President Barack Obama Hosts Team USA At White House, Thanks Athletes For “Inspiring Our Best”

By Lisa Costantini | Sept. 29, 2016, 6:31 p.m. (ET)
President Barack Obama (third from left) speaks as (L-R) First Lady Michelle Obama, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and Paralympic soccer player Josh Brunais listen during Team USA's visit to the White House on Sept. 29, 2016 in Washington, D.C.


WASHINGTON -- It’s one thing to be told by your parents that you’ve done a good job, but how many people can say that the president of the United States gave them a pat on the back for a job well done? Today, roughly 600 Team USA Olympians and Paralympians were welcomed into the White House as a way to say thanks for the way they represented the U.S. on and off the field of play this summer in Rio.

But before getting the chance to meet President Barack Obama, Team USA was treated to a tour of the White House. Everywhere from the library to the restrooms, the group snapped selfies, mingled with their teammates — many of whom they were meeting for the first time — and even spent quality time with the presidential pups, Bo and Sunny.

After both the Olympic and Paralympic teams had the chance to shake hands with President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden — though some opted for a kiss on the cheek, while others went for a hug — President Obama addressed the crowd.

While he was quick to note that this would be the last team of Olympians and Paralympians that he would “have the honor of welcoming to the White House,” he was happy to turn the attention away from himself and on the athletes and their impressive list of firsts.

In his speech, he recognized the many accomplishments of the team who “won the most medals by far — Team USA,” the first country in 40 years to top the medal chart in every category.

While there was no denying the impressive medal haul from the men, President Obama couldn’t help noting that “2016 belonged to America’s women Olympians. I mean, no question,” he said.

He called out Michelle Carter for being the only American woman ever to win gold in shot put, Simone Manuel for being the first African American to win a swimming gold, Claressa Shields for being the only American boxer — male or female — to ever win back-to-back Olympic golds, and Simone Biles for being the only American to win four gold medals in gymnastics in a single Games. 

Biles also had the honor of not only being the flag bearer at the Closing Ceremony, but along with soccer player Josh Brunais, who was the flag bearer for the Paralympic team, the two presented the Obamas with a pair of surfboards signed by the entire team. The gift was a nod to surfing being added to the Olympic program in 2020.

But not everything was about the future. President Obama thanked the athletes for not just doing their best — which is what 1936 Olympic track and field champion Jesse Owens once said was the purpose of the Olympics — but for also “inspiring our best.”

Because Owens and his 17 African American teammates were not welcome in the White House after their success in Berlin, Obama invited their relatives to join the visit so he could shake their hands 80 years later.

Also invited were Olympic track icons Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose black power salute on the podium in 1968 caused them to be booted from the Games. 

President Obama said, “Their powerful, silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed.”

One athlete who was grateful for the opportunity they created was fencing silver medalist Daryl Homer, who tweeted a photo of himself alongside Smith in the White House. “Absolutely humbling moment to meet our President, listen to his address, and to meet Tommie Smith,” he said. “I hope to leave a morsel of the impact these GIANTS have on the world."