The Rio Olympics and Paralympics captivated viewers and provided memorable experiences for athletes from all over the world. Along the way, they made friendships that will last a lifetime.
When the Games ended, Team USA competitors scattered to their homes across the country. But on September 28, those Olympic friends were reunited at the Team USA Awards, hosted by U.S. Olympic Committee. The event, entitled Best of the Games, aired Wednesday night and featured a ceremony to bestow awards on athletes, coaches, and teams for their performances at the Rio Olympics and Paralympics.
The ceremony took place at Georgetown University. Before the show, there was a red carpet where the nominees, other athletes, hosts, and special presenters took selfies with the crowd, had their pictures taken, and did interviews with the media.
The hosts of the evening were Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, and Matt Iseman, hosts of the popular NBC television show American Ninja Warrior. Special presenters included Jesse Owens’ granddaughter, Carl Lewis, Muhammad Ali’s widow, DJ Jack Thomas, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
There were a total of six awards given out, three for the Paralympics and three for the Olympics: best female athlete, best male athlete, and best team. Athletes were nominated by the U.S. Olympic Committee and voted on by fans, journalists, and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic family.
Swimmer Katie Ledecky, who took home four gold medals and one silver, won best female athlete, edging out Simone Biles (gymnastics), Hellen Morales (wrestling), Gwen Jorgensen (triathlon), and Claressa Shields (boxing). Secretary Kerry announced Ledecky, who took home the most gold medals in 2016 of any female athlete, as the winner. She also set new world records in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle races.
“Seeing my teammates succeed when they did thing they didn't know that they were capable of — I was inspired every day by them, and that was what pushed me to do my very best,” said Ledecky.
Brad Snyder was voted best male athlete of the Paralympic games. He lost his eyesight while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan, and he is an incredible swimmer. He won gold in the 50-, 100-, and 400-meter freestyle and silver in 100-meter backstroke in Rio. He also broke a 30-year-old world record in the 100-meter freestyle.
Tatyana McFadden, who won three gold medals in wheelchair track and field, was named top female athlete of the Paralympics. McFadden was born with a condition that paralyzed her from the waist down. She won medals in 100-, 800- and 1,500-meter races. In 2013, she became the first person ever to win four major marathons in one year. McFadden has won 13 medals in her Paralympic career, and since she’s only 26, Rio likely wasn’t her last Games.
Women’s sitting volleyball was named the top team of the Paralympics. This group of U.S. women was the first to win a gold medal in the sport. These athletes didn’t just win, they dominated, outscoring their opponents 407–225, and they won their sets by an average of more than 11 points. Given their performance this year, maybe golds in sitting volleyball will become a tradition for Team USA.
Michael Phelps is probably the best Olympian ever. He has 23 gold medals and holds seven world records. So it was no surprise when he won the award for top male Olympic athlete. He beat out some other big names like Carmelo Anthony (basketball), Matt Centrowitz (track and field), Connor Fields (BMX), and Kyle Snyder (wrestling). Melo and the other competitors gave Phelps a run for his money, but he did come out on top.
The best team of the Olympics had an obvious winner: the women’s gymnastics team, which took the award over the women’s rowing eight boat, women’s track and field, women’s water polo, and women’s gymnastics. The women really ran away with the team sports this year. In Rio, the gymnastics squad finished with 184.897 points, more than eight points above the second-place team.
“[That was] the most special moment of the Olympics for me,” said Biles, “because we were all looking forward to that competition the most, and that's what we prepared for the most.”
For teammate Laurie Hernandez, it was “standing on the podium getting that gold medal and watching our flag go up and just listening to the national anthem after we won.”
There were a few other awards, including Coach of the Games, the Building Dreams Award, and the Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit Award. Coach of the Games was given to Adam Krikorian, the Olympic women’s water polo’s coach. Krikorian guided the U.S. to a gold medal just days after his brother died.
The Building Dreams Award was presented to the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NAC), a swim club in Baltimore that has fostered many of the great Olympic and Paralympic swimmers. NAC had five members on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swim Team, including Phelps.
The Jesse Owens Olympic Spirit award, presented by his granddaughter Marlene Dortch, was given to Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer who died earlier this year. Lonnie Ali, his widow, accepted the award. Muhammad Ali was one of the greatest athletes of all time, and he was a strong supporter of many charities.
The Olympics may be over, but America will remember these performances for years to come.
Photographs by (from top): Al Bello/Getty Images; David Ramos/Getty Images; Matthew Stockman/Getty Images