It’s traditionally been a celebration, and it’s a little bit different decision these days, but I think the distinction between going there to honor (Trump’s) achievements versus going there for the team to be honored, to me that was an important distinction in my decision to attend that event. —head nordic coach Abi Holt
SALT LAKE CITY —For many years before this one, visiting the White House has been seen as one of the most special parts of the title celebration for professional and collegiate teams that win championships.
Since Donald Trump became president of the United States in January, however, the choice of whether to go has been more widely debated, with some squads opting not to go.
As winners of the 2017 NCAA skiing championship in March, the Utah Utes were faced with that decision when they received the invitation on Nov. 7 to go to Washington, D.C.
On Friday, 10 members of the 2017 team took the trip (of the two who didn't, one won't be on the team in 2018, while another is at a competition in Colorado this weekend), with a photo having gone viral of them “flashing the U" with the president and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Director of skiing Kevin Sweeney did not go.
“Everyone was given the choice,” said head nordic coach Abi Holt of the team’s decision to go. “It is a charged climate these days, so we didn’t make the trip mandatory, and we didn’t sit it out. We just let everyone choose for themselves.”
Holt said the decision of whether to go provided the team an opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion.
“It’s traditionally been a celebration, and it’s a little bit different decision these days, but I think the distinction between going there to honor (Trump’s) achievements versus going there for the team to be honored, to me that was an important distinction in my decision to attend that event,” she said.
Sophomore Martin Bergstrom, who won two individual NCAA championships, echoed those sentiments.
“There’s obviously always discussions about Trump,” he said. “For sure, there were discussions, but this trip was not about supporting or not supporting. It was being part of the NCAA champions day with all the other teams that showed up, and being honored for the success and the athletic performance we had last year. Nothing more than that.”
Having arrived at its hotel in Washington, D.C., just before 2 a.m. on Friday, the team then got to the White House at about 10 a.m. Attendees went through multiple security checkpoints but then had a good deal of freedom to explore the East Wing, albeit with a bevy of Marines and Secret Service personnel close by.
Toward the end of their two-and-a-half hour stay, the Utes got to walk through the Rose Garden and spend time in the Oval Office.
“In a country with term limits, Trump will be gone in eight years, if not sooner, but the history of the Oval Office is pretty overwhelming, and even more so to be standing there,” Holt said. “We were there for two-and-a-half hours in the White House, and just the experience and the opportunity to be there, it was a special opportunity.”
Added Bergstrom, who hails from Sweden: “Walking in the White House, seeing the Oval Office and being in the Oval Office, because there is so much history in Washington as a whole, was kind of mind-blowing to me For me, coming from Sweden, that was really, really interesting.”
Ultimately, the team’s time with the president and DeVos was about 90 seconds, Holt said, during which one of her team members suggested they all “flash the U" for a photo.
“I think for us it’s so automatic,” she said. “It’s rare if we pose for a team photo that we don’t flash the U. It’s almost second nature for this group, but I don’t know if I would have expected them to go along with it. Then, all the sudden, there we were.”
The Utes will begin defense of their title in January.