DES MOINES, Iowa -- They took the stage one by one, five U.S. Olympians getting the gold-medal treatment from a crowd of 5,000 appreciative Iowans.
Archer Miranda Leek, distance runner Lisa Uhl, wrestler Jake Varner, hurdler Lolo Jones and — the main attraction — gymnast Gabby Douglas all basked in the roar of a crowd that was generous with standing ovations and waving flags.
“I feel like a rock star,” Uhl, a native of Fort Dodge who finished 13th in the 10,000 meters at the London 2012 Olympic Games, told the crowd.
“I think Iowa is a really special place to come from,” Uhl said in an earlier interview, noting that many Olympic athletes don’t come home to a public ceremony. “Being in Oregon now (where she trains), it’s just not the same connection to the community that I have here. ... You tell people that something like this is going on, and if they’re not from Iowa, they’re like, ‘Really, they’re holding a whole celebration just for Iowa Olympians?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s how supportive the whole community is, and I’ve felt this support the whole way.’ ”
For Jones, the homecoming provided a bit of a salve for the open wound of falling just short of a medal (fourth in the 100-meter hurdles final) and public criticism she received from the media.
The Des Moines native wiped away some tears after one prolonged ovation from the audience, then responded to another with: “This is honestly what I need right now. ... After the Olympics, I was feeling my heart get quite cold and bitter. I was trying to wrap my head around it. Just to have this support right now, you guys have no clue.”
Varner, a Californian who wrestled collegiately at Iowa State and won gold on the last day of the London Games, was overwhelmed by the public response in his adopted state.
“I thought it was going to be more of a meet-and-greet type thing, but they went all out,” he said, marveling before taking the stage with his hard-earned hardware hanging from his neck.
Leek, a 19-year-old native of West Des Moines, was thrilled to be able to thank her local supporters one day before heading to Texas A&M for the first day of freshman orientation.
But it was Douglas, who won the top two prizes in women’s gymnastics — team and individual all-around gold — who received the loudest response. Douglas, the first African-American Olympic all-around champion, has been training in West Des Moines for just two years after moving from Virginia. But she declared, popularly: “I’m proud to be an Iowan.”
Douglas has been on a different TV show just about every night, and said she has been enjoying the perks of fame while insisting that’s not where her future lies.
“I think it’s very fun to do that kind of stuff. Because I think back ... and all the effort and hard work has paid off,” she said. “It’s part of the journey. It’s part of the game, and everyone does it, so it’s fun.”
Douglas invigorated the crowd when she proclaimed her intention to keep competing in gymnastics.
“The driving force is that I love this sport, and I want to do more. I want to get more international experiences,” the 16-year-old star said. “I’m so young, I’m so fresh, and I think I’ve got a couple more tricks under my belt.”
First, she needs to head back to the gym in a week or two to start training for a 40-city Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions, which begins Sept. 8 in San Jose, Calif., the place where Douglas won the U.S. Olympic Trials and secured a spot for the U.S. Olympic Team earlier this summer.
Does she have anything special planned to please the crowds?
“Maybe a little bit more dance moves,” Douglas said.