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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Celebrating the U.S. Olympic Women's Gymnastics Team at the White House

In the summer of 1984, United States gymnast Mary Lou Retton triumphed at the Summer Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, California. Retton went head-to-head with one of the best gymnasts in the world, Ecaterina Szabo of Romania, in the individual all-around competition. After scoring a perfect ten on both floor and vault, she bested Szabo by just 0.05 points, becoming the “first American in history to win an Olympic individual all-around gold.” Following her historic win, she went on to win silver in the vault, bronze for uneven bars and floor, and a silver medal for the team event.1 Overnight, Retton became a national sensation, drawing attention at home, abroad, and even from the White House.

President Ronald Reagan traveled to Los Angeles from the White House to officially open the 1984 Olympic Games in his home state of California, becoming the first sitting president to attend.2 Following the conclusion of the Olympics, on August 13, President Reagan gathered the U.S. Olympic Team at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles and spoke to athletes about their outstanding performance. Prior to addressing the athletes, Mary Lou Retton and fellow gold medalist Steve Lundquist presented President Reagan with an Olympic blazer, making him an honorary member of the 1984 Olympic Team. First Lady Nancy Reagan also received a blazer. During his remarks, Reagan highlighted admirable performances by several athletes, including Mary Lou Retton’s historic win stating: “And you gave us moments we’ll never forget. There was [Jeff] Blatnick dropping to his knees in thanks. And Mary Lou Retton getting that perfect 10…There was something very special about the Olympics; there was a special spirit to it. You gave us all such a lift. You gave us something to be unified around and cheer for together.”3

President Ronald Reagan poses with Mary Lou Retton and the 1985 U.S. Olympic Team at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, California on August 13, 1984.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

That year, in addition to her medal wins, Retton was declared Sportswoman of the Year and Amateur Athlete of the Year in the press.4 Ultimately, her 1984 Olympic performance helped popularize women’s gymnastics and inspired a new generation of young gymnasts to go for the gold.

In 1996, at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team followed in Retton’s footsteps, winning the first gold medal for the United States in the women’s team competition. The team consisted of seven members: Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Amanda Borden, Jaycie Phelps, and Kerri Strug. They were dubbed the “Magnificent Seven” in the press, with the Russian team as their primary competitor. In the end, the gold medal came down to the vault. Dominique Moceanu attempted the vault twice, falling on both attempts. Then Kerri Strug fell on her first attempt, tearing ligaments in her left ankle. Despite her injury, Strug went through with the final vault. She miraculously stuck the landing, carrying all her weight on her right foot, finally hopping several times before collapsing to the mat. Her incredible and historic finish secured the gold medal and her coach, Bela Karolyi, carried her to the podium to receive her medal. Following her vault, Strug stated that she had been dreaming of this moment since watching Mary Lou Retton’s win in 1984: “I thought I was going to look like Mary Lou…Instead I’m crying and no pants on.”5

Gymnast Mary Lou Retton poses with President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at a reception for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, California. President and Mrs. Reagan are wearing red blazers given to them by the U.S. Olympic Team.

Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum

Several days after the conclusion of the Summer Olympic Games, the “Magnificent Seven” and the rest of the 1996 United States Olympic Team were invited to meet with President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House on August 7. In a ceremony on the South Lawn, Hillary Clinton welcomed the athletes and introduced President Clinton who delivered remarks highlighting their achievements and celebrated the success of Title IX legislation which improved women’s athletics in the United States:

“But let me say, when I looked at our team, I couldn’t help—as the father of a daughter of whom I’m very proud, I couldn’t help but note that over 20 years ago, in a complete bipartisan commitment here in Washington, the United States Congress passed something called title IX which made it possible for a lot of the women athletes to be here today.”6

Following the ceremony, the first lady invited the entire Olympic team to pose for a group photograph and brought them to the Blue Room of the White House for a receiving line. The president and first lady also posed for a photograph with the “Magnificent Seven” to commemorate the occasion.7

President Barack Obama talks with members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams in the Oval Office on November 15, 2012. Pictured from left, are: Steven Gluckstein, Savannah Vinsant, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Steve Penny, USA Gymnastics President, McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, and Jordyn Wieber.

