Exclusive - Aboard AA990: A curtain comes down on U.S. swimmers' gold medal glory

Fri Aug 19, 2016 1:44pm EDT
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By Cassandra Garrison

ABOARD FLIGHT AA990 (Reuters) - Standing on a podium in Rio last week with gold medals draped around their necks, swimmers Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz were the pride of America as they sang along to the "Star Spangled Banner."

On Friday, both swimmers arrived back on American soil aboard Flight AA990 to Miami, a curtain draped around them with a "Do not disturb" label on it, an attempt by airline staff to shield them from a controversy that has embarrassed Team USA and engulfed the Rio Games.

"I can't, I'm sorry, I can't," Conger, 21, told a Reuters reporter on the flight when asked what it felt like to be arriving home after Brazilian police had accused them of lying about being robbed at gunpoint.

Hours earlier, he and Bentz, 20, were jeered and booed by Brazilians as they left a Rio police station having revised their statements to authorities. On Wednesday night, they had been pulled off a plane as they tried to leave the country.

Passports back in their hands, they were among the last passengers to board AA990 on Thursday night, both wearing hoodies, as they settled into the third row from the back in economy, with a female passenger between them.

The swimmers spent some of the nine-hour trip poring over newspapers that were plastered with headlines about their Rio escapade. Flight attendants were determined to keep reporters away, forming a barrier when Reuters attempted to speak to them.

After trays of cheese ravioli and beef stew were served at midnight, it was lights out in the cabin. By the time the lights were turned on again in the morning, the two swimmers had been whisked up to business class and hidden behind the curtain.

Airline staff slipped trays of cheese omelets, croissants and fruit through a small gap in the curtain, trying to hide the young men from public glare. When they arrived in Miami, customs agents helped shield them from a reporter as they made their way to a connecting flight.   Continued...

The curtain of the crew section of a passenger plane covers U.S. Swimmers Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz during their overnight flight from Brazil to Miami, August 19, 2016. REUTERS/Cassandra Garrison via Reuters TV