Thousands strong, Iowans filled a sports coliseum on the Drake University campus in Des Moines with their bodies, certainly, but also with their hearts at Saturday morning's warm welcome-home party for an all-star lineup of Olympic athletes.
The crowd made it clear that these young athletes with Iowa ties firmly reside in the collective Iowa heart --,with admiration in every beat – for their drive and , their athletic prowess and their grace, in victory and in defeat.
"They deserve this, right?” said Keith Murphy, the amiable sports director for WHO-TV, who emceed the welcome-home celebration.
The crowd – about 3,500 strong – answered with thundering applause.
The all-star lineup included two champions: Gabby Douglas, the West Des Moines-trained gymnast who captured the hearts of Americans when she won the gold medal in the all-around finals, and gold-medal wrestler Jake Varner. And though they didn’t make it to the medal stand, hurdler Lolo Jones, archer Miranda Leek and runner Lisa Uhl got the championship treatment, too.
Shawn Johnson was there, too, and so was Liang Chow, who coached both Johnson and Douglas to gold-medal finishes at his West Des Moines gym, Johnson at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Also joining was Natasha Kaiser-Brown, a two-time Olympian now in her 11th year as head coach of Drake's men's and women's track programs.
Murphy said Iowa's connection to the London 2012 Olympics wasn't lost on the world. "Didn't it seem like we had a local connection every day? We were connected to these fantastic athletes every day."
Again, the crowd roared.
Varner, a Bakersfield, CA, native and former Iowa State wrestler, defeated Valerie Andriitsev of Ukraine 1-0, 1-0 to win gold in men's 96-kilogram freestyle. Jones, a Des Moines native, finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles; Leek of Des Moines, a graduate of West Des Moines’ Dowling Catholic High, competed with the U.S. Women’s Archery Team and is ranked 10th in the world; and Uhl, a Fort Dodge native and former Iowa State Cyclone, competed in the women's 10,000 meters.
USA, USA, USA ... and Gabby, Gabby, Gabby
But it was Douglas’s day. The crowd loved her, giving her a standing ovation when she arrived on the stage.
Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds made her an honorary Iowan. Branstad also read a proclamation designating Aug. 18, 2011 at "Iowa Olympian Day."
The first American to win both a gold medal in the all-around and team competition, Douglas also was the first African-American woman to win gold in the all-around event in women’s gymnastics. Douglas has been celebrated as a trailblazer for young African-American girls aspiring to break into the sport.
Douglas said it took a while for her status as a role model for legions of young people to sink in, though she and her mother often talked about "inspiring a nation" and "inspiring a generation," she said.
"Me and my mom would always talk about it," the 16-year-old said. "That means so much, and I'm so honored. I get teary-eyed; I can't believe it's true."
She said her performance in the Olympics should tell other girls that, no matter their race or background, "anything is possible – if Gabby can do it, I can do it."
"You really can do anything and nothing is impossible," she said. "The only person who can stop you is you."
How Can You Not Love That Smile?
Crowds started lining up early in front of the Knapp Center, where the celebration was held, hours before the event started.
“How can you not love that smile?” asked Arlene Smith of Ankeny as she and two of her suburban neighbors, Denise Sinn and Debra Wittern, anchored the line leading to the Knapp Center.
“Look at Shawn Johnson and look at Gabby,” Smith continued. “That’s the kind of girls that come here, and we have to support them.”
“We want to see Gabby and Lolo, and also Chow,” Smith said. “He has become quite a legend, and a lot of young girls will be coming to Des Moines to train with him. That’s great for the state of Iowa.”
Paul Grossman, another first-in-liner for Waukee, knows first-hand what Chow has done for Iowa. His daughter was a teammate of Douglas’s until she retired from
Chow's reputation as the go-to coach for Olympics gold is well-deserved. When Douglas arrived in West Des Moines, “we all knew she had talent, but she couldn’t pull it all together consistently,” Grossman said. “But look what happened after being with Chow for awhile.”
It was a uniquely Iowa celebration, with opening peformances by The Nadas, a popular regional band; the Isiserettes, a drum and drill corps that has performed at NBA games and the White House, and dancers from Becky Nalevanko's Dance and Tumbling Studio in Pleasant Hill.
The homecoming celebration was sponsored by the Iowa-based Hy-Vee grocery chain, Drake University, WHO-TV, The Des Moines Register, WHO Radio, Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble and Sara Lee.