Oprah was one of 4 billion people who tuned in to cheer on her home team—Team USA™! Like many Americans, Oprah says she fell in love with the men and women who wore red, white and blue.
"They are sons, daughters, mothers and fathers—champions who made us stand up and cheer," she says. "As we witnessed what seems impossible, we began again to believe in miracles. It made us all just want to be better, fly higher, do more."
For the first time, Oprah is taking her show to Chicago's Millennium Park to give the athletes the homecoming they deserve. Thousands of fans—the largest audience in Oprah Show history—gather to celebrate more than 175 gold, silver and bronze medalists!
Michael Phelps, a 23-year-old from Baltimore, accomplished what many sports commentators said was an impossible feat. He swam in eight finals over nine days and shattered the world record in four of five individual swims.
During some meets, Michael blew competitors out of the water, but a few swims came down to the final second. He won his seventh gold medal by just a hundredth of a second—a fingernail's length! Michael says this race—the 100-meter butterfly—stands out from the rest. "I still have no clue how I got that," he says.
Since becoming the world's most celebrated athlete, Michael says he's been traveling nonstop overseas, but now, he's finally back on American soil. "There's nothing like being back, you know, when you've been away for so long," he says. "When you come back and you see what your country looks like—you miss it so much when you're away."
Michael says he also misses someone special who's waiting for him back home...his English bulldog, Herman. "I have a picture on my computer of him, but I haven't seen him in real life for a few months," he says. "I need to get back home and spend some time with him so he at least remembers me."
Now that he's back in the States, the real fun is about to begin! Michael is set to appear on Saturday Night Live and on the front of Corn Flakes® boxes in the coming weeks. "I don't think all of it has set in yet," he says. "It starts to more and more when you travel around, and you see the welcome and endless support of everybody in this country."
The shock and excitement they experienced may be fading memories, but Michael's mom says she may never fully recover. "I don't think I'll ever come down to earth, I'll tell you that much," Debbie says. "It was an exciting time. It was invigorating. To watch all these athletes do what they did for our country was just incredible."
Not long after Michael swam his way into history books, Debbie, a middle school principal in Maryland, stepped out of the spotlight and returned to her administrative duties. "It's business as usual at Windsor Mill Middle School," she says. "My teachers are teaching, and my children are learning at a very high level."
"One of the biggest things I want to do is grow the awareness of the sport of swimming and try to get more people involved and more people water safe," he says. "That's one of the things I'm going to start working on more and more with my free time, and that's something I'm looking forward to."
During the nail-biting final leg of their 4x100 medley race, Jason, the anchor and oldest man on America's swim team, overtook a French swimmer at the last second. Jason says it was an intense fight to the finish.
"I'd been a part of the two relays in the past two Olympics where we came up a little bit short, and I wanted to do everything that I could to bring that relay back to the U.S. and show how dominant we are as a nation," he says.
Before the relay, Jason says he gathered his teammates together to make sure they were all swimming toward the same goal. "In a few relays in the past, we felt like four individuals out there," he says. " I wanted to make sure that we all knew this was a team effort."
Cullen, the second African-American swimmer in history to win a gold medal, says the experience tested his nerves. "I looked over at Garrett, and this was our first Olympics, and I said, 'Nothing could compare to this,'" he says. "I was absolutely shaking. I'm looking at Jason and Michael, the veterans. ... They're just sitting there, cool and calm, and my legs are just buckling."
Garrett says just thinking about the relay makes his heart start pounding. "It was amazing," he says. "It was just a dream come true."
Every athlete loves to win, but Michael said there's nothing like finishing first at the Olympic Games. "It's one of the greatest feelings," he says. "I know a bunch of the athletes here can agree that there was nothing like standing on the medal podium and hearing the National Anthem play with a gold medal draped around your neck."
This high school junior took home the gold for her individual beam routine, a silver team medal, a silver in the individual all-around competition and a silver for her floor exercise routine. She twisted and flipped her way to the top, but at the beginning of her gymnastics career, some doubted her skills.
At age 3, Shawn's parents enrolled her in her first gymnastics class. She loved the sport, but her coach didn't see much potential. Then she met her second coach, Liang Chow, a former Chinese gymnast who saw a future superstar.
From day one, Shawn's parents supported her dream of becoming an Olympian. They even mortgaged their home three times to pay for training.
Years later, the family's sacrifices finally paid off!
Though she was thousands of miles away from home, Shawn says she could feel Americans supporting her from afar. "It's the supporters, the fans and the people cheering that really kept me going, and made me want to get back up there and do it as best as I could one more time," she says.
One fan who cheered Shawn on in Beijing was Sanya Richards, a friend, fellow Olympian, and track and field star. Since meeting in 2007, Shawn says Sanya has been a source of inspiration. "We just became really good friends, and she's just been like a huge role model for me," Shawn says. "I look up to her, and she's like a big sister."
Born in Russia, Nastia moved to the United States with her parents when she was just 2 years old. Since then, she's lived and trained in Parker, Texas.
After many close competitions, Nastia left Beijing with one gold, one bronze and three silver medals—tying the U.S. record held by Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller. She also became the third American in history to win the women's all-around competition!
"My mom had read it before, and she kept telling me, 'You should really read this book. It's a good book,' and I was just, like, 'Yeah, I'll get around to it,'" she says. Then when I watched your show I said, 'Okay, I guess I should really read it since Oprah read it.'"
