Warren native Tori Piper returns to Olympic Games

Racing down a snow-covered mountain on two thin skis is no easy feat.

Neither is carrying heavy lighting equipment up that same mountain.

Warren native Tori Piper, 31, is doing that and more as she works on television coverage for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

This is the third Olympics for the 2005 Warren G. Harding High School graduate after working at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and the 2016 summer games in Brazil.

Piper said she’s been promoted from roving lighting technician to roving gaffer (chief electrician) for these games.

“My job is creating studios at a moment’s notice wherever they need it, whether it’s on the side of a mountain for downhill skiing or the half pipe for snowboarding,” she said.

Piper arrived in South Korea on Jan. 13 and spent weeks before that packing the necessary gear for shipping from England. She helped set up the main broadcast studio, where Mike Tirico will serve as host for NBC’s coverage; and satellite studios at venues for figure skating and ice hockey, two of the most popular events with American audiences.

At the 2014 Winter Olympics, temperatures approached 60 degrees some days, and organizers had to stockpile and manufacture snow for some events. That hasn’t been a problem in South Korea, where Piper said the wind chill some days has made it feel 30 degrees below zero. Many of the crew members wear vests equipped with battery-powered heaters to work the outdoor events.

“Everyone is a little puffier in their puffy coats, but we’re making it work,” she said.

Piper spent much of the week leading up to the start of the Winter Olympics preparing for the Opening Ceremony, which was broadcast Friday night.

“Working at the stadium, I got to see them rehearsing,” she said. “It’s just amazing the magic they can create with projections and lighting and dance and performance. I feel very lucky and fortunate not only to witness the opening ceremony but to get that behind-the-scenes sneak peek. It’s a real treat that not many people get to see.”

Every Olympics has its own unique challenges. There was a fear of terrorist attacks in Russia, and Brazil was dealing with the Zika virus during the 2016 Summer Olympics. The 2018 games are taking place near North Korea at a time when tensions between North Korea and the United States are increasing.

“I had plenty of friends and relatives who were nervous for me, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” she said. “I’ve never felt in danger or any type of threat of any kind. I’m excited by how North and South Korea are using this to show the world they are not as segregated or are at least attempting not to be … As far as any negative aspects, I’ve yet to feel them or experience them, and I don’t think we will.”

Many of the crew members Piper is working with are South Korean. The language barrier can be difficult, she said, but they communicate with one another “through kind of a universal language of equipment and gear and grunts.

“It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge,” she said. “It’s definitely harder to pick up Korean than it was Portuguese, but that’s one of the fun elements, and we’re making it work.”

It also gives her a more immersive experience into the local culture than if she was working exclusively in the main studio, where most of the crew is from the United States. Piper said she’s bonded with her Korean coworkers over chimeak (a combination of fried chicken and beer) and other local delicacies.

She doesn’t recommend the peanut butter squid, but she is looking forward to trying live octopus.

“When we bring people to Warren, we take them to the Hot Dog Shoppe or to get some Sunrise pizza,” she said. “It’s a way of showing them something about us that’s near and dear to us, that you can’t get anywhere else. I find that’s universal. I love being able to have that binding experience with someone that you don’t often get, that breaking of bread. I’m more than happy to eat something weird to gain that experience.”

Working the 2014 Winter Olympics was the first time Piper saw a hockey game live — “It’s like football on ice. So fun,” she said — and she also became a fan of the biathalon, which combines cross country skiing and shooting.

“I love it,” she said. “You wouldn’t think it translates well to TV, but it does. People skiing their hearts out and then trying to calm down and zen out, slow their breathing and their heart rate so they can aim and shoot a target. It’s just such a bizarre idea for a sport. I love watching it.”

Piper got her start doing lighting for theater after initially wanting to be an actor. Working the 2014 Winter Olympics was her first extensive television gig. In addition to three Olympics, Piper worked on the 2016 presidential debates and events in China, England and Ireland.

“The Olympics is a very clear benchmark of when I started this particular journey in my career and how far I’ve come,” Piper said. “What an honor it is to see how much I’ve learned and how far I’ve come in four years. There were pieces of gear I didn’t know the names of and now I can explain them to people who don’t speak English and teach them how to set them up. In those moments you can really appreciate how far you’ve come.”