Memories of PyeongChang 2018

Can you recall exactly where you were and what you were doing on this date last year?

Personally, I will never forget February 20, 2018.  For me and countless others, it will forever be etched in mind as the day that Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir delivered an on-ice performance for the ages.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir performing their free dance at Gangneung Ice Arena, earning them an Olympic Gold Medal in the ice dance competition. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

I hadn’t really planned on writing a retrospective piece about my experience photographing the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.  However, as images and stories continue to show up on social media marking the one-year anniversary of the Games, I can’t help but reflect on what a privilege it was to bear witness to such an incredible series of athletic achievements; not just by Virtue & Moir, but many others as well.

My memories of PyeongChang are so vivid that it really does feel like just yesterday that I was in Korea serving as the official photographer for Skate Canada and Speed Skating Canada.  I’m rarely at a loss for words, but a year later, it’s still hard for me to adequately describe just how special and impactful the experience was.

While I’m quite proud of how I was able to manage and execute this monumental assignment, the truth is, I simply could not have done it without the help of so many others.  In particular, the advice I received from several photographers who have documented previous Olympic Games proved invaluable.

I want to specifically thank André Ringuette, Dave Holland, Jean Levac, Adrian Wyld, Sean Kilpatrick and André Forget for taking time out of their busy schedules to provide me with tips and guidance in the months leading up to the Games.

I also want to highlight what a pleasure it was to shoot alongside such accomplished photographers as Danielle Earl, Jason Ransom, Leah Hennel, Paul Chiasson, Vaughn Ridley, Steve Russell and David Jackson, among others, during the Games. I was (and continue to be) amazed and inspired by their work.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: Scott Moir & Tessa Virtue celebrate their Olympic Gold Medal victory in the ice dance competition at Gangneung Ice Arena. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

Because there were so many highlights throughout the Olympics, it’s very difficult for me to narrow the list down to just a few favourites.

Seeing Team Canada enter PyeongChang Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony, witnessing Kim Boutin overcome incredible adversity to earn three medals in short track at her first Olympics, and watching the figure skating squad earn gold in the team event are some of my most cherished memories.

Of course, the one Olympic moment that stands out for me above all others involves being rinkside for Virtue & Moir’s breathtaking performance of Moulin Rouge in the ice dance competition.

Passion. Connected.

Over the past nine years, I’ve had the privilege of photographing Tessa and Scott both on and off the ice.  During that time, I’ve been afforded the rare opportunity to witness first-hand just how incredibly hard they’ve worked to become the very best in the world at what they do.  And while I am certainly a fan of their skating, I am even more fond of them as people.

Tessa and Scott are exceptional athletes and artists, and there is no question that their connection with one another is unparalleled.  However, what has always impressed me the most is how genuine and kind they are.  To me, this duo represents excellence in the truest sense of the word, and I am extremely grateful to them for their faith and confidence in me as a photographer.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir performing Moulin Rouge at Gangneung Ice Arena, which earned them an Olympic Gold Medal in the ice dance competition. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

When photographing major events, it’s of paramount importance to stay focused and impartial to the subject(s) you’re trying to capture.  This is especially critical to keep in mind while documenting sports, since the action moves very quickly and there is zero margin for error.

I must admit that it was quite a challenge keeping my emotions in check during Tessa and Scott’s free dance at the Gangneung Ice Arena.  In fact, I don’t know of anyone who watched the performance in-person or on TV that wasn’t completely mesmerized.

Nevertheless, I did the very best I could to not get too wrapped-up in what I was seeing, and in the end, I think the images I captured turned out about as well as I could have hoped.

The Hug Seen Around the World

Immediately following the performance, while Tessa and Scott were anxiously awaiting their score, I wanted to better position myself to capture their reaction when the results were announced.  Although I was initially located at the opposite end of the ice, I managed to hustle and claim a spot just a few feet away from the “Kiss & Cry” area with mere seconds to spare.

When Tessa and Scott were declared Olympic champions, they immediately started celebrating with their coaches.  As I was taking photos of this jubilant scene, Tessa approached and asked if she could give me a hug.  As a rule, sports photographers must be as discrete as possible and, as one might expect, interactions with the athletes are generally forbidden. In this particular instance, however, how could I possible say no?!

Of course, little did I realize that our embrace was being captured on camera.  Within seconds, my phone began buzzing incessantly, as friends and family sent text messages indicating that they’d spotted me on TV back home in Canada.  The ‘hug seen around the world’ lives on in the form of an animated gif and still brings a smile to my face, even though I appear terribly unprofessional.

