WASHINGTON — Being No. 1 certainly has its perks.
Thirty-four days after wrapping up its first national championship in heart-stopping fashion, the Michigan softball team enjoyed a short but memorable trip to the nation’s capital. Tuesday’s 20-hour whirlwind tour of D.C. featured a stop at the White House, a face-to-face meeting with President Bush and a reception on Capitol Hill featuring lawmakers who praised the Wolverines’ efforts.
“A couple days after we won, we joked about it — ‘Oh, we’re going to get to see the President,’ ” junior pitcher Jennie Ritter said. “And then, a couple days later, we found out that we actually are going to see the President. We were pretty excited.”
After a delayed flight from Detroit and a very brief night’s sleep, the team boarded a bus for the White House at 7:50 a.m. Along with 14 other national champion squads from across the nation, the Wolverines waited in line until they were permitted to enter the building. The team then received a brief tour of the East Wing before filing into the State Dining Room with the Northwestern women’s lacrosse team and the Minnesota women’s ice hockey team.
“We all just waited in anticipation,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said.
Bush arrived and worked his way around the room, greeting Northwestern and Minnesota before finally coming to the Michigan squad.
“The moment he walked in the room, we dropped our mouths,” Ritter said. “We were like ‘Whoa, there he is.’ ”
The Wolverines were the last team in the “Big Ten room,” but they weren’t shortchanged when it came to sharing face time with the president. While Bush briefly chatted with the other two Big Ten squads, he made sure to save a few extra minutes for the softball team.
“He talked to us for a good five minutes,” Ritter said. “Most of the other teams he went and took a picture and that was it. But he was really excited to talk to us.”
The team couldn’t help but be charmed by President Bush’s enthusiasm. He said he watched the Michigan’s games in the Women’s College World Series and stated that he’d “never want to hit” against Ritter. The President also discussed the responsibility of being a champion, the importance of role models and the role of Lincoln during the Civil War.
“I think he sounded like a genuinely good guy,” Ritter said. “A lot different than you see on TV I think. Very firm, very tough. He was very funny, and I think very enjoyable.”
The Wolverines gave the President a personalized jersey with Bush’s name and the number 99 emblazoned on the back, along with a C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital wristband. Following the conversation, the team rejoined their fellow national champions for a ceremony on the South Lawn.
With their White House experience complete, the Wolverines then grabbed lunch and headed to Capitol Hill for a reception in their honor. In the Rayburn House Office Building, the team gathered with Michigan alumni, students and various VIPs for an hour-long meet-and-greet in which Michigan lawmakers of all political stripes came together to praise the softball team’s efforts.
“I wanted to say how proud I am of how you conduct yourselves, how you represent us, how you represent young women,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said. “Not only in Michigan and Ann Arbor — but across the country.”
U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and U.S. Reps. John Dingell, Vernon Ehlers, Dale Kildee, Joe Schwarz and Fred Upton joined Stabenow in celebrating Michigan’s accomplishments. Levin and Stabenow’s enthusiasm even spilled over onto the Senate floor, where the Senate passed a resolution honoring the softball team.
“It is a rare thing in the U.S. Senate that we can agree on anything,” Levin said. “This resolution actually passed, in a bipartisan unanimous vote. So we want to thank the softball team at the University of Michigan not just for your accomplishments, but for bringing together the United States Senate.”
In addition to having their egos boosted by the Senate resolution and the lineup of speeches in their honor, some Wolverines found the ceremony beneficial in more practical ways.
“It was pretty great for connections,” sophomore pitcher Lorilyn Wilson said. “I’ve met some people I’ve needed to, because I want to do an internship here. I’m going to milk it for all its worth.”
After the reception, the Wolverines toured the Capitol and then spent a few hours sightseeing before an evening flight whisked them back to Ann Arbor.
The trip to Washington was a day of firsts for the Wolverines. Some Michigan players, like Women’s College World Series MVP Samantha Findlay, had never even seen the nation’s capital before. In addition, the team became the first female Michigan team to visit the White House, and they were the first Michigan squad of either gender to do so since the football team met with former President Clinton in 1998.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Hutchins said.