Seventeen-year-old Tess Johnson found out she would be competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics — her first time as an Olympian — just days before the games kicked off in South Korea. It was an unforgettable — and emotional — moment for the young Vail, Colorado, native.
“I remember my coach coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re going to be an Olympian,’ ” recalls Johnson, who became the youngest moguls skier ever named to the US national team in 2014. “And I started crying and I called my parents and it was special, I’ll never forget it.”
Johnson, who’s also the niece of PEOPLE Senior Editor Tina Johnson, was one of multiple first-time Olympians competing for Team USA this month.
She recently took some time out from her three-week stay in Pyeongchang to talk about what it’s like to be on the world’s biggest sporting stage: the thrill of the competition, life in the athlete’s village — and, yes, the cool swag.
Arriving in Korea
After landing in Seoul, the athletes all went through “processing,” where they’re outfitted with their official Team USA clothes and equipment. “That’s where you get all your Ralph Lauren and Nike gear,” explains Johnson, “and that was just a shock to me — I mean it was so cool.”
“I got two full duffel bags and actually I had to send them home with my family,” she adds. “It was like Christmas!”
But the experience was also exciting — and inspiring — in other ways. “We went through with the women’s hockey team,” she continues, “and that first experience exposed me to what the Olympics is about.”
“It’s not just about my sport or our country, but it’s about everyone else,” she says. “And that was kind of the first moment that that hit me.”
Life in the Athlete Village
The next day, after a night in Seoul, Johnson and her teammates arrived at the Athletes Village in the mountains of Pyeongchang. She describes the Village itself — a collection of high-rise apartments and athlete venues, including training facilities, a salon, a post office, and a McDonald’s— as being “like a college campus.” (Johnson admits she couldn’t resist McD’s hash browns and McFlurry’s.)
“I think the coolest part is that everyone’s wearing their country’s jacket, so you’ll see people and you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re from Canada, and ‘Oh, they’re from Australia,’ and that’s super cool,” says Johnson, who roomed with teammates from the freestyle moguls and aerials events. “All the buildings have flags on them so you know who’s staying where.”
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Johnson’s three USA teammates in the women’s moguls event, Jaelin Kauf, 21, Morgan Schild, 20, and Keaton McCargo, 22, were also first-time Olympians—which made the whole experience that much more exciting and meaningful for all of them. “These three girls are some of my best friends and although they’re like three to five years older than me, I mean they’re like my big sisters, and to go through this with them is, it makes it that much better,” she says.
An Olympic Debut
Johnson’s moguls event started on day one of the Games. “The first time that I skied down the Olympic course, I could not stop smiling,” she says. “It was insane, it really hit me that I was skiing alongside the best in the world at the biggest competition in the world.”
While Johnson missed the podium, she says, “I think results-wise I’m hungry and looking for more. I think I have more to show, and I’m really excited to see what the next four years holds.”
When asked what moment really stood out for her, aside from her own event, Johnson says, “The biggest highlight, besides competing, was watching Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall win .”
That victory, a first-time gold for the U.S. in women’s cross country, came in the final, home-stretch of the course, when Diggins pulled ahead to cross the finish line just .19 seconds ahead of Sweden. “Jessie was coming around for like the last corner,” remembers Johnson, “and she was in third and we were all screaming our lungs out.”
“It was so cool to watch her push ahead and win gold,” Johnson says. “It brought tears to my eyes. It was really special.”