Gwangju, South Korea — More than 6,000 miles away from Lawrence, across the Pacific Ocean, Kansas University men’s basketball players have been supported by a number of fans who do the Rock Chalk chant at the end of games or chant “U-S-A” during the games.
Drew Mountain, 30, was one of those fans Wednesday in USA’s 66-65 victory against Serbia.
Mountain graduated from KU in 2008 and now teaches English as a foreign language to freshmen at Dong-a University in Busan, Korea.
Despite the 14-hour time difference from Korea to Lawrence, Mountain tries to watch as many games as he can through Slingbox, a TV streaming device.
“Not most (games) live, but when I can,” Mountain said. “Sometimes I’ve been known to have the game minimized in my podium while I’m lecturing. Kind of a surprise to students. But you do what you can. You have to keep up.”
Mountain lives nearly 200 miles away from Gwangju, where the Jayhawks played Wednesday, but he couldn’t turn down the trip to see his favorite college basketball team.
“I think family back home told me maybe sometime in the spring, April or May, and queued me up,” Mountain said. “Then I realized the tickets were only $8,000 (South Korean) Won, which is about $8 (in the) U.S. So it was a no-brainer. I got a day off. I figured I’d come see them play Serbia.”
The opportunity to see the Jayhawks on foreign soil was too good to pass up for John Keenan and Olivia Williamson — even if that meant changing travel schedules.
Keenan, a 2011 grad from KU who lives in Overland Park, has family in Seoul and rearranged his trip this summer with his girlfriend to coincide with some of the Jayhawks’ games.
“I was super excited,” Keenan said about finding out about KU’s trip to South Korea. “I started bragging to all of my friends about it. I told all of my friends 100 times. They’re all pretty jealous to be honest. I’ve been SnapChatting them every day, just showing them like where we are.
“We were really excited. Words can’t really describe how excited we were when we found out they were playing here.”
Keenan and Williamson took the bullet train from Seoul at 6:30 a.m. to watch the Jayhawks play on Tuesday afternoon, then stayed in Gwangju for a night to watch Wednesday’s game.
“I think it’s pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Keenan, a Shawnee Mission West grad. “I feel like it’s a pretty personal look at the game. Every time you go to a KU game, whether it be Sprint Center or Allen Fieldhouse, you’re kind of far back.
“(Tuesday) we were at Muan Indoor (Gymnasium). I think it’s a very personal experience. It’s cool to watch it with all of the Korean people. They seem pretty supportive of each team.”
With only 1,800 seats at Muan Indoor and less than 3,000 at DongKang College Gymnasium, fans can hear coaches yelling and players talking on the bench.
“We were talking about that gym (Tuesday), it was like the size of my high school gym,” said Williamson, from Osage City, who has three years left in KU’s school of nursing doctorate program. “It was crazy. It was like a personal KU basketball game. It was real cool.
“(Kansas coach) Bill (Self) acknowledged me yesterday, and I about had a heart attack. I’ve been bragging to everyone. We were right on the front row yesterday, and they were all just sitting right below there, and Bill obviously saw us with our KU shirts on. That was really cool.”
Sitting in the stands an hour before the game against Serbia with a chance to watch the Jayhawks in person, Mountain had a smile across his face.
“Just incredibly psyched,” Mountain said. “Proud day to be a Jayhawk in South Korea, for sure.”
I think I was already sick before I got on the plane to Korea. But certainly, the day we landed in Gwangju, Korea, I was not feeling well. I had these feverish spells that would just stop me in my tracks, bring on weird feverish dreams and drop me on the spot. Then hours would pass and everything was fine. I could even still do all my work. But being a little off in your health, in a new country and with jet-lag, wasn't the best way to start the trip. Fortunately, I've been fine since day two here and have no lingering health issues.
Before the trip, my wife had threatened to call the newspaper and hide my passport to keep me from flying to Korea. An outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) showed up in Seoul on May 20. She was more than a little concerned. The distance from Seoul to Gwangju is 166 miles, the same as from Lawrence to Wichita. So you can imagine how people in Gwangju are more than a little concerned about the outbreak. To date, the death toll is at 33 while 186 people have been diagnosed with MERS, most of this occurring around Seoul.
When we landed, Bobby and I noticed quite a few people in the Seoul airport wearing face masks. We've continued to see some of this in Gwangju, though sometimes this may be just general concern about the city air quality or allergies. Gwangju doesn't look like it's that polluted, but with 3 million people it probably has its fair share of pollutants in the air. But according to a thing called the Air Quality Index (AQI), Gwangju on Sunday, July 5 had a "good" score of 46 while a similar-sized city like Chicago had an unhealthy rating of 143.
