Bush Thanks Olympians, Paralympians

.c The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush thanked the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams Tuesday for putting on display ``the best of the American spirit'' during the 2002 Winter Games.

Bush greeted dozens of athletes, all wearing team jackets, at a sun-washed ceremony on the South Lawn. The athletes lined two staircases leading to a White House balcony for an official photo, and some took snapshots of their own during the picture-taking session.

``I've really been looking forward to this day,'' Bush said. ``You competed with honor, you won with humility, and you made America proud. On behalf of all Americans, I congratulate you and thank you for inspiring our country.''

Manuel Guerra Jr., of Minneapolis, goalie of the Paralympics gold medal U.S. sledge hockey team, rose from his wheelchair on stage and stood briefly to present Bush with a navy blue leather team jacket. Bush immediately slipped it on and wore it for the group photo.

This year's Winter Games were particularly inspiring, Bush said, because the nation was still in dismay over the Sept. 11 attacks. ``It was an important time for America, and you didn't let us down,'' Bush said.

Afterward, many of the athletes roamed the White House grounds gleefully and jokingly questioned each other before a throng of reporters.

``I went from, I guess, a nobody to overnight success,'' said Vonetta Flowers, of Birmingham, Ala., gold medalist in the women's bobsled. ``I'm just happy to be here. Every experience I get is new, and I never thought I would be standing at the White House with a bunch of cameras in my face.''

Derek Parra, of Los Angeles, who won gold in speedskating, said Bush invited him to serve on the president's Council on Physical Fitness. ``He just kind of told me, would I be able to do it, and I said sure, it's an honor,'' Parra said.

``Before the Olympics, I was just this Mexican-American kid going around in circles on an oversized ice cube,'' Parra said. ``Now, ... I'm at the White House, I'm meeting the president, he knows my name. It's just amazing.''