(L-R) Marvin Bracy, Christian Coleman, Ariana Washington, Trayvon Bromell, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, Morolake Akinosun, Justin Gatlin, Jenna Prandini and Christina Epps celebrate Team USA as over 85 U.S. athletes get ready to board their flight at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Aug. 3, 2016 in Houston.
HOUSTON – In the midst of the celebration at a United Airlines gate at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, first-time Olympian Ameer Webb was quietly soaking in the atmosphere.
A whirlwind couple of weeks — and a long day Wednesday in Houston — had the sprinter ready to board his flight to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games, which begin Friday.
“It actually happened pretty quickly,” Webb said of the turnaround from last month’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field in Oregon to Wednesday’s departure.
“Honestly, I don’t feel anything just yet. I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet.”
United and Team USA celebrated the last of 12 days of departures from Houston to Rio with a special sendoff Wednesday night. Athletes from the U.S. track and field, badminton, taekwondo and wrestling teams met with United employees outside the gate before boarding their flight among cheers of “U-S-A” and waving American flags.
“It’s a way to celebrate what is an epic, every-four-year event,” United CEO Oscar Munoz said. “To see the pride and the excitement about being on the team, it is intoxicating.”
United — the official airline of Team USA for the past 35 years — will move 3,000 people and 50,000 pounds of cargo for athletes, support staff and NBC’s Olympic coverage, Munoz said.
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No. 1-ranked wrestler Adeline Gray, who took pictures and visited with many of the United employees gathered to wish the athletes luck, said it was exciting to visit with the people who have done so much for Team USA.
“We fly with United so often throughout our careers and we don’t ever get to sit down and talk with them,” Gray said. “Every four years, people really get behind the Olympics, and these are people that make sure we get where we’re going and are really a part of our team.
“I can’t wrestle without my wrestling shoes getting to the tournament, so (the United employees) make sure that happens.”
Gray’s shoes aren’t the only special equipment flying to Rio with the team. Before arriving at the airport Wednesday, these Team USA athletes went through team processing in Houston. There, athletes picked up their Olympic apparel — from sponsors like Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren and Oakley — while getting the chance to interact with one another.
“That helps it sink in a little bit more,” Webb said of team processing. “I heard stories of past Olympians. I talked with wrestlers and swimmers and a number of people I wouldn’t come in contact with had it not been with this opportunity.”
The day in Houston built the camaraderie that only happens at certain points during the Olympic adventure.
“We’re not used to seeing other sports all the time, only at Games events,” Webb said. “It’s really great to be with other athletes that have been through this and hear their stories.”
Even for an Olympic veteran like taekwondo coach Jean Lopez, whose three siblings are all medalists themselves, who coached the team at the past three Games, team processing is when everything starts to feel more real.
“Processing is when everything just kind of hits you and you come to the realization that you’re really here and its really happening,” said Lopez, who lives in Houston
“It feels really good to be launched (from Houston). I’ve seen (local news stations) I’ve done interviews with for several years interviewing other (Team USA) athletes. It just feels like we’re at home.”
Tom Glave has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He covered prep and college sports for newspapers in Missouri and Arkansas for nine years and now works part time in the Houston area.