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Olympians and Paralympians went to the White House, and a party broke out

The president and first lady pose for selfies with U.S. Olympians during Wednesday's ceremony at the White House. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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After training for and competing in Olympic and Paralympic Games taking place halfway around the world during a global pandemic, the U.S. athletes who participated in the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics arrived at the White House on Wednesday afternoon ready for a party.

Even before President Biden walked to the lectern on the South Lawn, the more than 600 athletes who filled the bleachers and walkways behind cheered and clapped and did the wave again and again and again.

Perhaps sensing this enthusiasm, Biden said little to the athletes about the coronavirus that forced a year-long delay in the Summer Olympics or the protocols and restrictions at both the Tokyo and Beijing Games that left many athletes feeling isolated and unable to enjoy the Games the way teams had in the past. Instead, Biden’s speech focused on accomplishment and achievement and inspiration.

“I said to the world leaders, to my counterparts, ‘There’s no quit in America; there’s just no quit,’ and you’re the quintessential example of that,” he said as the athletes behind him roared. “Following your example, you gave people strength to never give up as well. None.”

He told a story of how he was once asked to define America and had replied in a single word: “Possibility.”

“We believe in America that anything is possible, and you are the explanation of what we need,” Biden said. “You are all possibilities. You represent the very soul of America. That’s not hyperbole. You generally do.

“We’re a very divided nation, but you brought us together. For no matter the divisions, we see you compete, and we feel a common pride in those three letters: USA. It crosses all political spectrums.”

Neither the president nor first lady Jill Biden, who also spoke, mentioned Russia, whose doping scandals have loomed over the past four Olympics. Just two days earlier, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland said Russia should be “sanctioned” by the international sports community for its invasion of Ukraine and for its doping controversies.

Biden did not talk about the nine U.S. figure skaters who still have not received their medals after finishing second to Russia in Beijing’s team event. The International Olympic Committee’s refusal to award any medals for the event until the completion of investigation into Russian skater Kamila Valieva’s positive test for a banned substance has been a great frustration for U.S. Olympic officials and the skaters themselves.

No reason was given for why Biden did not address what might be the biggest issue facing the two teams gathered at the White House. The lingering frustration over not having a medal remains clear for those who took part in the team event.

“You know what would take the sting off [of Beijing] a lot is finally receiving our gold medals,” skater Vincent Zhou said. “But we really can’t do much about that; it’s not in our hands.”

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It was the only tense feeling on an otherwise ebullient day. Biden lingered long after his remarks, posing for selfies with many of the Olympians and slowly walking along a line of Paralympic athletes in wheelchairs, speaking for several moments with each of them.

Discus thrower Reggie Jagers III later said Biden took a look at his 6-foot-2 frame and said: “You should be behind me protecting me.” Biden went on to tell Jagers about his own experiences throwing the javelin in high school.

“We were chopping it up,” Jagers said.

A few feet from Jagers, star swimmer Katie Ledecky smiled.

“It really does feel like a family,” she said of the group of athletes who were starting to leave the grounds at ceremony’s end. “We have all these shared experiences and have been to all of the same places and been through all the same kinds of things, all the covid testing, all of it.”

But the happiest athlete might have been Kaillie Humphries, the world’s most successful female bobsled driver, who left Canada for the United States three years ago after filing harassment claims against Canada’s coach and had to fight to get U.S. citizenship in time to compete in Beijing.

Wearing the gold medal she won for the monobob, Humphries talked excitedly about touring the White House and seeing paintings of George Washington and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and a statue of Abraham Lincoln — all people she had learned about while studying for her citizenship test.

“To be able to be at the White House and to know these are presidents and first ladies and know what it means to sing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and to be proud of the country I represent and to be in the White House all in a very short time frame, it was amazing,” she said.

Almost 45 minutes after the ceremony had ended, Biden had left, and most of the other American athletes had cleared the lawn. Humphries looked around, staring at the giant mansion decorated with Team USA banners. On a day that became about celebrating the most challenging two years U.S. Olympic teams have had in a long time, it seemed fitting that the newest American Olympian would be one of the last to leave through the White House gates.