WASHINGTON — It was really quite a scene. The stream of Olympians — sometimes a few at a time, sometimes in waves so wide they pushed newcomers out from under the tent and into the rainy evening — flowed for nearly two and a half hours straight as cameras flashed and a horde of students whooped and shrieked at each new arrival outside McDonough Gymnasium on the Georgetown University campus.
The most familiar faces at the Team USA Awards, the quadrennial celebration of Olympians and Paralympians, naturally elicited the largest responses. Quintuple gold medalist and hometown hero Katie Ledecky found herself serenaded to as she tried to conduct interviews. And the Final Five gymnasts (four of them anyway, less the still-healing Gabby Douglas) carried their own gravitational pull near the end of the red carpet session.
Both were obvious winners at the event itself — Ledecky was honored as Female Athlete of the Olympic Games; the gymnasts, as Team of the Olympic Games. But there were many more stories than that Wednesday evening.
One such story that most of America probably missed was Michelle Konkoly’s. The Georgetown student-athlete was temporarily paralyzed after a five-story fall from her Village C dorm room and had to fight her way back just to be able to walk again. When she tried to return to swimming, she realized her dreams had been forever altered.
“I recovered a lot of function in my legs, but not enough to really let me be competitive at the D-I level anymore,” she explained. “So I found Paralympics and really just excelled. And it’s been an incredible ride.”
Konkoly, now a 24-year-old graduate, won two gold medals at this year’s Paralympics and set a world record in the S9 100-meter freestyle. Wednesday night, she found herself just steps from where her journey diverged from what it might have been to what it became.
“It’s … it’s incredible,” she said. “This is where the story all started. And to be able to come back here and bring some medals and show Georgetown, ‘This is what you’ve helped me accomplish,’ it really brings it full circle.”
If Konkoly’s life was forever changed by a night five years ago, Rockville, Maryland, native Helen Maroulis’ transformed this summer. The first American woman to win a wrestling gold, the Olympics had been her singular focus, so much so that she had no idea what to do once she’d actually won.
“I dreamed of it, but I don’t think I gave it that much thought,” she said of what a gold medal would mean. “I didn’t think life continued after August 18.”
All the acclaim, the television shows, the public appearances — including an impromptu visit with the Baltimore Ravens — was beyond her imagination.
“Especially coming from a sport like women’s wrestling, that’s not something that they tell you to visualize — walking the red carpet — because we normally don’t,” Maroulis said. “So this is really cool, to be part of Team USA.”
Maroulis is more than just a part now — she’s the standard-bearer in her sport. The pressure is often greater than that on athletes in more popular competitions — to be the face of the present and the guiding light for the future. While it wasn’t a challenge she necessarily anticipated, Maroulis is taking it head-on.
“[People have] always said one thing that could really help women’s wrestling grow in America is a gold medal,” said Maroulis. “So, I really want to do my part and make sure that I help that. I think it’s an incredible sport. It’s been life-changing for me.”
That’s the aspect that unites all these athletes, no matter their size, stature or popularity among the American public: Each has devoted his or her life to the goal of greatness, and Wednesday served as a celebration of that united effort. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the award ceremony itself, the only one to prompt a standing ovation, was a celebration of faces once ignored, a recognition long overdue.
The 18 black athletes who competed for Team USA in the 1936 Olympics, including Jesse Owens, were never recognized for their achievements upon returning to the United States. It’s a part of history often glossed over — that they lived in racially integrated dorms in Nazi Germany while competing, only to come home and not even receive recognition of their tremendous achievements from their own American president. The history was addressed in the Owens biopic “Race,” and again by the U.S. Olympic Committee Wednesday night.
The families of the 18 athletes were honored, and a new award was created in Owens’ name. In a year when we saw the first black female swimming gold medalist and the first Muslim-American to compete in a hijab (and win a medal, in fencing), it was a stark reminder of just how many different faces make up not just Team USA, but America itself.
The Team USA Awards will be televised on NBC Sports Network Tuesday, Oct. 4, from 10-11 p.m.
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