LONDON — Dominique Dawes stood behind the podium in a gymnasium at the University of East London to introduce First Lady Michelle Obama to a small gathering of 2012 U.S. Olympians. But before the gold-medal-winning gymnast handed the microphone to the First Lady, she warned her fellow Olympians not to be fooled by Mrs. Obama’s high heels.
On the day that Dawes was appointed co-chair of the President’s Council on Fitness in June 2010, the First Lady beat her in jump roping
“She kicked off those heels, put on some flats and jumped rope along side me,” said Dawes. “And I’m a three-time Olympian and can jump pretty well, 30 minutes easily. She just kept surpassing me!”
Then, flanked by a presidential delegation including Dawes, Summer Sanders, Brandi Chastain, Grant Hill, and Gabriel Diaz de Leon, the First Lady took the podium, clapping for the athletes in the audience as loudly as they clapped for her. And she told the whole story of her first meeting with Dawes.
“[Dominique] didn’t mention that I might have beat her a little bit jumping rope, but then she popped off some flips and spun up in the air and landed,” said Mrs. Obama. “She looked at me and said, ‘Bet you can’t do that.’ She didn’t mention that part. She was right, I can’t do that.”
But Mrs. Obama was doing mental flips as she stood before the room of U.S. Olympians at the Friday morning breakfast. The event kicked off her stint as leader of the U.S. Olympic delegation in London.
“Wow,” she said. “I’m going to be saying that a lot over the next few days. Wow. I can’t believe I’m here with you all. I am beyond proud.”
After relating her fondest memories of watching the Olympic Games, she reminded the athletes that they never know who they will inspire. She talked about how the Olympics always inspired her father, Fraser Robinson III, a high school swimmer and boxer who contracted multiple sclerosis as an adult.
“The Olympics were a special time for him to watch amazing athletes of all abilities compete on the world stage,” she said. “The Games especially affected our little house on the south side of Chicago.”
Then after reminding the athletes to have fun but also to win, the First Lady removed her red and white striped jacket and began circulating among the 60 or so U.S. Olympians, wishing them luck and encouraging them.
“It’s funny because she’s just as excited to meet us as we are to meet her,” said four-time Olympic discus thrower Aretha Thurmond. “When you know you’ve got the support of your country, support of the President and the First Lady, it’s just a huge honor. We’re super excited.”
U.S. flag bearer Mariel Zagunis attended the breakfast along with the U.S. fencing team. The team’s captain Tim Morehouse, an Olympic silver medalist in team saber in Beijing, said that the First Lady was one of the people they were really looking forward to meeting at the London Games.
“She’s really charismatic,” he said. “We all got up really early, even though there’s the Opening Ceremony tonight, to come down here to meet the First Lady.”
Afterward, the athletes headed back to the Olympic Village to work out and nap, and Mrs. Obama went to Ambassador Louis Susman’s residence, Winfield House in Regent’s Park, to promote her Let’s Move! campaign to combat child obesity and promote a healthy, active lifestyle. Susman is the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
In what she called the Ambassador’s backyard, the First Lady met with 1,000 British and American children who kicked a soccer ball with David Beckham and were scheduled to meet U.S. Olympians, such as Shawn Johnson, Carl Lewis, and Dara Torres.
Tonight, the 2012 U.S. Olympic delegation will head to the Olympic Stadium to attend the Opening Ceremony. Thurmond said the butterflies of competing at the Olympics would likely start to set in then. But she was looking forward to the ceremony. This will be only the second time the four-time Olympian has walked in the Opening Ceremony; the first time was at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games.
As for the fencers, they will be at the head of the parade tonight, following flag bearer Zagunis, whom Morehouse nominated for the position.
“[Mariel] is representational of all those untold Olympic stories,” Morehouse said when asked how he presented Zagunis’s story to the flag bearer voters. “Here’s this two-time Olympic champion that you may not have even heard of, and she has this fantastic story.”
It was a day that the fencers — and many other athletes — want to remember from beginning to end, even though the beginning came very early Friday morning.
“Our day is a funny day,” said Morehouse. “Meet the First Lady, practice, take a nap, then the Opening Ceremony. You can’t ask for a better day than that.”