Whether the general population here favors masks to avoid environmental issues or MERS, area hospitals are not messing around with the syndrome. At a Gwangju hospital just around the corner from our hotel, staff are positioned at all entrance doors to take temperatures and screen everyone entering.
On our way to a neighborhood cafe, we encountered a vehicle pumping out a spray of thick, white fog. It looked like exhaust from a large steam engine train or a KISS concert fog machine. We had no way to avoid the drift and we walked right through. We're still not sure what it is — I've witnessed it in two locations — but I've asked a couple people and they use words like "to clean the air," etc. My first thought was that it might be some kind of city fumigation to battle MERS, but people have told me it has nothing to do with MERS. After doing some Google research, I think it's most likely a city insect control program. I only wish I would have been wearing a mask of my own when I walked into this.
Today, Bobby noticed that at the spectator entrance to Dongkang Gym, where Team USA is playing most of their games, there is a security gate that not only detects metal but also reads your temperature. They are being very vigilant and cautious here in Gwangju.
When you’re a member of the media covering large events, spread out over many days, you can never depend on getting 3 square meals a day. The game times, deadlines and the transportation to and from events all work against having a leisurely sit-down dinner.
Sports reporter Bobby Nightengale and I have had this problem since day one in Gwangju. July 3, the day of the opening ceremony, is good example of the ups and down of food access. Bobby and I start each day with a complimentary breakfast at our hotel, which includes a fairly large traditional American breakfast as well as a Korean breakfast featuring a beef rib soup option.
On July 3rd, after breakfast, I walked 20-minutes to the World University Games main media center to pick up my ticket for the nights Opening Ceremony. I also rented a locker to store my computer and inquired about some other transportation issues. After doing all that it was nearing lunch time and since Bobby and I needed to catch a shuttle bus at 1pm to make a Team USA basketball practice, I went in search of something to eat in the media lounge where they had drinks and a variety of snacks.
It appears Koreans love their sweet snacks as much as Americans. They were plentiful, but the snacks were all heavy on sugar content. I did spot one item described as a “soft mositured cake’ and I recall the label may have mentioned cheese, so I grabbed one hoping it might provide me some protein. I unwrapped and began eating the cake but it tasted like paper. It was paper actually. The sweet cake was so perfectly wrapped in tissue that it had formed an invisible bond around the cake. Removing the paper improved the taste but it was still basically a sponge cake full of sugar.
Next I picked up a slim wrapped package that looked like cheese and I pulled back the wrapper to reveal a firm yellow food. I inquired of a volunteer, “This is cheese right?” “No, it’s sausage.” “Really?” “Yes, but not real sausage. Try it.”
I’m pretty picky about sausage, even when it’s real. Maybe that begs the question, “What is real sausage?” I decided to pass on the “not real” sausage.
They also had a wonderful selection of hot and cold drinks, teas and coffee etc. Thinking I may have to rely on a nutritious drink to tide me over I grabbed a fancy looking bootle of tea. Everything on the label was in Korean except for three words “Barley Bud Tea”. I don’t know what nutrients the drink contained but it had a rather pleasant taste of….barley. I can’t really describe it. But I did like it’s unsweetened and natural flavor. If Kansas was a drink it might be barley bud tea. Kind of rural, earthy, pleasant and it grows on you.
I grabbed another drink to take with me. It was a refreshing mix of vinegar and cider. It was sort of like hard cider but it really had a stronger vinegar flavor. Unusual, but again, tasty and refreshing.
Soon a woman came over - she must have noticed my early signs of protein crash - and pointed me toward another door. I had hit the food jackpot. In the adjacent room was the equivalent of a bomb shelter food pantry. Racks and stacks of pre-packaged noodles, rices and soups alongside two large stainless steel canisters of hot water. Pictures on the packages helped tell me what was inside but volunteers helped translate the contents. I went with a box of rice with concentrated, powdered fish broth. I microwaved the rice for 2-minutes, dumped the fish and spices into the bowl, added hot water and had a really nice meal.
Between 1-2:30 p.m. Bobby and I covered an outdoor Team USA team practice and then I left to catch a taxi to make a 3 p.m. photographer’s meeting at Gwangju’s Main Stadium, the site of the World University Games Opening Ceremony. At the meeting we were given instructions on the evenings event and provided our photography positions for the night. After being escorted to our 2nd-level seats, I realized I still had 3 1/2 hours before showtime.
