Mariel Zagunis is a saber fencer for Team USA and was the London 2012 flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony for Team USA. She is a two time Olympic Champion from the 2008 Beijing and Athens 2004 Olympic Games.
24 Hours I Will Never Forget
September 15, 2012
This year’s trip to the White House for the Olympians and Paralympians is surely one that none of us will ever forget. As a three time Olympian, I have made this trip twice before. Not that it wasn’t anything special in the past, because going to the White House is just as special as it is to call yourself an Olympian, but this time around ended up being above and beyond all expectations.
I arrived late Thursday night and rode in a town car to my hotel with Paralympian and fellow fencer Gary van der Wege and Olympic long jumper Marquise Goodwin. Goodwin was able to make this special trip regardless of the fact that the multitalented athlete is scheduled to play in a game this Saturday as he is also a wide receiver for the University of Texas. Upon arriving at the hotel each of us was issued our uniform to wear to the White House the next day. As if we already weren’t spoiled enough with the bags and bags of swag from the Olympics, this was just one more outfit to add to the pile. Nike delivered once again with a letterman style white and navy jacket and a Nike Fuel Band for every athlete! Since I arrived too late to attend the athlete reception, I headed straight to bed to get some sleep before the early breakfast scheduled for 6:00am.
The next morning kicked off without a hitch regardless of the early hour. As all 400+ athletes and cadre boarded the busses, the energy and excitement in the air was palpable. We arrived to the White House grounds well ahead of schedule, which is understandable after the numerous security stops we had to go through. It was actually a blessing in disguise that we arrived so early, so we could take advantage of that time to take pictures on the lawn with the White House and the Washington Monument in the background.
Before we knew it, it was time to get organized and line up on the bleachers and await the arrival of the President, First Lady and Vice President. At this point I was pulled aside to prepare for my special role. Paralympian Brad Snyder, who carried the flag in the Closing Ceremony only less than a week before, and I were going to present the President with the flag we carried from the Games. I had a chance to talk at length with Brad, and he is an incredible person, athlete, role model and representative. I was honored to stand on the stage with him as the President, First Lady and Vice President arrived.
Mrs. Michelle Obama spoke first and then introduced her husband. Both the First Lady and President Obama expressed their gratitude to the Olympians and Paralympians for their dedication to our country, as well as their astonishment at what it takes to compete on the world stage. Then the best and most unexpected thing happened. President Obama, who was scheduled to say his piece, take a photo with the group and then be on his way, declared that he was going to stay and take the time to meet and shake hands with each and every athlete there! Although this probably threw off his schedule for the rest of the day and maybe the next few days as well, it only proved that his sincerely and support was genuine.
After the President finished speaking, it was Brad’s and my cue to do our part. I had been rehearsing my short speech for the flag presentation over and over for this moment. Suddenly, however, the music started playing and the service people ran in to disassemble the podium and started to carry off the flag! I had to say something to not let this moment pass. After some brief scrambling, we found another mic and were able to go through with the presentation. Although it threw me off a little bit, I was still able to say my part about the “Raise Our Flag” campaign and express the appreciation and thanks for the President’s support on behalf of all of Team USA.
Before I knew it, it was time to head back to the airport. Many of the athletes were in DC for less than 24 hours, but the whole experience was totally worth it. I know I will be adding this trip to the growing list of things to tell my children and grandchildren!