Korea is home to the largest U.S. military base overseas. Their motto includes “ready to fight tonight.” But all hope the Olympics are a time of peace.
It was another beautiful but very cold day in Pyeongchang. Down to one degree in the mountains, with a high of 10. We were there to record standups for our post-superbowl show. Byron’s mustache froze, which the Korean security guards thought was REALLY funny.
Took a shuttle to YongPyong ski resort where several Olympic ski events will be held. Those slopes are closed to the public, but the rest are open. I rented boots and a snowboard and rode to the top of the mountain, where there’s a Korean sign with the English translation spelled out: “Do not ski too fast.”
I was four the first time dad took me skiing. He was born in El Paso, but grew up in Colorado and skied often. He took our family every year, and when I was a teenager, I switched to snowboarding and converted my siblings.
What a thrilling experience for the Olympians! Training for years, even their entire lives, for this moment. Competition takes only minutes, or even seconds. But Olympic glory, they say, lasts a lifetime.
Ashley Caldwell started competitive gymnastics and skiing when she was in preschool. Then she discovered gymnastics on skis. Her mom suggested they watch aerial skiing finals of the Turin Winter Olympics on TV. Ashley was 12: “I’m going to do this one day,” she said then.
Two years later, Ashley moved out of the house to train full-time in Lake Placid, NY. At 16, Ashley became the youngest Olympian at the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Today, she is the reigning aerials world champion, and a favorite for gold. Her family lives in Galveston County.
Korean food is delicious. Byron prefers hot dogs and hamburgers. But I like the udon noodles with soup, and kimchi dumplings with rice for breakast. Strange takes on American food here and there, like dominoes pizza with shrimp, or “triple cheese love” Baskin Robbins ice cream. What the.
PyeongChang is still fairly quiet. Mostly media and their volunteer guides out and about. When I asked one Korean volunteer, Kim Tsu, where the cafeteria was, he said “I take you,” and walked with me several blocks. Many like Tsu are students. He’s studying mechanical engineering.
Next stop, North Korea. Or as close as we can get. We will travel 60 miles north to the border, the "demilitarized zone" and "bridge of no return."
Didn't sleep last night. Decided to go for a run around Gangneung, my home for the next month. There are five Olympic venues here for all hockey figure skating, speed skating and curling competitions. The other nine venues, for all ski, snowboard, sled and biathlon events, are in the mountains about a half-hour bus ride away.
It was 11 degrees outside, not counting the wind chill. I put on several layers, covering everything but my eyes. My fingers froze within a minute or two. But after a couple of miles, they warmed up and it was a nice run.
There are Olympic signs, symbols and statutes everywhere you look. Billions are usually spent preparing for the Games. The most expensive ever? The 2014 Sochi Games, at around $51 billion. South Korean officials said the PyeongChang Games will cost about $13 billion.
I looked up the address to a church I wanted to visit, Yesugeuriseudohugiseongdogyooe.
Good luck pronouncing that.
According to the most recent census data, most South Koreans don’t belong to any religious organization. Of those who do, most attend Christian churches. The others are Buddhist.
The taxi driver spoke no English. It took 15 minutes and a translator for him to figure out where I wanted to go. But he was very nice, and even helped teach me a few Korean words. I can now say ‘hello,’ ‘thank you,’ ‘nice to meet you,’ and ‘it’s freezing.’
Most Koreans at the church spoke little or no English. But there were also several Americans who spoke both languages, including one Team USA volunteer from Dallas who offered to translate the service for me. Parishioners sang, taught each other and prayed, including prayers for the Games and all involved.
I visited the church’s "helping hands" center across the street from Gangneung train station. There, volunteers who speak Korean and Japanese, Mandarin, French, English and many other languages will offer Olympic visitors maps, drinks, wifi, games for the kids, spiritual messages and other services.
NBC Newschannel held a safety training in the afternoon for all local American media covering the Olympics. Hundreds of us packed into the second floor of the NBC broadcast building, near the Gangneung Hockey Centre. NBC Network news personnel work on the first floor. The Today show set is nearby.
Nearly 3,000 athletes from 90 nations and six continents will compete in Pyeongchang.
Thousands more media from around the world will report their stories. Even more volunteers, tens of thousands of them, will try to help everyone have a positive experience. The last and only other Games hosted by South Korea, the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, was considered a huge success for the country.
Let the Games begin! But first, let's go Patriots! Just kidding. No horse in this race, and who doesn't love an underdog story (answer: the patriots)?
We left Houston early Friday morning. Quick flight to Dallas, followed by a 14-hour flight to Seoul, South Korea. Then a four-hour bus ride to the Gangneung media village, in Pyeongchang County. It’s well after midnight here on Sunday, 15 hours ahead of Houston.
On the plane, I sat next to a nice woman who teaches English at a South Korean Elementary school. She was in the states visiting family, but eager to return to work. She described how genuinely kind Koreans are, and said many younger Koreans speak English, plus anyone working in or studying business.
“I hope you like kimchi,” she said.
The fermented cabbage is apparently served with almost every meal.
I stayed up the night before and tried to sleep the first seven hours on the plane. Hoping that will help me adapt to the time difference. But I also fell asleep on the bus, along with most other NBC folks traveling with us. There were reporters, photographers and producers from Grand Rapids, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Dallas, Austin and many other cities. Many said it was their first Olympics. One photographer said this was his tenth!
It was 16 degrees outside at the media village. It won’t get above 22 degrees for the next few days, and will dip as low as 4, not counting wind chill. If the forecast holds, the opening ceremony next week will be the coldest on record for a Winter Olympics. But we are prepared! We think.
After we checked into our rooms, on the seventh floor of building 606, we needed more food. We ate some on the plane, and at the Seoul Airport. Udon noodles and kimchi for me. Byron, our master of photography, got a hot dog. Good thing there’s a 24-hour convenience store near the apartments. Kimchi ramon. Kimchi chips. Kimchi sauce. Dumplings and rice! That’ll work.
It’s 2 a.m., but I’m wide awake, reading up on Olympics history.
The first Ancient Olympic Games were apparently held in Athens, Greece in 776 BC. Athletes usually competed naked, and winners were given olive wreaths. According to historian Tony Perrottet, all pagan festivals, including the Olympics, were banned in 394 AD. Apparently, archeological evidence suggests some games were still held after that.
The first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896, also in Athens. Winners got silver medals and an olive branch; runners-up, copper medals. Gold, silver and bronze became the standard in 1904.
Winter Olympic Games were added in 1924, held the same year as Summer Games until 1992. Since then, they have alternated every two years.
Time for bed.
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