Ever wonder what it would be like to be invited to the White House? On Friday, Sept. 14, three current Virginia athletes and one recent alum got to find out the answer first hand as they were invited to a West Lawn ceremony honoring the 2012 United States Olympic and Paralympic teams.
For senior swimmer Lauren Perdue and former swimmer Matt McLean (class of 2011), the experience began on Thursday night when they attended a formal dinner held at Union Station honoring the Olympians with about 25 of the members of the US swim team in attendance, including both the UVa Olympic gold medalists.
"The dinner party was really fun," said Perdue. "There were lots of tables with food. It was actually hard to recognize some of the athletes because we were all dressed so nicely. It was a lot of fun and I got to meet some nice people from other teams and the Paralympic Team."
United States field hockey team members Michelle Vittese and Paige Selenksi had quite a different experience Thursday night. Unlike the swim team, whose season begins Oct. 26, the Cavalier field hockey team, ranked in the top-10 in the nation, is currently in season and both players were at practice on Thursday night.
"We were exhausted after practice and we were debating on whether we still wanted to go or not," Selenski said. "We decided if we don't go, we are going to regret it."
The two jumped in their car and drove up to DC after practice, arriving at 11:30 p.m. They managed to say hello to the four other field hockey national team members attending the reception before heading to bed to prepare for the pre-dawn wakeup call.
In the morning, all of the 457 Olympic athletes and Paralympic athletes in attendance grabbed breakfast, picked up new Nike gear, and then were loaded on buses to be taken to the White House. All of the honorees underwent a rigorous screening process by the Secret Service before arriving at the White House.
"It was my first trip to the White House," Vittese said. "It is very historic. Probably a little too Victorian for my taste. The inside, there was so much gold. I didn't like that. But outside, in the gardens and the lawn, it was so beautiful."
Each of the athletes was personally greeted by President Barrack Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, and First Lady Michelle Obama.
"They were really personable," said Vittese. "They wanted to know your names."
In the case of McLean, President Obama also wanted to know the story about the photograph he and his friend, open water swimmer Alex Meyer, were holding. It was a picture of former UVa swimmer Fran Crippens (class of 2006) who passed away tragically during an open-water swim race in the United Arab Emirates in 2010.
"Alex said that he takes a picture with Fran wherever he goes," McLean explained. "He asked the President to take a picture with us and he said of course. He asked what had happened and we explained the situation. He was genuinely interested and he was very understanding and spent a good amount of time talking to us. Then he held the picture and put his arm around me and it was an extraordinary experience."
Because of the extraordinary circumstance, McLean was one of the few people to get an individual picture with the President.
For those in attendance, though, just getting to meet the President was an honor enough.
"[Meeting the President] was pretty surreal," McLean reflected. "I was sitting next to Peter VanDerKay and we were talking and we were like, `Wow, we're sitting on the lawn of the White House right now.' It's such a historical location, and it was one of the more surreal things that I've experienced."
"It was awesome," Selenski said. "It is something you don't get to do on an everyday basis, meet the President and shake his hand. And talk to him, even if it is just for a couple of seconds."
The athletes also valued being able to share the experience with their teammates.
"It was really exciting to have the honor of meeting President Obama, as well as being a part of huge group of athletes that are the best in the world," Perdue said. "Sharing this experience together is really exciting."
McLean, Perdue, Selenski and Vittese look forward to making a return trip after coming back from Rio in 2016.