Nastia says the lessons she learned from The Secret changed her way of thinking. "It inspired me so much, and so I made a vision board. I Googled the Olympic medals of Beijing—I'd never seen them before—and I printed a picture and put a big picture of a gold medal on it."
Almost 20 years later, they proudly represent their country as two of the best fencers in the world, but they also compete to honor the memory of their parents. Their father passed away from a heart attack shortly after the Athens Summer Olympic Games in 2004. In spring 2008, they lost their mother to colon cancer.
Such unbreakable family spirit helped them each bring home a silver medal from Beijing. "You make us proud, Smart family," Oprah says.
They didn't earn the nickname "Redeem Team" for nothing. "We really care about how our game is perceived and how we're perceived as athletes," Kobe says. "One of our main focuses is to go over there and win the gold but also show how we can play the brand of basketball that we feel can bring back the gold medal."
Together, the team realized all their Olympic dreams. "I think everybody got sick and tired of coming home with bronze medals and everybody talking about, you know, USA basketball cannot get back on top," Kobe says. "I think everybody here took it as a personal challenge to make that a top priority."
Kobe, especially, got a lot of attention from Asian fans. "It caught me off guard. The way they responded to me you'd have thought I was moon walking or something," he says. "It was fun, though. We had a blast."
Still, there was no better highlight than standing on the gold medal platform, Jason says. "It's goosebumps because it's something that we worked extremely hard [on] for three years," he says. "The final reward was the gold medal but to also hear the national anthem. It was just something we will never forget."
The "Redeem Team" wasn't the only basketball team to strike gold in Beijing. Lisa Leslie led the women's basketball team to their fourth consecutive gold medal!
Just 12 hours after the spectacular opening ceremonies concluded, tragedy struck head coach Hugh McCutcheon's family. His father-in-law, Todd Bachman, was stabbed to death while sightseeing; his mother-in-law, Barbara, was also critically injured. Coach McCutcheon left the court to care for his wife, Elisabeth, a former Olympian who witnessed the brutal attack.
Team captain Tom Hoff says they first learned about the tragic incident during a team meeting. "That tragedy was felt deepest by the Bachman family, but it also touched both the men's and women's teams at USA volleyball. It touched the whole USOC, the whole U.S. delegation," Tom says. "We did have [a] meeting and said to the guys, 'We don't know a lot, but we know one thing, [which] is that Hugh has put so much of his time and energy and passion in the last four years and he wants us to go out there and play the volleyball that he's trained us to do.' That's what we just focused on."
"Our thoughts and prayers are with Coach McCutcheon and his family," Oprah says.
Before hitting the court, Tom says the team always had Coach McCutcheon's family in their thoughts. "There was a lot of emotional and a lot of, you'd say, spiritual energy that you felt from the family," he says. "We just wanted to go out there and try to use that to propel us, and go out there and play for the gold medal."
While in Beijing, Dara battled a painful shoulder injury—and competitors 20 years her junior—but it didn't stop her winning spirit. She seized her Olympic moment and won a silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle, missing gold by just one one-hundredth of a second. "You can't even blink that fast," Dara says.
After the race, Dara says she wondered what she could have done better. "I called my coach who was watching in the hospital, and he said, 'You know, Dara, I watched your race five times. There's really nothing else you could have done,'" she says. "But I keep thinking, 'Yes, there had to have been something!'"
When it comes to eating, Dara says she could rival even Michael Phelps' impressive intake. "I think the only reason why I want to keep swimming is so I can keep eating like that," Dara says. "I had a nice 16-ounce steak last night and dessert and potatoes and everything."
Although countless media reports made reference to Dara being the oldest swimmer in Beijing, she says it didn't phase her. "It actually made me feel young," she says. "When I'm in the water, the water doesn't know your age. So who cares how old you are, right?"
Does Dara have another Olympics in her? "I kind of want to keep going a little bit," she says. "I don't know, we have world championships. We'll see...never say never."
Regardless of whether Dara decides to take on another four years of competitive swimming, her top priority is always balancing work and home life. "I think I found a good balance with being a mom and being able to do what I love to do," she says. "All these mothers out here are my role models."
Although they were locked in fierce competition, Misty says she and Kerri still had a blast. "That's why we're out there. You enjoy the sport," she says. "It's about being exciting. Seeing the faces on the fans after we win."
Even in the heat of competition, the dynamic duo says they always feel the spirit of their fans. "The energy totally helps. Especially when you're exhausted and you're hot, you feed off the energy," Kerri says.
Just because these Olympic Games are over doesn't mean Misty's ready to settle down. She's bringing her determination to a brand new arena—Dancing with the Stars! "I'm going to trade in my bikini for dancing shoes," Misty says.
Bryan, one of the smallest American athletes to compete, jumped, threw, and ran his way to glory, taking home his first-ever gold medal!
During the final stretch, Sanya barley edged out her Russian competitor to take home the gold. Sanya says she found inspiration by thinking about how hard she and her teammates worked to get to Beijing. "I told them before the race, put me in striking distance," she says. "I was going to definitely bring it home."
What gave Sanya that extra burst of last-minute energy? "When you run for yourself, it's difficult," she says. "When you have three other ladies before you and when you have the USA jersey on, you're running for something so much bigger," she says.
Monique agrees. "You just want to run your heart out and represent," she says.
Overall, the track and field team brought home 23 medals. "I'm so happy to be on the team that was so prepared and so confident [that] we brought home the gold," Allyson says.
Also on hand to honor these inspiring Olympians is 2008 American Idol winner David Cook. David's here to perform one of the signature songs of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, Time of My Life.