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

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.

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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.

Just 10 days earlier, Conger, a University of Texas champion, and Bentz had stepped into the spotlight after a stunning Olympics debut, winning gold in the 4x200m relay alongside veteran swimmers Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps.

Bentz bragged on Twitter that he and his fellow “Bulldogs”, from the University of Georgia, had won more medals in Rio than many nations.

By the time they were taking off on Thursday night, the U.S. Olympic Committee had released a statement to the Games host nation apologizing for the swimmers’ behavior. Both the USOC and USA Swimming said they were considering actions against the athletes, who are both college amateurs.

Lee W. McNutt, a 61-year-old Silicon Valley salesman, had traveled to Rio from Menlo Park, California, to see the Games. He said he spoke to Conger and Bentz on the flight back home.

“I just said, ‘Don’t let this get you down. I don’t think real sports fans are going to worry about this. You’re young and this will pass. I told them to take tonight off. Tomorrow start training for Tokyo,” he said.

“I’ve got boys that age. They’re college guys and they’ve just been on a big high winning those Olympic medals and now they’re down in the valley over whatever this incident might have been.”

Writing by Leela de Kretser; Editing by Mark Bendeich