Guest commentary: Memories of a President
In mid-August of 1992, I joined about 400 of my fellow summer Olympians for the traditional visit to the White House to meet the 41st president of the United States, George H.W. Bush.
The day consisted of a meet at greet with the president, his wife, Barbara, and his presidential adviser on fitness, Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with several photo opportunities, and a picnic on the White House lawn.
The morning began as close to a blue-bird Colorado day as is possible in D.C. However, just as the picnic was about to get under way, a severe and unexpected thunderstorm came in and moved everything inside. Hundreds of the world’s best athletes were sitting on the steps and floors of the White House eating burgers and salad. It was complete chaos.
Before the group photo, I was standing several feet from the president as he was talking to one of the heavyweight Greco-Roman wrestlers. I can’t remember his name, but he unexpectedly wrapped the president in a bear hug and lifted him off the ground. The secret service men and women looked uncomfortable, but they did not interfere.
When the wrestler put President Bush’s feet back on the ground, without a moments’ hesitation, the president grabbed the wrestler, who must have outweighed him by a good 40 or 50 pounds, around the waist in a bear hug of his own. He lifted the wrestler off the ground and slammed him back down with a laugh and a twinkle in his eye.
It was a fleeting moment in good fun, but the president was clearly not going to be one-upped by an athlete, no matter how big or tough. It also was a brief display of his famed competitive spirit.
After the group photo, the team lined up for individual photos with the president and Mrs. Bush. As each athlete approached, a staffer would whisper the athlete’s name and home town into the president’s ear. As I approached, Mrs. Bush warmly shook my hand, and I commented on how they had been on their feet for hours. She must have been exhausted, but she showed no signs of weariness. She smiled and asked, “Are they almost done?” Each photo took just under a minute, but for the president and his wife, that meant they were standing for over three hours.
As I look at that photo and reflect on that day, what really sticks with me was the warmth, kindness, humility and humor the president and Mrs. Bush displayed. It’s a fleeting memory, but one that I’m grateful for and one that will remain with me for the rest of my life.
Rest in peace, Mr. President.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works in Aspen and writes a cycling column for The Aspen Times.
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