Two months after the excitement of competition at the Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Games wrapped up, the Olympic spirit proved to be alive and well as American Winter Olympic and Paralympic athletes gathered once again last week at a special three-day event in the nation’s capital.
More than 200 of the nation’s winter sports heroes reunited in Washington D.C. April 20-22 to tour government landmarks, socialize and meet the President and the First Lady.
The event began on Tuesday with a reception at the Sports Legends Museum in downtown Baltimore. The Olympians also visited the Pentagon where they met Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The athletes visited with injured soldiers and marines at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., in addition to visiting with local school children and assisting with the construction of a new home as part of a Habitat for Humanity project.
On Wednesday, U.S President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed the athletes (who captured 50 Olympic and Paralympic medals during the Games in mid-February) at a special reception at the White House. The original schedule called for Obama to address the group on one of the famous grounds’ patios but rainy weather forced the meeting inside where the President and First Lady shook the hands of each skier, skater, jumper and slider.
“I was cool to get together again with all the different athletes,” said alpine skier Steven Nyman who enjoyed visiting and snapping pictures with his fellow U.S. Ski Team members who competed in the Paralymic Games on the same Whistler slopes weeks later. “You don’t get to see everybody at the Olympics but there we got to see everybody and talk to whoever we wanted to talk to.”
Gold and silver medalist nordic combined skier Billy Demong enjoyed meeting with the Obamas after he got over the initial nerves.
“They took a lot of time with everyone and Michelle gave everybody a hug. They all just took a sincere interest in all of us and in hearing all our stories,” said Demong. “I don’t normally get nervous to meet or talk to somebody, but I think everyone had little butterflies as they were waiting their turn.”
On Sunday, Demong spoke in front of thousands at The National Mall as part of an initiative for all involved to call on Congress to take action to address climate change in 2010 during The Climate Rally, an event in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day in Washington, D.C.
During the visit, the athletes were also invited to take part in First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign to solve the childhood obesity epidemic. Kearney and Paralympic skier Alana Nichols were invited to join Mrs. Obama on a visit to River Terrace Elementary School to promote the movement.
The tradition of the president meeting Olympians began when President Gerald Ford first invited the team in 1976 following the Montreal Games.
“President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and the entire White House staff have shown tremendous support for the Olympic Movement and for Team USA,” said U.S. Olympic Committee CEO, Scott Blackmun. “Our athletes’ achievements in Vancouver were incredible both on and off the field of play, and we are thrilled to bring the excitement of the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games to Washington, D.C.”