It was just another school day for Whitley Rowlett.
Floods of brash-eyed University of Tennessee students marched past the library in between classes as they do every day.
"It was just a normal day," the junior sports management major at UT said.
That is, until she heard a muffled voice holler from within the swarm of students.
"Hey, Whitley," the voice called out.
Immediately, her eyes widened.
Greeting her with grins and warm waves were a few of the most elite athletes in the world.
"Most students here would never guess those kind of people are in the crowd and walking around," Rowlett said. "Words don't describe this experience."
Rowlett volunteered to be a mentor to 19 elite South Korean athletes, ranging from Olympic gold medalists to world champions, who are spending the next few months at UT.
"To know that they remembered me and that I impacted them in some kind of way was very special. It's the little moments like that," Rowlett said. "At first, I wanted to ask for their autographs but I didn't want to be all weird."
Guided by Rowlett and 20 other student mentors, the retired South Korean athletes are spending nearly eight months at the Knoxville-based campus, learning skills to become coaches and international sports ambassadors as part of the Next Generation Sports Talent (NEST) program.
The athletes also will take classes to improve their English-speaking abilities, learn sports marketing techniques and pick up new coaching tips in hopes to pursue an athletic-related career.
"If you think about the purpose of the NEST program, it's to build the next generation of global sports leaders," said Fritz Polite, the director of UT's NEST program. "This is just the first step of becoming a global leader, the very first step."
But at times, the first step is the hardest.
NEST student Chunsa Byun certainly agrees.
"Of course I nervous at first," Byun said. "It was hard. But it not fear. When my heart is beating fast and I nervous, it is exciting. It means you are experiencing new."
And there has been plenty of "new" for Byun.
The 24-year-old won an Olympic gold medal in the 3,000-meter speed skating relay at the 2006 games in Italy.
Standing on a podium and having the medal slipped over her head, Byun said only one word
describes the experience.
"Delight," she said.
But she used a much different word when describing her first few months living at UT's Andy Holt Residence Hall.
"Strange," she said.
Laughing, Byun said she has experienced plenty of awkward introductions.
"I try not to tell people I meet that I have (won a gold medal) — never," Byun said. "But my friends tell. Most people, they don't believe. They think I just kidding. So I drop it and just try (to) adapt and experience new."
For Byun, some of those new experiences include hiking, attending a Knoxville Ice Bears hockey game, going to country music concerts and trying new food.
"I love (the Cumberland Avenue 'Strip') and the beer you get there," she said with a laugh. "So nice, I love. I have tried all kinds of beer and food there."
Jeongho Hong, who has competed in three Olympic Games and won gold in handball at the 1992 Barcelona Games, says her favorite experience was her first UT football game.
"I went with the student, I never have seen that much orange. It so nice," Hong said. "But everyone just stood there. I (was) so tired and so sore. I wanted to just sit down and watch game but they didn't let that happen. So crazy."
Riley Blevins is a freelance contributor.