Wrestler Rulon Gardner snapped photographs, bronze medalist April Holmes jokingly asked for a ride in Air Force One and Olympic flag-bearer Dawn Staley presented President Bush with an official U.S. Olympic jacket yesterday as the president and the first lady welcomed 570 athletes and coaches from the Athens Games to the White House.

In formal remarks on the South Lawn, the President praised the athletes' achievements in Athens, where the U.S. Olympic team won 103 medals and the Paralympic team added 88 more. Celebrating their sportsmanship and perseverance, Bush also touched on the political transformation in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he has made a hallmark of his reelection campaign.

"The Games came at a historic time for the world," Bush said. "You and your fellow Olympians showed why we have such great hope in this world. . . . With millions watching, you showed the best values of America. You were humble in victory, gracious in defeat. You showed compassion for your competitors. You showed the great tolerance and diversity of our people. Most importantly you showed great character. You made us all proud. I want to thank you for being such fine ambassadors of our nation to the world."

The athletes, in turn, showered the president with applause and shouts of thanks.

"I thought his speech was very powerful," said gymnast Paul Hamm, the men's all-around gold medalist. "Some of the things he said really touched the hearts of all the athletes."

Said Staley, a member of the gold medal-winning U.S. women's basketball team, who was making her second trip to the White House: "I never really get star-struck. But when I meet a president, it's a different experience. He's the most powerful man in the world."

In his remarks Bush singled out several athletes by name, including Hamm; gymnast Carly Patterson, who won the women's all-around gold; swimmer Michael Phelps of Baltimore County, who wasn't on hand; as well as the teams that won gold in rowing, sailing, women's soccer, beach volleyball and wheelchair basketball.

At the mention of Paul Hamm, his twin brother and teammate Morgan Hamm started beaming. "He mentioned Paul right off the bat!" Morgan Hamm gushed.

Paul Hamm will learn later this week whether he'll be allowed to keep his gold medal or be asked to return it in exchange for silver because of a scoring error that penalized bronze medalist Yang Tae Young of South Korea, who has appealed to the Swiss-based Council for Arbitration in Sport. "I'm just looking forward to moving on from this point," said Hamm, who plans to enroll at Ohio State and resume training in January.

For most of the Olympians, the trip began Sunday night, when they gathered for dinner at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.

Monday morning they walked to the White House, where they were given a tour before gathering on the South Lawn portico for the President's remarks and a group photograph.

Afterward Bush mingled with the athletes, shaking hands, posing for pictures and doling out compliments.

Holmes, who won bronze in the women's long jump at the Paralympics, shook the President's hand and pointed out that his afternoon campaign stop in New Jersey wasn't far from her home town of Somerdale, N.J.

"I said, 'You're on your way to my home town! You think I could get a ride home on Air Force One?'" she said. "He just smiled."

-- Liz Clarke

Kevin Szott presents first lady Laura Bush with a Team USA jacket during a White House ceremony honoring 2004 U.S. Olympians and Paralympians.