Story by Erin Wittkop, Defense Media Activity
I don’t know who was more excited for members of the 2014 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams to visit the White House on April 3: the athletes, the president or me.
Not long after I arrived, a handful of athletes emerged from the White House. They were all beaming and laughing, clearly enjoying this special moment in their lives.
“We got here a couple days ago and it’s pretty much been like a family reunion,” slopestyle snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg told a group of us, adding that “it’s awesome” to see everyone and he still couldn’t believe he was about to meet the president. “I’m starting to get nervous. It’s crazy; I can’t believe I’m here right now,” he said with a grin on his face.
His fellow athletes laughed and Paralympic alpine skier Stephanie Jallen agreed saying “I think we all have sweaty palms now getting ready to meet the president.”
The athletes spent some time with us (us being a small group of media professionals) answering questions and offering insight on their Sochi experiences and life as an Olympic or Paralympic athlete.
Retired Marine Corps Sgt. Jon Lujan, Paralympic alpine skier, was among the group. He credits his time as a Marine for giving him the discipline required to make it as a Paralympic athlete. “It taught me that I can achieve and attain any goal that I want to.”
He certainly hasn’t forgotten his veteran roots. Jon recently visited this year’s National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, the venue that got him started in para-alpine skiing six years ago, to give back to the disabled veteran community and help others find their way like he did.
“I think it’s really important for me to give back to them. Just to go out there and see these guys and inspire them and try to get them into the system earlier than I was; get them healthy and get them on a righteous path. I think it’s imperative that we take care of our veterans. I’ve been granted such a great opportunity and I just want to use it.”
Jon was also the U.S. flag bearer for the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. I asked him what that experience meant to him. No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the biggest smile I’ve seen in literally ages was spread across his face.
“Well, I mean, I think my grin right now says it all. When I was in the Marine Corps I was a color sergeant, so I had to study the United States flag code. And, the flag means a lot to me. It means a lot to our country. It means a lot to the veterans. To be able to carry that flag into Opening Ceremonies was phenomenal,” he said, relishing the memory and adding that he “savored every moment of it.”
After talking a few minutes more, the athletes bade us farewell so they could take their places for the afternoon’s event and we could take ours. A short time later, we were making our way through White House corridors to the East Room.
The East Room was alive with excitement. Athletes, Congress members, Olympic committee members and White House staff were milling about, clearly delighted to be in each other’s company and pumped about being there.
The thing that surprised me the most was how friendly and down-to-earth the athletes were. Not that I was expecting them to be unfriendly but I was very impressed by how humble and gracious they were … to everyone, myself included.
In a world where professional athletes pull in astronomical salaries and frequently make the news for all the wrong reasons, I wasn’t expecting to meet world class athletes who were gushing about how grateful they were and how much they wanted to help others along the way. Their attitudes were refreshing and contagious.
Call me biased, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their demeanor was due in part to the fact that veterans and active duty service members make up a significant part of each team. When you’re on a team with people like Army Capt. Chris Fogt and Army Sgt. Justin Olsen, both active duty soldiers juggling military careers while also competing as Olympic athletes, or Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cnossen, an active duty Navy SEAL and para-nordic skier, who lost his legs to an improvised explosive device in 2009 and has persevered to epic proportions ever since.
As President and Mrs. Obama took the podium, my theory took a stronger hold. Minutes after exuberantly greeting the athletes and highlighting some of their awesome achievements the first lady pointed out that “that being an Olympian is about heart; it’s about guts; and it’s about giving it your all no matter what stands in your way.”
While noting that they inspire Americans with their guts (and sometimes, glory) every day and not just every four years, she was reminded of one athlete in particular who inspires her. He stands out to her, she said, because she met him under very different circumstances.
“Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cnossen was seated next to me at a dinner with leaders of our military. And I just got to see Dan, and we were remarking — because we were in the Dip Room, the same room we had dinner in together, but just a few months earlier, Dan had been in Afghanistan. He was leading a platoon of Navy SEALs when he stepped on an IED. Dan lost both of his legs in the explosion, but he never lost that fighting spirit,” Mrs. Obama said.
“I will always remember Dan, because just four months after that explosion, he finished a half marathon in a wheelchair — four months after the explosion. On the one-year anniversary of his injury, he ran a mile on his prosthetics. Over the next few years, Dan stayed on active duty while in the Navy, earning medals in swimming and running events at the Warrior Games, and completing the New York City Marathon.”
People like Dan, Chris, Justin, Jon and the myriad of other veterans on the Olympic and Paralympic teams have presence. They have presence because of their work ethic, values and dedication to service. They have presence because they choose to persevere no matter how big the challenge. And their presence matters … to their teammates, to their competitors, to their colleagues, to their loved ones, to their fellow Americans and certainly to their Commander-in-Chief.
It’s this kind of presence, I believe, that helps them and their fellow athletes stand heads and shoulders above the rest, not only as competitors but simply as people.
President Obama summed my thoughts up the best:
“From our [women] ski jumpers who fought for equality to the athletes and coaches who have served our country in uniform, like Dan, who we’re so proud of, these athletes all send a message that resonates far beyond the Olympic Village. And that’s always been the power of the Olympics — in going for the gold and pushing yourselves to be the best, you inspire the rest of us to try to, if not be the best, at least be a little better. All of you remind us, just like the Olympic creed states, the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight.”
As I left the White House that day, I couldn’t help but see how the military and the Olympics, in some ways, seem to go hand-in-hand. No wonder service members have been representing the United States since the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.
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