Womens rowing competesSusan Francia is a two-time Olympic champion in the women's eight at both the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the London 2012 Olympic Games.

A Lifelong Memory

September 14, 2012

 Susan Francia
 Me and hurdler Lolo Jones on the South Lawn

On the morning of September 14, nearly 400 sleepy-eyed Olympians and Paralympians gathered in the breakfast room of the Hilton hotel in Washington D.C.  Though they were tired from the 5:45 wake up call, there was a certain nervous buzz among the athletes.  Today was the day that we would gather at the White House to see the President.  What's he like?  Would we get to meet him?  Could we get a picture?  Would we get to meet Michelle Obama?  Questions about the day floated around the room in anticipation of the day's events.  The buses pulled up next to the hotel and it was time to take off for the big show.

We arrived at the White House around 8 am and waited patiently as we were screened not just once, but two thorough times.  Even as we stood in line, athletes nervously adjusted each other's uniforms that we were given the night before.  Rocking matching trendy USA flag Nike shirts, issued khakis, and a vintage Nike USA letterman's jacket, we looked ready to go to a U.S. football game.  As we slowly worked our way through the long lines we took numerous pictures in front of the White House with our teammates, athletes we had met prior at the Olympics, and the new friends we made standing in line.

Once we were inside we took a brief moment on the White House lawn to soak it all in.  For me, this was my second time visiting with the Olympic team, but the experience was the same – Wow, I can't believe I'm at the White House!  After being escorted to our seat in front of the main building, we had the chance to look over the green at the Washington Monument and see all of the media and press who would be filming the day's events.  All of the athletes were finally seated and arranged perfectly by White House staff members.  It was time.  They announced the President and we all rose to our feet on the bleachers.  President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and even the First Lady Michelle Obama walked out and immediately started shaking hands and high-fiving athletes the whole way to the front of the podium.

 
 Me and rowing teammate Esther Lofgren in front of White House

The First Lady made some very touching remarks about what the Olympics and Paralympics symbolized and what an inspiration it was for both her and Mr. Obama.  She was magnetic as she described the impact that we as athletes had on the American people during this summer's Games in London.  It was truly a touching reminder that the Olympics are greater than us as people; that a nation is watching and cheering for us through victories and losses.  She also shared the story of Lt. Brad Snyder, an officer in the Navy who lost his vision in Afghanistan after an IED exploded in his face.  How bravely he served our country in war and despite his tragic misfortune, how bravely he served and represented our country exactly one year later at the Paralympics for swimming.  It certainly struck a chord with all of the athletes, not just how proud we are of Lt. Snyder for all of his courage in the face of adversity, but proud as athletes that we too could stand on the world stage with him.  President Obama said some very powerful words as well, reminding us of our role as representatives of this great country.  Probably the coolest thing he said was at the end, when he stated that despite the time crunch and recommendation of his advisors, he would meet every single Olympian and Paralympian in attendance.  We all cheered and looked at each other in disbelief!  Yes, we're going to meet the President! 

Susan FranciaAfter waiting in a squished line with my teammates it was my turn to shake the President's hand.  He was very personable and asked about our rowing team's performance in London.  All I could blurt out was "It was awesome.  And you got my vote! I promise!"  He just laughed and patted me on the arm.  Joe Biden was also very personable and complimentary of all of the athletes.  Michelle Obama greeted me with a hug!  Wow, my experience at the White House was complete!  After I was done walking down the line of the most influential people in America, it was time to check out their office.  We were escorted to a tour of the White House.  Though we didn't get to see the Oval Office where the real magic happens, we toured the historic colorful rooms inside.  As I walked from room to room, it was remarkable to think of the rich history, the world leaders, and the many pivotal decisions that have taken place in that building.

As I exited back to the bus that would take me to Union Station, I glanced back at the White House once more.  I felt pride as an American that I had the chance to represent the red, white, and blue at the Olympics and that it led me here to the nation's capital.  I don't know if I will be back in 4 years, if I will compete at Rio, but I have to say it's events like these that make me want to never stop rowing.  Thank you Mr. and Mrs. President, and Vice President Biden for welcoming us at the White House and reminding us what it truly means to represent your country at the Olympics.  Though it may have been just a few minutes of their time, it was a lifelong memory for all of us.