The Obama White House Flickr

Sixteen years later, another United States’ women’s gymnastics team returned triumphantly to the White House at the invitation of President Barack Obama. At the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, United Kingdom, the women’s team won their second team gold medal. This time, the women’s team consisted of five individuals, often called the “Fab Five” or the “Fierce Five” in the press: Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross, and Jordyn Wieber. In addition to their team win, Douglas won gold for the individual all-around competition, Maroney won silver for vault, and Raisman earned bronze for balance beam and gold for floor.8

Although the “Fierce Five” missed visiting the White House with the rest of their Olympic Team due to a busy national tour schedule, they received a separate invitation alongside five members of the men’s gymnastics team to visit the White House on November 15, 2012. They visited with President Obama in the Oval Office and posed for photographs. The "Fierce Five" also signed leotards for the Obamas’ daughters, Sasha and Malia.9

President Barack Obama and gymnast McKayla Maroney recreate Maroney's "not impressed" look from the Summer Olympic Games during an Oval Office visit on November 12, 2012.

The Obama White House-Flickr

In 2016, the United States’ women’s gymnastics team continued their winning streak at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Once again, the women’s team dominated the competition. This time, the team was referred to as the “Final Five” in the press and included: Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, and Aly Raisman. They put on a dominating performance, earning the team gold medal, while Simone Biles secured gold medals in the individual all-around, vault, and floor, with a bronze medal for balance beam.10

On September 29, 2016, President Obama invited members of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Teams to the White House where he addressed them during an East Room ceremony:

“But the story of this year’s Team U.S.A. is all about firsts. Our Olympians came in first so many times more than anybody else. It wasn’t even close: 46 golds. Not to brag, but 46 golds. You made the U.S. the first country in 40 years to top the medal chart in every category. And it was a feat built on unprecedented accomplishment at a time. So, for example, only one American woman has ever won gold on the vault. Only one American has won four golds in gymnastics in a single Game. That would be this young lady, Simone Biles.”11

President Obama speaks to the 2016 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Teams on September 29, 2016.

The Obama White House

Following the ceremony, four members of “Final Five” had the unique opportunity to take over the White House’s Instagram account, posing with President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, and presidential dogs Sunny and Bo throughout the White House.12 One video posted on Instagram depicted Laurie Hernandez showing off her skills in the State Dining Room of the White House with a caption reading: “The White House East Wing is where many of the big events take place in the White house. @LaurieHernendez_ decided to take advantage of the dance floor in the State Dining Room. #FinalFive #TeamUSA.” In another image, Simone Biles posed with the president and first lady as she presented him with a surfboard to commemorate the 2016 Olympic Games.13

As young gymnasts are inspired by the achievements of Mary Lou Retton, The “Magnificent Seven,” the “Fierce Five,” and the “Final Five,” it is likely future successful United States women’s gymnastics teams will carry on the tradition of visiting the White House.

Screenshot from the Final Five's takeover of the Obama White House Instagram

The Obama White House Instagram

Following additional medal wins at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles returned to the White House again on July 7, 2022, to receive a different type of gold medal. President Joe Biden awarded Biles the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Biles received the award in recognition of her tremendous athletic talent as well as her work advocating for mental health and victims of sexual abuse.14 Before presenting her medal, President Biden acknowledged Simone’s achievements:

“When we see her compete, we see unmatched, unmatched power and determination, grace and daring. A trailblazer and a role model, when she stands on the podium, we see what she is—absolute courage to turn personal pain into greater purpose, to stand up and speak for those that cannot stand for herself. Today, she adds to her medal count of 32—how are you going to find room?—32 Olympic and world championship medals.”15

At twenty-five years old, Biles became the youngest recipient of this prestigious award. She told reporters: “Hearing that I was the youngest was a huge honor. It’s kind of scary because it is the best award you can receive in your whole life, so now it’s kind of scary, like, ‘Oh, what do I do now?’ But it’s a huge honor.”16