PHILADELPHIA -- Of all the winners at the 2014-15 Team USA Awards presented by Dow, Best of the Year ceremony, Jordan Burroughs may have best summarized the life of an Olympic athlete.
“It takes years of hard work to become an overnight celebrity,” Burroughs – a three-time world champion and 2012 Olympic champion wrestler – told the crowd on Thursday night after winning Male Olympic Athlete of the Year.
Of course, Burroughs will never have the national appeal of Michael Phelps or Alex Morgan. And he’ll never have the worldwide fame of Kobe Bryant or Usain Bolt. But he knows that those in his corner will be there always, just as they were during the voting process for the annual Team USA honors.
“My parents single-handedly won this award for me,” Burroughs quipped. “I think they voted 1,500 times.”
Burroughs won his third world title in September in Las Vegas, making him the third-most winningest wrestler in U.S. history.
On the women’s side, gymnast Simone Biles won Female Olympic Athlete of the Year, presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods, over, among others, tennis superstar Serena Williams and swimming standout Katie Ledecky.
“(This award) means so much just because my support system is so big,” said Biles, who captured her third straight world all-around title earlier this year, becoming the first woman to win three in a row and first woman to win 10 career world gold medals. “To have everyone cheering me on is amazing.”
The Paralympic athletes of the year were cyclist Joe Berenyi and track and field athlete Tatyana McFadden. Berenyi won three medals – including two gold medals – at the 2015 UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships and also won three golds among four total medals at the 2015 Parapan American Games. McFadden secured the grand slam for a third straight year by winning marathons in London, Boston, Chicago and New York City.
“What I really love about this event is that we know what it takes to get here,” McFadden said. “It’s hard work and determination and of course dreaming with our hearts.”
The U.S. Women’s World Cup team won the award for the Olympic Team of the Year, presented by Dow, following a magical run to its unprecedented third World Cup championship. Morgan and World Cup title game hero Carli Lloyd accepted the award via video.
“I’m just so proud of the team,” said Lloyd, who recorded a hat trick in the World Cup final against Japan. “It was an exciting final match. I think we won over a lot of soccer fans.”
“(With Team USA), you’re part of a journey,” Morgan added. “You’re part of an elite group. … It’s a journey, but everyone has their own individual journeys too.”
Paralympic Team of the Year, presented by Dow, went to the U.S. national sled hockey team, which went undefeated in 2015, capped by a victory over Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2015 IPC Sled Hockey World Championship.
“We like to be number one. I mean, we’re American,” said Josh Pauls, who accepted along with teammate Nikko Landeros. “It’s awesome to be number one. There’s nothing better.”
Jerri Johnson was selected for the Building Dreams Award, presented by USG. Johnson frequently hosts members of the U.S. Women’s National Field Hockey Team near their training base in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which has provided athletes more robust training and competition opportunities on the lead up to the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The theme of the night was the athletes’ hometowns because, as host Natalie Morales of NBC put it, “the hometowns across America are what make it great.” Many of the winners were honored by teachers and students from their hometowns, who prepared video messages to congratulate the athletes.
“We feel very fortunate to have the honor to congratulate you on your amazing career,” said one of McFadden’s former teachers, surrounded by a classroom of adoring students. “Thank you for being a great role model to all women and young girls around the world. Keep inspiring those around you. Congratulations, Tatyana!”
The presenters included Olympic figure skating gold medalist Sarah Hughes, Grammy Award nominee Andra Day and local retired athletes Mitch Williams and John LeClair.
“We were professionals,” Williams, a former pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, said alongside former Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. “But these people do it for the love of the sport and for the love of their country – and that’s truly commendable.”
Even Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter was on hand for the festivities.
“This is a great sports organization in a great sports town,” Nutter said. “We celebrate all of the athletes and their amazing accomplishments.”
While most of the athletes in attendance starred in recent Olympics and Paralympics – and of course have their sights set on the Rio Games in 2016 – there was one special guest whose Olympic accomplishments took place not only in the 20th century but in the first half of the 20th century.
Herb Douglas, the 1948 Olympic bronze medalist in the long jump, is the oldest living African-American Olympian. He had a simple message for today’s athletes: “Analyze, organize, initiate a plan and follow-through,” the 93-year-old Douglas told the crowd. “I’ll see you in another 90 years.”
The crowd enjoyed Douglas’ speech, in particular, while Burroughs’ comments were also a hit with the athletes, presenters and other distinguished guests. Burroughs left the stage with a bit of a challenge – and a smile.
“I’m not used to winning something without working for it,” he said with a grin. “So I’ll give the other nominees a chance to wrestle me for this trophy.”