Olympian Ginny Thrasher returns to real world -- with a gold medal
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Ginny Thrasher won the first gold medal of the Rio Olympics and was instantly catapulted to fame. As she stood atop the podium for the women's 10-meter air rifle event on the first day of competition, her smiling image was broadcast around the world. From there, the interview requests piled up and she even received congratulations from an excited Simone Biles as they passed each other in the Olympic Village.
While Thrasher is one of the best shooters in the world, she's also a West Virginia University student whose sophomore year started before the 2016 Games were even over. The 19-year-old competed in her final event in Rio on Saturday and returned to the U.S. on a red-eye Monday night -- with her gold medal as a carry-on.
A delay, a missed connection and a bout of food poisoning after eating pasta at the Rio airport made Thrasher's journey home an anticlimactic end to what would otherwise be described as a life-changing experience. The biomedical-engineering major still felt ill Tuesday night and had little time to rest before her first day of classes Wednesday.
What is it like to return to the real world after winning an Olympic gold medal? It's something most of us will never know, but Thrasher let us tag along on her first day of the fall semester so we could experience it too.
7:30 a.m.: A surprisingly awake Thrasher waits outside her apartment in an off-campus complex ahead of her first class of the semester. Donning her U.S. Olympic team official gear, she knows she's going to get quite a bit of attention. "It's just par for the course," she says. She eagerly hops in her red pickup truck for the 10-minute drive through rolling hills to campus.
If she didn't know she would get attention before, a sign hanging from a fraternity near campus makes it abundantly clear: "Ginny Thrasher drinks free."
She arrives at the building of her first class 45 minutes in advance. After a close call crossing the street ("They're not going to hit me, I'm an Olympian," she jokes), she finds the giant lecture hall and picks a seat. Although only a few students are already there, she immediately draws stares and a few emphatic "Congratulations!" As the room fills, so does the enthusiasm for her victory.
A student seated in front of her turns around and says with surprise, "Did I just hear you were in the Olympics?" After her reply, with no mention of her gold medal, the student continues, "Rifle? So is that hard?"
8:30 a.m.: Physics 112 begins, and the professor opens by acknowledging Thrasher and her entourage, which includes members of the school's digital media staff who are filming her. "The university has taken a great interest in physics this year," he says jokingly. "Actually, we have an Olympic gold medalist with us. But please treat her like any other physics student the rest of the year."
The professor then goes over the syllabus. Thrasher diligently takes notes and tries to notice the dates which conflict with her rifle responsibilities. (She's a national championship-winning member of the school team.)
9:20 a.m.: There's a break before her next class, so Thrasher drives to the nearby post office. She's concerned her mail has piled up while she has been away and wants to get the mailbox key as soon as possible. As people begin to recognize her, or at least think they know her from somewhere, she playfully jokes around: "Just Ginny Thrasher waiting in line like a normal person."
9:35 a.m.: After a short drive down the street, Thrasher heads into the WVU Coliseum, where the athletic department is housed. She is recognized and greeted with every step she takes.
It's clear the department is proud of her achievements, and even the box containing her textbooks for the semester is covered in congratulatory messages from staff members. She meets with academic advisor Toni Oliverio to talk about her course load before getting together with senior associate director of sports administration Terri Howes.
Thrasher and Howes review the requests that have flooded in. From state fairs to speaking at local schools to being honored at a football game, it feels like it's going to be a busy semester. Attempting to juggle schoolwork, the upcoming NCAA season and the World Cup in October in Italy will leave Thrasher with little free time. But she has just one request -- to meet Brad Paisley during his Morgantown concert in a few weeks. "He tweeted at me!" she says excitedly. Howes says she'll see what she can do.
10:30 a.m.: Thrasher heads to the shuttle that will take her to her next two classes. As she gets on the bus, the driver can hardly contain himself. "Hey, shooter," he says. "I'm so proud of you. Now show me that gold medal!"
While Thrasher isn't taking the medal to class, she promises to show him later. As the drive continues, he relives her winning performance in detail before letting her off at a nonsanctioned stop.
10:45 a.m.: Again one of the first students to arrive, Thrasher picks her seat carefully for Calculus 4: Elementary Differential Equations (second row -- not too close, but close enough for the professor to notice) and receives a few knowing looks from her peers. When the professor arrives, she almost instantly congratulates Thrasher and shakes her hand. However, the jovial mood doesn't last for long. A quiz is distributed moments later.
The students are allowed to either hand in the quiz during class and receive a bonus point for doing so, or take it home and turn it in at the next class. Thrasher opts for the latter, just to be sure all of her answers are correct.
11:50 a.m.: She has just 10 minutes to get to her next class, several buildings away across campus. Joined by a new friend who she discovers is in all of her classes this semester, Thrasher hustles through buildings, down stairs and across an overpass. It's stressful, and the duo keep a fast pace, but they make it to Introduction to Electrical Engineering, their third and final class of the day, without a second to spare.
Noon: As the clock strikes 12, Thrasher hurries to find a seat, and luckily there are a few available in the second row. As Thrasher walks in, the professor says with a knowing glance, "So, did anyone do anything fun this summer?" Everyone laughs as Thrasher blushes and sits down quietly. Another student explains he played Dungeons and Dragons. More laughter.
However, again, there is no time for frivolity, and another quiz is handed out. It's mostly about future aspirations and career goals, but the rest of the class is dedicated to learning the basics of SI derived units.
As the class ends, Thrasher chats with a few friends who are eager to talk about her Olympic experience. After sharing a picture of the fraternity sign, a friend says, "You now have access to everything!"
