Team USA athletes pose for a photo after the U.S. Olympic Committee Best of U.S. awards show at the Warner Theatre on April 2, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
WASHINGTON – Some Team USA athletes walked along the red carpet in high-tops, some came in strapless dresses, some brought their seeing-eye dogs and many others brought their prized possessions — medals from the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi.
They took selfies and high-fived the friends they made in Sochi.
Most of all, the athletes got a chance to let their very recent memories from Russia sink in a bit more, and they simply got to enjoy it.
More than 200 Team USA athletes, 78 of whom were medalists at the 2014 Games, gathered in the historic Warner Theater located in the nation’s capital to honor the top performances of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s inaugural Best Of U.S. awards program.
In addition to the stars from Sochi, such as gold medalists Mikaela Shiffrin and Sage Kotsenburg, there were many other decorated Olympians and Paralympians in the house, among them the popular skaters-turned-broadcasters Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, Olympic champion gymnast Aly Raisman, two-time Olympic softball medalist Jennie Finch-Daigle and San Francisco 49ers star and curling advocate Vernon Davis.
Stephen Colbert, who backed US Speedskating leading up to the Winter Games in Vancouver, made an appearance in a video, and Olympic champion ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White took time out from their rehearsals for “Dancing with the Stars” to appear in a video for their fellow Olympians.
The festivities continue Thursday as the Team USA athletes will be honored at the White House by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
David Wise, who won the gold medal in halfpipe skiing in Sochi, was in Italy 12 hours before the Best of U.S. in Washington. He was at an event called Nine Knights, which had not ended yet but he didn’t care.
“I wasn’t missing this,” Wise said. “I was coming back for this and to meet the president.”
Wise, who had his gold medal draped around his neck while walking down the red carpet, joked that his medal has not been far away from him since Sochi. Everyone, he said, keeps asking to see it.
“It’s heavy,” he said. “My neck has gotten really strong.”
The awards show, emceed by Willie Geist, co-anchor of NBC’s “Today” show and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” will be broadcast Monday on NBCSN at 7 p.m. ET.
Awards were presented in 10 categories during a live taping of the show. For Olympic sport, Kotsenburg was named Best Male Olympian, luge athlete Erin Hamlin was selected Best Female Olympian, the U.S. ice dancing team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White was honored as Team of the Games, and Noelle Pikus-Pace took home the award for Moment of the Games with her medal celebration in women’s skeleton.
Meanwhile, on the Paralympic side, alpine skier Mark Bathum was tabbed Best Male Paralympian, alpine skier Stephanie Jallen collected two awards for Best Female Paralympian and Moment of the Games, and the men’s sled hockey team was designated Team of the Games.
In addition, coach Kori Ade, who guided skater Jason Brown to the Winter Games in Sochi, was honored with the USG Building Dreams award.
Kotsenburg got the perhaps the biggest laugh of the night when he went up on stage to claim his award. The laidback, long-haired snowboarder told the audience, “Whoa. I didn’t really prepare a speech. I didn’t know this was an awards show until last night.”
The awards were fun and a reunion of sorts, but the icing on the cake comes when the athletes take on the White House.
Julie Chu, a member of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team and the U.S. flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony, was in Washington for the Best of U.S. show and will be making her fourth visit to the White House as a part of Team USA.
“It never gets old,” Chu said as she walked along the red carpet before the show. “It’s incredibly special. There’s no better way to celebrate than with the president of our country.”
Straight from the red carpet, here’s what some of the Team USA athletes had to say:
At just 18, Shiffrin took Sochi by storm winning the Olympic gold medal in slalom. Shiffrin turned 19 the next month but she continues to impress. “It’s been a pretty exciting season,” Shiffrin said. “Things keep going up. I am almost waiting for the shoe to drop.” After winning her gold medal in Sochi she told reporters she wanted to win five gold medals in 2018. “I think that was probably the gold-medal high there,” said Shiffrin, downplaying those lofty goals. “Like, ‘I’m ready for five golds. Whoops.’”
Johnny Weir, figure skating, 2006, 2010 Olympian
The figure skater was at the Best of U.S. event with his partner in crime, Tara Lipinski. Together, the dynamic duo handled backstage interviews with athletes, and of course, they dished on fashion. Weir, usually known for his eccentric style, was relatively subdued, wearing a black and white jacket (OK, yes, there was a little bling by his neckline.) He did, however, wear sweatpants, saying, “It’s very sporty tonight and I wanted to be as sporty as I could.” Weir said it was difficult to watch the men’s event in Sochi as he had hoped to be there as a competitor, but he thoroughly enjoyed working in TV with Lipinski and said, “I hope I can be a part of NBC and NBC Sports Network for a very long time.”
