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U.S. Olympians honored in White House ceremony

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Declaring himself the “Fan-in Chief,” President Obama hailed the 2012 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes Friday as a portrait of what sets America apart: Men and women of all races, faiths and backgrounds who push themselves to extend the boundaries of achievement.

“What you guys did was inspire us. You made us proud,” Obama told more than 450 athletes honored in ceremonies on the South Lawn of the White House.

“You could not have been better ambassadors and better representatives for the United States and what we stand for.”

Then the president, joined by first lady Michelle Obama, who led the U.S. delegation to the 2012 London Games, and Vice President Joe Biden, shook hands with as many athletes as he could for 40 minutes, flouting his schedule in the process, while Mrs. Obama stayed until the last athlete was hugged.

Team USA won 104 medals at the 2012 Olympics, the first in which American women outnumbered men, and 98 medals in the Paralympic Games. For several female medal winners, Friday’s ceremonies offered a chance to thank Mrs. Obama for her advocacy of fitness through her Let’s Move campaign, projected to reach 1.7 million youngsters by year’s end.

“She has planted a seed that will grow way past her lifetime,” said Brigetta Barrett, 21, a silver medalist in the high jump.

Sanya Richards-Ross, 27, a three-time Olympian who won gold in the 400 meters and 4x400m relay in London, asked the first lady if she could enlist in the Let’s Move initiative.

“She just embodies for me what it means to be a woman that supports her husband and is a role model,” Richards-Ross said.

Fitness was a platform everyone supported on this sun-drenched morning in the midst of a rancorous election season.

The president told the athletes the thrill and admiration he felt watching them compete via DVR at the end of a long work day invariably inspired him the next morning to run a little faster on the treadmill, lift a few more weights and add a few more crunches to his routine.

Lauding the athletes’ determination and perseverance, the president singled out Kari Miller (sitting volleyball), who was serving in the Army when she was hit by a drunk driver, losing both her legs; Lance Brooks (discus), who juggled his training with a 12-hour-a-day job pouring concrete; and Bethesda’s Katie Ledecky, 15, whose Olympic preparation included finishing summer reading assignments for her high school English class.

“It means a lot to have been here and to be mentioned by the president,” said Ledecky, who was accompanied by nearly a dozen Stone Ridge classmates.

Said Obama: “You guys all find the strength to keep pushing, on good days and bad, because you believe that no matter where we come from, or no matter what hand we’ve been dealt in life, with enough effort there is no limit to how far we can go.

“That’s what sets all of you apart. That’s what sets America apart.”

After the formal remarks, fencer Mariel Zagunis and Paralympic swimmer Brad Snyder, a Navy veteran who was blinded when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan, presented the president with the U.S. flag they had carried in the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies.

“The toughest aspect of my recovery over the last year was the idea that my service was kind of taken away from me,” said Snyder, 28, who won gold in the 400-meter freestyle one year after losing his sight.

“To be able to throw on this new uniform, represent Team USA and get back out there and continue to serve and get back in the fight was amazing for me and my family . . . And to bring the flag home to you, the president, is really a privilege.”

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