1:10 p.m.: Thrasher returns to the Coliseum for an afternoon of photo shoots and press obligations. First, however, she grabs lunch (guacamole, chips and a banana) and goes to see her coach, Jon Hammond. Thrasher credits Hammond, a two-time Olympian for Great Britain, for helping her improve her technique and mental strength. While he was unable to go to Rio, he was in constant communication with her throughout and even picked her up from the airport in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
1:30 p.m.: Complete with multiple outfits, sneakers and her gold medal, Thrasher heads to the basketball practice facility to pose for photos for the school. She willingly agrees to a variety of wardrobe changes, featuring both West Virginia and Team USA gear, and holds her rifle and various flags. She jokes about a flag etiquette class she was required to take during the Games. She smiles for what feels like hours, and while there are no outward signs of it, she confesses privately that she is tired.
She is frequently interrupted by a growing group of onlookers. Coaches and staff from the baseball, tennis and women's basketball team approach her for selfies and to see her new hardware. They are clearly in awe and ask a barrage of questions.
Did you see Michael Phelps? (Yes, in the elevator.)
How tall is Simone Biles? (Very short.)
Did you know Sarah Palin wrote an article about you? (Yes, but she didn't read it.)
Could you pursue rifling as a full-time thing after graduation? (Yes, if she marries rich.)
3:15 p.m.: With her eyes likely dilated from the constant flash and her face in pain from so much smiling, Thrasher heads to the other side of the gym for an interview. There is a moment of obvious exhaustion as she makes the short walk over, but she hides it well. Despite her age, she is pro at public speaking and gives perfect answers about representing her school, country and sport in an on-camera interview with the school's public relations team.
4:00 p.m.: Almost as soon as the camera turns off, Thrasher is briefed for a news conference that is about to start. She and Hammond head upstairs, where a group of about 20 local reporters are waiting. She has clearly heard these questions all before but answers them eloquently and without hesitation.
When the subject of filming with Dan Patrick for NBC comes up, Hammond hilariously reveals that Thrasher wasn't familiar with the broadcaster's work. "It was a great interview," Hammond says. "But she was slightly oblivious to who he was."
4:45 p.m.: After the media members have taken pictures from just about every possible angle of her gold medal, Thrasher quietly slips away and heads to her home away from home -- the rifle range. While she's taking a much-deserved month off from the sport, it's clear she's most comfortable in the facility, which shares a building with the swimming and diving team. But despite a few teammates being around, she has a phone interview with the Huffington Post. The reporter likely has no idea of just how busy her day is, and Thrasher gives him no indication of it as she graciously fields questions.
5:15 p.m.: With chairs set up in the middle of the rifle range, Thrasher talks on camera to the local "Coaches Show" and discusses her victory and dealing with negativity. During a media conference call from Rio, a reporter had compared her to a "donkey winning the Kentucky Derby." Clearly still a little stung from the experience, she candidly expresses her surprise and echoes the same sentiment as she said at the time: "I politely would disagree with that."
5:30 p.m.: In a rare moment of free time, Thrasher joins a few of her teammates and several other student-athletes for dinner in the Coliseum basement. Called "Training Table," the athletes receive a catered dinner two nights a week. As she walks into the room, she receives a large ovation from her peers. And despite having just a few minutes to eat her lasagna, roll and salad, she happily obliges when a few members of the other teams ask her for selfies.
5:50 p.m.: After shoveling down her meal, Thrasher hops into the waiting car of Shannon McNamara, the associate director of athletic communications, to head to a local radio station.
On the drive, the two discuss where Thrasher will keep her medal. She's not sure if it will be safe at her apartment, so she's contemplating giving it to her parents or getting a safety deposit box. She will not, however, despite suggestions from many throughout the day, wear it around her neck all of the time.
6:30 p.m.: Arriving to the station just in time for her scheduled appearance, Thrasher walks directly into the studio and jumps on the air with Tony Caridi and Greg Hunter on "Sportsline." After immediately requesting to see the medal, Caridi comments on how many interviews Thrasher has likely done. "So, my question to you is," she says drolly without missing a beat, "do you have any new questions for me?"
It's clearly a breath of fresh air when the two do ask different questions, with topics ranging from her upbringing to her previous athletic endeavors to her mental preparation. She lights up when talking about her interest in sports psychology and her approach to shooting. "For me, what place you come in doesn't define you or determine you self-worth," she says.
As she stands to leave after the half-hour interview, she asks the two if they want a picture with her and the medal. "I mean, at this point, I knew they were going to ask," she says teasingly. They agree and bring in a few family members who also would like a photo.
7:10 p.m.: Thrasher and McNamara get back in the car and return to the Coliseum. Thrasher checks her class schedule and blissfully realizes she only has one class Thursday. While she generally likes a rigid schedule, she seems thankful for a day with some down time. Perhaps she'll reply to some of the 2,000 Facebook messages or 100 texts she has received since her win and has yet to respond to. Or perhaps she'll just sleep.
7:30 p.m.: It's finally time to go home after an intense 12-hour day, and Thrasher picks up her books and bags from the athletic department. As she heads into the dimming West Virginia night sky, she looks like any other college student, albeit one with a shiny gold medal tucked away in a box under her arm.
She's still trying to get used to her new life, and the reality of being an Olympic champion still hasn't fully hit her. She's hopeful in the coming days and weeks her life will get somewhat back to what it was before. "That's why I was really excited to come back to college," she says. "This is my comfort zone. This is where I can get back to normal."