Virtue Hug 2

As the celebration continued, I aimed to capture images of Tessa and Scott’s family and friends in the stands. I distinctly recall catching the attention of Tessa’s sister Jordan and asking her to assemble the group for a photo.  It was wonderful to see them huddled together as one big happy family, beaming with pride. Perhaps that explains why I was suddenly unable to contain my own excitement and proceeded to do a big first-pump, which Jordan and I have joked about several times since.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: The Virtue and Moir Families celebrate Tessa & Scott’s gold medal victory in the ice dance competition at the Gangneung Ice Arena. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

More Than A Feeling

Once the victory ceremony began and Tessa and Scott took their rightful place at the top of the podium, I was immediately struck by the incredible bond the two skaters share.  Given that they have spent over twenty years together as ice dance partners and best friends, I’m not sure that anyone other than Tessa and Scott can truly understand or appreciate the uniqueness of their relationship.

PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games
February 20, 2018: Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir sshare a moment atop the podium following their Olympic Gold Medal victory in the ice dance competition. (PHOTO: Greg Kolz)

That said, I’m truly honoured that one of the photos I took during the victory ceremony was later chosen by Tessa and Scott to appear on the cover of their new book, which was released in October 2018.  When I learned that the reason they selected that image was because of the feelings that it captured and conveyed, I was very moved.  For them to appreciate my work in such a meaningful way was incredibly humbling.

고맙습니다

Overall, as I look back on my experience as a photographer at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, I still cannot believe how fortunate I was.

In addition to the people I mentioned above, I owe a debt of gratitude to Skate Canada (Emma Bowie) and Speed Skating Canada (Patrick Godbout) for enlisting me, to the Canadian athletes for inspiring me each and every day throughout the Games, to my friends and colleagues for offering me their unwavering support and encouragement, and to my parents and sister for cheering me on as though I too was an Olympian.

Hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to document future Olympic Games, but regardless of whether that comes to pass, I will always have cherished memories of PyeongChang 2018.  Thank you for allowing me to share some of these with you!

Sincerely,

Greg

Canada strikes Gold!

Day #3 of the Games began bright and early, with a complete and (somewhat) healthy breakfast in the main dining hall at the GMV, followed by a relatively short (but blazing hot) shuttle ride to the GIA to photograph the final day of the figure skating Team Event.

For this session, I was seated directly behind the judging panel in what was known as Section ‘B’ (Adios, Section ‘X’!) . It was a slightly elevated position, but offered an excellent perspective of the entire ice surface. I honestly couldn’t have hoped for a better spot to photograph the free programs in the Men’s, Ladies’ and Ice Dance categories.

Based on the previous day’s results, Canada was solidly positioned in 1st place overall. Once the competition resumed, strong performances by Patrick Chan and Gabby Daleman, who finished 1st and 3rd in their respective categories, ensured that Canada would remain in the gold medal position.

A mesmerizing performance by the team co-captains, Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, was icing on the proverbial cake. In the end, Canada finished with a total of 73 points, ahead of OAR (66 points), and USA (62 points).

I cannot describe how thrilling it was to witness and document Canada’s very first gold medal of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games!

Going into the competition, Canada did not veil the fact that they were aiming for gold in the Team Event, and legitimately felt they had the best possible squad to make that happen. I’m no expert, but based on the end result, it would seem to me that their plan was executed to perfection.

I must say, I was particularly proud of Patrick Chan, who showcased a terrific free program, and finally realized his dream of winning an Olympic gold medal.

It was also terrific to see the Canadian figure skaters supporting one another throughout the Team Event. Many of the skaters have grown up together, and I’m sure that the Olympics have already proven to be an incredible shared experience that they will always cherish.

Immediately following the conclusion of the ice dance category, there was a venue ceremony to recognize and applaud the top three teams overall. After the podium presentation, the medalists skated around the ice and posed for pictures. By this time, I had already made my way down to ice level and was able to capture some terrific shots of the Canadian skaters celebrating their gold medal victory.

Once the venue ceremony wrapped-up, I quickly sorted, edited, and uploaded a series of photos. I then had to make my way to PyeongChang Olympic Plaza (POP) for the medal ceremony.

In this case, getting to the venue required me to take three separate shuttle buses (GIA->GMV->IBC->POP). Upon arrival, I then had to make my way through the security, register at the venue media centre, toss my belongings in a locker, and get into position for the ceremony…

Owning the Podium

For those who may be wondering, medal ceremonies are scheduled to take place every evening throughout the Games, at PyeongChang Olympic Plaza, beginning at 7:00pm local time.

During the outdoor ceremony, the top three competitors from each event the previous day (or in some cases, the same day) are feted on the podium, and presented with their medals by officials from the International Olympic Committee. Next, the flags are raised while the national anthem of the victor is played. The medalists are then ushered across the stage to allow media and spectators to take photos of the athletes with their new hardware.

