An opportunity of a lifetime

“What the hell am I actually doing” pretty accurately describes my feelings on March 18 as I was boarding the plane leaving from New York City to Helsinki, Finland.

I was on my way to join an international media camp at the European Youth Olympic Festival – the biggest European youth multi-sports event – in Vuokatti, Finland. What at the beginning seemed like nothing but an insane idea, ultimately turned out to be one of the greatest and most eye-opening experiences of my life.

It was one of those cold and grey winter days in January 2022. I had just come back to Castleton after spending the semester break back home in Germany. I was lying in bed, scrolling through social media and trying to distract myself from the feeling of homesickness that stuck with me ever since I returned. It sucked.

Suddenly, next to all those typically boring posts, something caught my attention:

“International Media Camp at the EYOF 2022 in Vuokatti, Finland – Join the Team,” a post from the European Olympics Committee said.

My mind still longing to be back in Europe, I didn´t give it a second thought and I started writing a motivational letter answering why I wanted to be a part of this camp. A few weeks later, I received an email. My heart skipped at least three beats as I read the subject: “Congratulations on your acceptance to the International Media Camp 2022.”

As I began to realize what a long journey it would be to get all the way from Castleton to Vuokatti, in the far north of Finland, my hopes to go there faded. I was trying to accept that this was just too big of a dream to actually come true. However, inspired by the opportunities this camp might give me, my mind didn´t stop dreaming about Finland and after days of racking my brain, I figured out a plan how to make this trip work after all.

A five-hour train ride, eight-hour flight, and another six-hour train ride gives you a lot of time to wonder whether the upcoming experiences will be worth all the time spend traveling. Quite honestly, those thoughts immediately diminished after getting to know the other camp participants on my first day there.

Interestingly, not one of us knew anyone before this camp, yet everyone welcomed me, asking “you´re the one coming all the way from the U.S., right?” Twenty-eight people coming to Finland from all over Europe (and the U.S.) – we were as diverse as it could possibly get, yet our shared passion for sports let us bond from the very beginning.

All of us arrived at the camp with no clear expectations, but we soon found out our job description: produce media content and communicate about the event on different channels. We were divided into seven groups – one group for each sport, including cross-country skiing, alpine skiing, biathlon, short track, figure skating, snowboarding and ice hockey.

Being a cross-country skier myself, I was lucky to work for the cross-country team with an Irish student and two other Finnish guys.

Despite the fact that we were usually at the event site from early in the morning to late in the evening, for me, it didn’t feel like working but rather like living the dream. All competition sites were in walking distance, and the athletes’ village was attached to it. Our venue, the “Vuokatti Areena,” truly highlighted the Olympic spirit not only in all the athletes, but all people involved in the event.

I originally thought watching the young athletes race would be the most exciting part about my job, but soon realized that interviewing the athletes after the race was even more fun.

None of these athletes were older than 18 and many are on the brink to becoming pro, racing in World Cup series and championships. Realizing I might just interview a future Olympic champion gave these conversations a whole different perspective that truly enlightened me as a sports enthusiast.

After getting the thoughts and feelings of the winners on record, the following hours were spent in our “Media Center” writing articles about the competition and posting race impressions on social media channels. Our own tasks completed, we usually had some time to watch and help our teammates at the other competition sites. After this week, I’m more than glad for the opportunities to watch events like figure skating, short track, and snowboard big air in real life for the first time.

Our whole camp was co-funded by the Erasmus + Program of the European Union, which not only covered our accommodation and all costs in Finland, but also ensured a true “Finnish experience” for all participants. Next to our daily tasks of reporting the events, we went cross-country skiing and snowshoeing with a former Finnish pro athlete. And of course, we didn’t miss out on the chance to go ice-bathing after sweating in the Finnish sauna.

We arrived in Vuokatti as 28 individuals who didn’t know what to expect, yet dared to try something completely new. We not only worked but lived together, faced problems and solved them together and got inspiration from endless conversations about cultural differences and similarities. We all grew together as one big team, leaving Finland with innumerable shared memories that will last for a lifetime.

Our leader of the camp couldn’t stop herself from crying when we gave her a little present to thank her for this truly unique opportunity. Her emotions displayed the gratitude we all felt for the week because we didn’t realize we were making memories, we just knew we were having a lot of fun.

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