Washington — When first lady Michelle Obama leads the U.S. presidential delegation to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, she will already be acquainted with many of the Olympic and Paralympic athletes representing the United States there.
That’s because the first lady met with a large group of U.S. Olympians, Paralympians and Olympic hopefuls at a May 14 event in Dallas, where she announced a nationwide commitment to get at least 1.7 million American children active as part of her Let’s Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. Introduced to the audience by swimmer Natalie Coughlin, an Olympic gold medalist, Obama proclaimed herself “a lifelong Olympic fan” who faithfully watched the Olympic Games on television when she was growing up.
She recalled cheering on some of her favorite athletes, including gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Nadia Comaneci and track star Carl Lewis. “And like so many young people, I was awed and inspired by those athletes, and as I watched their amazing feats of speed and endurance and grace, I would dream about how maybe one day, if I worked hard enough, I too could achieve something great,” Obama said.
The first lady thanked the U.S. Olympic Committee, U.S. Paralympics, the U.S. Olympians Association and 10 national governing bodies for sport (including cycling, soccer, swimming, track and field, tennis, field hockey and volleyball) for their commitment to the Partnership for a Healthier America, which aims to harness the inspiration of the Olympic and Paralympic Games into getting more youngsters healthy and active.
Obama also cited two athletes — swimmer Jessica Long, a Paralympian, and gymnast John Orozco, a likely Olympic contender — whose stories embody the discipline and determination that underlie athletic competition at a world-class level.
“As a child, Jessica watched other kids walking up and down a hill in her neighborhood park and she spent an entire day practicing on her prosthetic legs, falling down over and over again until she could climb that hill too,” Obama said. “Her advice to others about how to succeed is very simple. She says: ‘You have to practice. You will have days when you hate it, and days when you love it. But you have to stick with it.’
"And then there's John Orozco, a gymnast from the Bronx," the first lady said. Starting at age 9, Orozco was practicing at the gym six or seven days a week, often until 9 p.m., and then stayed up past midnight to finish his homework, Obama explained. "He soon began working at the gym between practices to make money, and when he received his first paycheck, I understand he turned it over to his parents and ... said, 'Here, Dad. Put this in for the mortgage.'"
In London, athletes like Long and Orozco “will show our young people that the Olympic and Paralympic Games aren’t just about who wins gold or who sets a record,” Obama said. “They’re about trying your hardest and triumphing over adversity, and helping others do the same. And thanks to the commitments from the U.S. Olympic Committee and 10 of its governing bodies, this year, young people will be learning those values for themselves in schools and parks and athletic facilities all across this country.”
The first lady stressed the importance of helping 1.7 million children participate in Olympic and Paralympic sports in their communities.
“Many of these kids will be playing sports for the very first time,” she said. “All it takes is one opportunity, and once they’re engaged, that’s when coaches and instructors can step in and become mentors. That’s when discipline and teamwork can become daily lessons. That’s when being active can become a lifelong habit.”
She urged sports organizations teaming up with Partnership for a Healthier America to “keep expanding on their programming all across this country.” Their efforts, she said, will almost certainly make a huge difference “to so many of our kids who could be the next Olympians, the next ones standing on this stage.”
Some of the Team USA athletes will bring home gold medals from London, she predicted. All of them, however, “will make our country proud,” Obama said. “And all of them will inspire a generation of young people to get active, to strive for excellence, and to pursue whatever dreams they may hold in their hearts.”
Obama wished the athletes “the very best of luck this summer,” adding: “I cannot wait to get there to London to cheer them on.”
To find affiliated sports programs across the United States, visit the website of Partnership for a Healthier America.