WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Welcoming sporting champions to the White House is a ritual that goes on no matter what -- a rare, unequivocally happy moment in the life of both athletes and the president who serves at the time of their success.
Friday, it was a brief respite from world events, in this case the tragic deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans working at the consulate in Libya that lowered flags around the country to half-staff and made one of President Barack Obama's later appointments a somber one. Just two hours after Obama stayed past the allotted time to shake the hands of as many Olympians and Paralympians as possible, he departed by helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base to be present when the diplomats' remains arrived.
But for one sunny hour on the South Lawn, close to 400 athletes basked in the afterglow of their achievements this summer in London. The president called himself the "Fan-in-Chief" who taped events so he could watch them at the end of his long workdays; first lady Michelle Obama, who led the U.S. delegation in London, singled out double Paralympic swimming gold medalist Brad Snyder, a Navy lieutenant blinded while on duty in Afghanistan last year.
Then, for once, the tables were turned. Rather than being swarmed by fans, it was the athletes who came down off the risers and lined up for photo ops and hugs from Mr. and Mrs. Obama, who were joined by Vice President Joe Biden.
Gold medalist Aries Merritt maintained his Olympic peak and set a world record in his specialty, the 110-meter hurdles, in Belgium last week. He was pleasantly surprised when the president recognized and greeted him as "the hurdle guy," and decided to share a personal story: His grandmother, Louise Hubbard, who died shortly before the 2008 election, predicted Obama would win, he told the president.
Sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross, who doubled up on gold in the 400 meters and 4x400 relay, initially found herself tongue-tied and couldn't muster the thanks she'd planned to express for support from the top. "Michelle Obama embodies, to me, a woman who supports her husband and is a great role model," Richards-Ross said. She did eventually find her voice to ask Mrs. Obama if she could be a part of the "Let's Move" youth fitness initiative -- a request the first lady obliged by putting her in touch with an assistant.
For Richards-Ross, who is committed to competing in the 2016 Rio Games, the White House visit represented the end of a four-year cycle but not a career. The day was slightly more poignant for 2008 fencing silver medalist Tim Morehouse, who was attending his third White House team gathering but is retiring from competition.
"I'm a fencer for life," said Morehouse, who once fenced the president at a White House event. "It doesn't mean I'll never pick up my sabre again." In fact, he is finalizing the details of a New York-based pilot program to train physical education teachers to teach fencing. "I want to get a million kids fencing," he said.
President Obama singled out several athletes in attendance, including swimmer Michael Phelps, who now holds the all-time medal haul record of 22; sprinter Tyson Gay; weightlifter Holley Mangold; discus thrower Lance Brooks; Paralympic volleyball player Kari Miller; and 15-year-old 800-meter swimming gold medalist Katie Ledecky, whom Obama praised for finishing her summer high school reading assignments amid all the excitement.
He also called Manteo Mitchell, who finished his leg of a 4x400 preliminary heat with a broken shin bone, "one of my favorite stories of the whole Olympics."