Following the ceremony, the athletes are brought down a ramp to the mixed zone area, where accredited journalists have the opportunity to interview them. EP Photographers are also able to position themselves in a designated area of the mixed zone to snap close-up shots of the athletes with their shiny new medals, which is always fun.

On this particular evening, I had the pleasure of photographing several Canadian medalists, including Justine Dufour-Lapointe (Silver – Women’s Moguls), Laurie Blouin (Silver – Slopestyle Snowboard), Ted-Jan Bloemen (Silver – Men’s 5,000m), and of course, the seven figure skaters who participated in the Team Event and earned our country its first gold medal of the Games.

For the ceremony itself, rather than requesting a photo position in the pit (a narrow moat between the stage and the audience), I opted instead for a position on a riser situated at the soundboard behind the crowd. I did this to ensure that I could capture photos of the entire figure skating team. I had a hunch that they would jump onto the podium in unison (as they had done in Sochi four years ago), so I wanted to make sure that I was ready when the moment came. Thankfully, the preparation paid off, and I made the shot!

Afterwards, I ventured to the mixed zone to capture a few shots of the Olympic Champions with their medals. I then had to pack up my gear, and make my way back to Gangneung as quickly as possible, in order to photograph the Canadians competing in the Women’s 1,500m long track speed skating event.

Life is a Korean Highway

It took me about an hour to get to the Gangneung Oval. Unfortunately, by the time I arrived at the venue, two of the three Canadian speed skaters (Josie Morrison & Kali Christ) had already completed their races. On the upside, I still managed to capture some decent shots of Brianne Tutt in action, so all was not lost.

So, to re-cap… I started my day at 6:00am, I ended up photographing a total of 11 Canadian athletes at 3 different venues, in 2 different clusters, requiring me to take no fewer than 8 separate shuttle buses, and eventually managed to make it back to the GMV just in time to grab dinner (4-cheese pizza) before the dining hall closed at 1:00am.

Now the time has come to sort and edit a few photos, head to bed, and start all over again in less than 5 hours.

Remember kids: Sleep is for the weak!

 

Ready, Set, Go!

As the official photographer for Skate Canada and Speed Skating Canada, I am responsible for covering all figure skating, short track, and long track speed skating events throughout the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

On Friday, February 10th, I was assigned to photograph a total of four events at two separate venues: Men’s 1,500m heats & final, Women’s 500m heats, and Women’s 3,000m relay heats in Short Track at the Gangneung Ice Arena (GIA), as well as the Women’s 3,000m final in Long Track next door at the Gangneung Oval (GOV).

The competition schedule has been designed to cater primarily to the North American viewing audience.  Because PyeongChang is 14 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone, this means that many of the most popular events are held either early in the morning or late in the evening here in Korea.  On this particular date, the speed skating events began at 7:00pm local time, which meant that I had plenty of time to sort through my pictures from the Opening Ceremony before making my way from the Gangneung Media Village (GMV) to the GIA.

For the short track events, I was provided with a ‘Field of Play’ (FOP) photo position, which meant that I was at ice level.  FOP positions are very limited, but also highly coveted, because they offer unparalleled views of the action.  You are literally eye-to-eye with the skaters.  This also means that you have to be prepared to move very quickly in the event of a crash, since the cushioned padding around the rink is designed to absorb the impact and shift at least a foot or two away from the ice.  In other words, standing too close to the pads, or leaning a laptop or camera gear on top or against them is a very bad idea.

In the men’s 1,500m, Canada’s Samuel Girard and Charles Hamelin each advanced to the ‘A’ Final, while Pascal Dion advanced to the ‘B’ Final.  Unfortunately, Charles was penalized in the final, and Samuel finished just off the podium in 4th position.  Pascal finished in 12th place overall.

The Women’s 3,000m relay team (consisting of Marianne St-Gelais, Kim Boutin, Jamie Macdonald and Kasandra Bradette) qualified for the ‘A’ Final, which will take place on the evening of February 20th.

In the Women’s 500m heats, Kim Boutin and Marianne St-Gelais each advanced to the quarter finals (which will be held on February 13th), while Jamie Macdonald was penalized during her qualifying race and was therefore disqualified from advancing in the 500m event.

Over at the GOV, Canada had three athletes competing in the Women’s 3,000m final: Ivanie Blondin, Isabelle Weidemann, and Brianne Tutt.  They finished in 6th, 7th, and 20th positions, respectively.

The fact that these events were running simultaneously meant that I had to literally run between GIA and GOV four times throughout the evening.  I felt as though I was participating in my own version of the 3,000m final, minus the skates.  In the end, I was quite pleased with the photos, but I’ll let you decide if I did a decent job of capturing the action as it unfolded…