The press media lounge at the stadium also had snacks, but most were of the sweet variety. I did score a plastic bag that contained 2 bananas - a real steal. Elsewhere in the stadium, no concession stands were open except one small food court offering chips, including the popular Pringles brand, more sweet cakes and chocolates, teas and soft drinks. I took out my iPhone, opened my iTranslate app and typed in 'protein' and showed it do the vendor hoping she might understand what I wanted.
As I held my phone for her to read, I spotted a small container on a high shelf that would be my salvation for the night. It was a can of honey coated almonds that would have to last me until midnight. Actually, they didn't last me until the start of the opening of the ceremonies. I was sitting between a U.S. press photographer from Michigan and two reporters from Venezuela. They were all in the same situation. So the small can of almonds passed back and forth between countries until the were all gone.
After that it was all fireworks and singing.
I assure you that there are also good days. Just last night Bobby and I had a break of about an hour between some work and we were directed into a local neighborhood on a side street with several small food shops. We were pointed into one place where we took off our shoes, sat down on the floor of a medium-sized living room space and ordered selection of Korean dishes with rice and a large pot of stew. We're pretty sure the cafe was also the family house. The meal was great and between the hot spices of the soup and the diverse flavors of the many side dishes - banchan, our sinuses were cleared out and our stomachs were filled.
My photography checklist for traveling to Korea includes 2 camera bodies, 3 lenses, a laptop, iPhone, a padded floor seat, a pocket point-and-shoot camera and memory cards, including an EyeFi Mobi Pro SD memory card. What I forgot to pack were photographer’s clothes of a pastel color. What? Here’s the photographer’s dress code from the Universiade Gwangju 2015 official guidebook. “Accredited photographers must wear clothes of pastel colors. Bright-colored prints and large logos on clothing are not permitted unless it is covered by the photographer’s vest.”
I don’t recall getting this memo so I’ll have to make do with faded jeans and a light blue shirt. This will be the first time I’ve been scrutinized by the fashion police. Sports reporter Bobby Nightengale and I did get denied entrance at one security gate, but that was not because I was wearing black rather than soft baby blue. We were just at the wrong entrance.
If you watch the games on TV, I may be the rogue photographer in inappropriate clothes. Hopefully the supplied media photo vest will cover up any fashion faux pas. Heck, if I had known about the vest I would have brought a cummerbund and bow tie to complete my fashionable photographer’s outfit.
The newest piece of gear in the list above is the EyeFi Mobi Pro SD card. It works like a regular 32GB memory card in your camera. What makes this card special is that it enables you to make a WiFi connection between your camera and a nearby iPhone, laptop or other mobile device. After setting up the password and WiFi connection between the two devices, each photo taken will automatically upload and appear on your mobile device. This has been extremely helpful in my coverage here. I can be shooting a KU practice or activity with my better professional equipment and download the images almost instantly to my iPhone or iPad. From there it’s a quick Tweet or an email away from transmitting the higher quality file to social media sites or the newsroom to immediately post to the web. On arrival in the Seoul airport, I spotted about 8 young female paparazzi running ahead of a famous Korean music star. As the star had left the building, all the photographers sat in the waiting area next to me quickly transmitting their photos from their cameras to their phones and then Tweeting out their star shots. They looked like real pros who had been using EyeFi cards for years.
Getting around Gwangju to cover the events is fairly easy. Shuttle buses transport media to central locations and then we walk or taxi to others. Buses here are pretty stylish and comfy. Taxis on the other hand are a crazy ride. Very aggressive drivers and switching lanes and speeding are a norm. Small mopeds and motorcycles zip in and out of traffic and seem to ignore and signals. Bobby saw one moped rider try to maneuver around a car in the rain and ended up wrecking.
Food has been really good but we don't always know what we're ordering and eating. Many menus are Korean only as are the waiters and chefs. I saw a lady behind counter rolling out what I thought was a sushi roll and we ordered that. What we got were several fried seaweed wraps stuffed with noodles, veggies and some other ingredients. It came with a hot and spicy bowl of onion and spice sauce and a plate full of beautiful, fresh greens to wrap around the fried rolls. Bobby and I filled up on 2 orders and it cost about $7 U.S.
We've been amazed at the security presence around the facilities. Even the Gwangju police can be rather intimidating. Bobby thought these guys might fire a warning shot over my head as I asked them for a photo. Nearby was a military-style SWAT tank. They are prepared!