VENTURA — Wearing her gold medal and a 24-karat smile, Olympian Kim Maher was given a heroine's welcome at City Hall on Monday evening as more than 100 young softball players turned out to greet their hometown champ.
The City Council presented her with a proclamation.
Her former coaches bragged about her days as a Buena High School slugger.
And girls in cleats and softball jerseys lined up to take pictures with the 25-year-old softball star who helped the U.S. women's team win gold in a 3-1 victory over China during the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta last week.
For Maher, one of four Ventura residents who competed in the games, the celebration was overwhelming and moving.
"I came down and expected to see maybe 15 or 20 people," she said. "It was just really heartfelt. I am surprised I didn't cry."
It was also a proud moment for the Ventura community, and a chance to meet an Olympic champion who started out no different than many of the softball players who turned out to meet her.
"Girls are going to work harder now because we know she can do it," said Kathleen Solomon, 13, who waited anxiously with her teammates at City Hall to meet Maher.
A softball player for eight years, Kathleen said she has her own dreams of gold. "I want to be in the Olympics in 2004--first base," she said with a smile.
During a welcome-home ceremony before the City Council meeting, Maher's former high school coach, Sharon Coggins, recalled Maher's days as a team star. And regional softball league director Linda Henry praised Maher's contribution to women's athletics.
One of Maher's first coaches stood quietly in the back of the City Council chambers as they gave his former player a proclamation touting her accomplishments.
"I wouldn't have missed this for anything," said Marv Watson of Santa Barbara, who coached Maher more than a decade ago in a Ventura league. "She was, from the very first, a special person and a great athlete."
Maher is the first Venturan to return home with a gold medal in 32 years. Mike Larrabee captured a track and field gold in the 400 meters in Tokyo in 1964.
Three other Ventura athletes traveled to Atlanta this summer. Joe Harper reached the semifinals in canoeing. Sharon Hanson placed ninth in the heptathlon. And Ben Maruquin placed 12th in field hockey.
City officials said they intend to recognize the other athletes as well, but on Monday it was Maher who captured their spotlight.
"Kim is a product of local sports programs," Mayor Jack Tingstrom said during a televised ceremony that included her parents and her brother. "Kim serves as a role model for hundreds of local softball players."
Tingstrom was so taken with the young athlete and her gold medal that Maher snatched it back from the mayor's hands at one point. The other six members of the City Council postponed whatever city business was planned for the evening by having their pictures taken next to her.
The softball slugger returned the praise, giving the council an autographed softball that read: "To the city of Ventura, thanks for your support. Kim Maher, No. 30, USA Softball."