WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 10, 2008) - Ten Soldiers from the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program and U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit visited the White House Oct. 7.

They were among more than 500 members of the 2008 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Teams who thanked President Bush and first lady Laura for their support of the Olympic movement throughout the Beijing Games.

The president, in turn, thanked the athletes for their inspirational performances.

"This is a special day for the White House," Bush said. "Laura and I are proud to welcome the greatest Olympic and Paralympic team ever assembled. And I bring greetings from the honorary captain of the Olympic teams, [former] President George H.W. Bush. We call him 41."

The Bushes were among more than 80 world dignitaries who attended the Opening Ceremony in Beijing. George W. Bush was the first U.S. president to attend Olympic Games outside of the United States while serving as commander in chief. His father, the 41st president, also made history by occupying the chair of chef de mission of the U.S. Olympic Team, marking the first time the U.S. Olympic Committee has had an honorary chief of the mission.

"Attending the Beijing Olympics was one of the greatest experiences of our lifetime," Bush said. "Laura and I had a fantastic experience. We will never forget the first night at the Bird's Nest for the spectacular Opening Ceremony. When the Team USA was announced, there was a notable increase in the cheers.

"And then came the greatest sight of all when more than 500 of America's finest athletes (were) marching behind our flag. It was an incredible sight. I know it was a moment that all of our athletes looked forward to, and it's a moment that we are so honored to share with you."

Team USA won 110 medals, more than any nation during the Beijing Games, the largest in Olympic history. More than 100,000 athletes from around the world competed in more than 300 events in which 87 countries won medals.

Along the way, 43 world records were broken as an estimated 4.7 billion television viewers watched from around the globe.

"I know the entire Olympic teams worked hard to get to this moment," Bush said. "Whether you won a medal or not really doesn't matter in the long run. What really matters is the honor you brought to your sports, and to your families, and to your country.

"We thank you for your lasting memories that you gave us all."

Bush elaborated on some of the memories he will cherish forever, such as "watching Jason Lezak touch out in the 4x100 [swimming] relay."

"Then watching the joy of his teammates, including Michael Phelps," Bush said. "People say, 'Did you ever get to meet Michael Phelps'' I say, 'I did.' 'Was that a highlight'' I say, 'No, really, meeting his mother was more of a highlight.'"

That line elicited a boisterous round of laughter that echoed onto the Washington Monument grounds and drew a big smile from Phelps, who stood behind Bush during the ceremony.

"I'm particularly pleased to be here with those who have worn the uniform of our country," Bush said. "On the American team were 16 men and women who served the nation in uniform, one of whom was Army Lieutenant Melissa Stockwell. She lost her leg while serving our country in Iraq. After four years of hard work and significant rehabilitation, she qualified as a [Paralympic] swimmer and her teammates elected her as the flag bearer for the closing ceremony."

The U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program was represented by Team USA rifle coach Maj. Dave Johnson, Greco-Roman wrestler Staff Sgt. Dremiel Byers, rifle marksman Maj. Michael Anti and pistol shooter Staff Sgt. Keith Sanderson. Five other Soldiers hailed from the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit at Fort Benning, Ga.: Sgts. 1st Class Jason Parker and Daryl Szarenski, and Spcs. Jeff Holguin, Walton Glenn Eller III and Vincent Hancock, along with Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Elizabeth "Libby" Callahan.

Eller and Hancock won gold medals in double trap and skeet shotgun shooting.

With members of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports on the south lawn, Bush urged people to make exercise a part of their daily regimen.

"There's no better time to remind our fellow citizens that physical fitness will lead to a healthy America," he said. "Look what's happening to the people surrounding me. So we urge our fellow citizens to take time out of your day to exercise. Not every one of you has to ride a mountain bike, but if you walk just 20 minutes a day, you'll help America and help yourself."

Bush said the Olympians made an indelible mark on both him and his wife.

"Long after we leave the White House, Laura and I will remember the extraordinary spirit and kindness of the athletes that we have met here at the White House and in Beijing," he said.

The Olympians thanked President and Mrs. Bush by making them honorary members of Team USA and presenting them with official team jackets, a framed photograph of the Opening Ceremony and an American flag that flew in China throughout both Games.

"I'm not easily excited," said Sanderson, who posted an Olympic record qualification score of 583 before finishing fifth in the 25-meter rapid-fire pistol event in Beijing. "But it was cool to see the president talk. It's kind of surreal. 'Hey, that's the guy on TV, but he's right here in front of me.'"

Heavyweight wrestler Byers was more touched by the ceremony.

"I was honored to be here," Byers said. "I can't wait till I come back the next time. Only difference is next time I'm coming back with a medal around my neck."

Byers and Sanderson also took a tour of the White House.

"It was a quick tour, but it was an honor to be there," Byers said. "It's not something I've ever done. And to get to be around other athletes while we're doing it made it feel like we belonged there."

Byers wished more of his fellow Soldiers could cherish the experience.

"We're Soldiers first and we know that. We live that. And we keep that in mind," Byers said. "That's why you put your little personal feelings aside. I didn't achieve the medal I wanted, but still, somebody is over there doing my job for me right now.

"I carry that with me and I appreciate it. And being around these Paralympic athletes is humbling. Some of them were prior service and they lost a limb at war."

Team USA rifle coach Maj. David Johnson, a WCAP Soldier, has participated in three Olympic White House visits - once as an athlete and twice as a coach.

"This is a very important part of the whole Olympic process," Johnson said. "Representing the USA and then bringing it all the way home to the White House and being honored with the president here and his wife, it's incredible. It really brings the Olympic movement full circle.

"I think it's great because it's a day where you truly see politics disappear. Everybody is red, white and blue, and you can see everybody is excited. It's a rare opportunity to come here to the White House.

"To me, it's very much an honor and a pleasure. It's team USA, all the way from the top down to the bottom up. I definitely want to keep coming back. I get charged up to come here, even as a coach, to watch. It's a lot of pride and a lot of fun to watch the athletes after so many hard years of work. It's just icing on the cake."

Especially so, Johnson said, with the Bush family's involvement.

"As an athlete in 1992, we were here at the White House and President Bush 41 and his wife stood for an hour and 45 minutes to take individual photos with the athletes," Johnson recalled. "And we were just so impressed. You could just tell that they were just full and parcel part of the Olympic movement.

"They believed in the athletes, believed in the sports, and it has continued through this day. To see them at the Olympic Games, to see them keep the politics out of it, and make the statements they did ahead of time that, 'Hey, the Olympics are not about politics,' was great. I think it's everything that the Olympics are."

(Tim Hipps writes for FMWRC Public Affairs.)