The Olympic champion walked down the red carpet wearing the gold medal she earned in halfpipe skiing in Sochi. Although the post-Olympic period has been tiring, she has enjoyed every minute of it and is ecstatic to meet President Obama Thursday afternoon. “I’m very excited to meet the president,” Bowman said. “I voted for him. Obviously, I think he’s awesome.”
Julie Chu, ice hockey, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 Olympian
Chu arrived in Washington a little early, and, of course, made time to go to an NHL game. She was a guest of the Washington Capitals Tuesday night and she presented the team with a check for $10,000 to help with some of the team’s community programs. One of Chu’s sponsors is Easton, which manufactures hockey equipment and she worked with her agent to have the company include philanthropy in her contract. So far, she and Easton have donated about $20,000 among three NHL teams’ programs (Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers). “It’s all about giving back,” Chu said. “Without grassroots programs it’s impossible to dream or have opportunities.”
Nearly a decade ago, Strong was involved in an accident when a drunk driver hit him while he was riding a motorcycle. At the time, he was developing a career as a professional skateboarder but the accident forced him to lose a leg. Today he is a Paralympic gold medalist and tomorrow he will be honored by the president of the United States. “I never dreamed about being a Paralympian or winning a Paralympic gold medal,” Strong said. “After the accident I wanted to get back to life and to sports again. I love it. I couldn’t live without it.”
Aly Raisman, gymnastics, 2012 Olympian
Carrying a small purse with the British flag on it as a reminder of her gold-medal days in London, Raisman was excited for the rare opportunity to be around summer and winter athletes. On the red carpet, she talked about her efforts to make an Olympic comeback for 2016. She is back in the gym after taking a full year off and hopes to attend a training camp under the watchful eye of Marta Karolyi in October. “She’s been so supportive,” Raisman said of Karolyi. Raisman is also keeping a close watch on the action on “Dancing with the Stars,” as she was a former competitor on the show. She has been paying close attention to Davis and White, whom she met on a gymnastics/skating television show. “I practice Monday and then I go home and watch it,” Raisman said. “I’ve tweeted at (Davis and White) a couple of times.”
The son of Russian immigrants, it was especially sentimental for Shnapir to compete (with pairs partner Marissa Castelli) in Sochi. The duo helped lead Team USA to a bronze medal in the team competition and placed ninth in the pairs event. Now he can’t wait to meet the president. He even brought a special pin from the Massachusetts State Police to pass along to the president. “It’s exciting for all of us,” Shnapir said. “You look at all the opportunities we were given by moving here. The Olympics were a proud moment for my family. I think when I shake President Obama’s hand it will be for three people (his parents and himself).” Castelli and Shnapir train in Boston and have already been honored by the NHL’s Boston Bruins. Up next is a celebration from the Red Sox on April 7.
Greg Shaw, sled hockey, 2010, 2014 Paralympian
For the first time in Paralympic history, NBC broadcast the gold-medal sled hockey game live. This moment in time was not lost on sled hockey player Greg Shaw. “It’s awesome getting so much coverage for our sport,” said Shaw, who was reunited with his teammates in the nation’s capital. “People recognize me because they saw me on TV.” Being with his teammates was special as they accepted their award on stage for Team of the Games. “It’s really like a brotherhood,” he said.
Davis, who went to Sochi to cheer on his curling comrades, had such a good time that he said it might not be a stretch to see how far he can make it in the sport. The All-Pro tight end smiled and said, “You might see me out on the ice.”
Lauryn Williams, track & field Olympian 2004, 2008, 2012; bobsled 2014
Not to be outdone by Vernon Davis, Williams is the ultimate crossover athlete. In fact, she is the only U.S. woman to earn Olympic medals in both the summer and Winter Games. She won gold and silver medals in track and a silver medal with Elana Meyers in bobsled in Sochi. What will she try next? “I don’t know,” she said. “I love being a Toys R Us kid, but I think it is time to grow up.” She does plan to pursue a career in financial planning, but when it comes to sports, never say never. Meyers is already making the switch to rugby and already is in China for her first competition in that sport. She is avidly recruiting Williams to try out that sport as well. Williams smiled about a possible jump to rugby but said, “I’m ready to move on. Being a Toys R Us kid doesn’t pay the bills.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.