NEW YORK CITY – “Oh my god, S’mores.”
It’s the middle of the afternoon on Wednesday in Times Square and Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner has stopped her interview with a huddle of reporters. Why? Because a woman eating that undeniable treat known as a S’more has walked by.
“I have to get one later,” says Wagner, eyeing the woman as she continues past us. Then, batting her eyes back to reality. “Sorry, where were we?”
The where we are in that moment was the Team USA WinterFest presented by HERSHEY’S in New York City, the first of 13 stops on a tour that will bring the Olympic spirit around the country – and beyond. This day, however, is extra special: It marks 100 days until the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, and over 40 American athletes (Olympic hopefuls) have converged on Manhattan’s most famous site to help with the countdown to February 9th.
“It’s super cool to be here in New York… it’s a great experience,” said Chase Josey, a snowboarder from Hailey, Idaho, who made the trip from his home state to be in Times Square for the big day. “All of us athletes get to see each other which is pretty rare.”
Rare, too, for fans to see all of the athletes together. To kick off the WinterFest activities in the afternoon, Olympic champion downhill skier Lindsey Vonn was center stage, flocked by a who’s who of Games names: the aforementioned Wagner; freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy; bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor; snowboarder Alex Deibold; women’s hockey star Hilary Knight; snowboarder Chloe Kim; and Paralympians Amy Purdy and Oksana Masters, plus many, many more.
Vonn, who won two medals in Vancouver in 2010 before missing Sochi in 2014 due to an ACL injury, said all eyes – hers included – are on South Korea 100 days from now.
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“I’ve been waiting eight years for another chance at gold and I’m ready,” Vonn said on the stage. “My main focus this season is definitely the Olympics in February. I’m a little rusty, but I feel healthy. I trained exceptionally hard this summer.”
Times Square felt like anything but summer on this day, however, thanks to the WinterFest festivities. After media availability with athletes, members of the public were let into the piece of Times Square that had been taken over by Team USA and transformed into a winter wonderland.
The famous billboards of the neon square played Olympic videos on loop as the line for S’mores grew and artificial snow flurried over the sidewalk. HERSHEY’S new Gold bar was being passed out – just its fourth flavor in over 120 years – as old-school winter sleds leaned against pine trees that made the whole area smell like Christmas – and winter.
Before he took to the stage later in the evening, country star Darius Rucker said how honored he felt to be the musical guest for WinterFest, but also to hang out with a few Olympians, not something most people get to say.
“I’m here for the athletes,” Rucker said. “I can’t believe I was asked to do this. The Olympics means so much to me. You (athletes) are great Americans doing great things. I’m just here to do my little part.”
That little part included a live set on stage by the Grammy winner, which aired on the Olympic Channel as a segment in the broadcast from Times Square.
Fans had plenty to do inside WinterFest: athlete autograph sessions took place for much of the afternoon; people could try their hand – literally – at curling (alongside some Olympians) at the Curling Challenge presented by Oreo; there was a Team USA shop with plenty of official gear; athlete Q&As took place on stage; and a skeleton virtual reality bubble, where you climbed on for a joy (or fear?) ride down a VR track.
Also featured: a real-life bobsled for fans to climb into; the Social Truck presented by Oreo where fans could watch live Facebook chats with athletes; and a trampoline featuring the Flying Ace All-Stars presented by United Airlines, who showed off aerobatic tricks clad in winter skis and strapped to snowboards.
As Rucker took to the stage, all eyes in Times Square were on him as fans lined the barriers into WinterFest to get a chance to listen. He recalled watching the Olympics as a kid, being just six years old and watching at home. When Rucker began playing, the Olympic countdown clock just off stage had ticked under the 100-day mark: 99 days, 11 hours to go…
Brooklyn resident Chris Cennamo had seen some of the Olympic coverage on NBC’s TODAY Show Wednesday morning. He made his way to Times Square and – no surprise – had to sample a S’more, too.
“I saw the Korean dancers this morning on TV and it looked like a lot of fun,” Cennamo said. “We were in the neighborhood so decided to come and check it out.”
The WinterFest concept is a new one from Team USA this season, as 12 more festivals will crisscross the U.S. ahead of and during the Games (including a stop in Seoul, South Korea) to help bring the Olympic energy to fans across the country. Each stop will include a variety of interactive activations for fans, and are all completely open and free to the public.
On this day, a collection of Olympic legends were in attendance, as well, including freestyle skier Jeremy Bloom, speedskater Apolo Ohno and ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
“At 100 days it seems like you’ve been working so hard to get this point, but then things go so fast from there,” said White, who won ice dance gold in 2014. (The duo is sitting out this Olympic cycle.) “It’s the time when you realize that this is what all your hard work is for. You have to try and enjoy it a little, too.”I, for one, enjoyed one of the Hershey’s Gold bars. But my biggest mistake? Missing out on indulging in a S’more. Let’s just hope that Ashley Wagner found one.