This Friday, Chas Betts will attend one of the most exclusive parties in the world when he marches in the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics. Still, the wrestler from Albertville figures it will be pretty hard to top the bash his hometown threw for him Saturday.
About 225 people showed up at Neighbors Eatery and Saloon on Main Avenue to wish Betts well before he heads across the pond, where he will compete Aug. 6 in the 84-kilogram weight class in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Olympic Games. His mother, Pam, had the Olympic rings painted on her toenails as she hugged friends and relatives in the jam-packed bar. His wife, Kristi, sported gold eye shadow, and his grandma Nona handed out dozens of red, white and blue beaded bracelets she had made.
The T-shirts Betts designed himself -- the ones with a silhouette of two Greco-Roman wrestlers on London's Tower Bridge -- were so popular that some buyers immediately changed into them, right there on the bar's patio. "The support is awesome," said Betts, who does most of his training in Colorado Springs. "To come home and have all these people show up, it's completely humbling."
Betts, 26, is among 14 athletes with Minnesota ties who have been feeling the love of their home state as they prepare to compete in the London Summer Games. BMX cyclist Alise Post of St. Cloud greeted hometown fans with a surprise visit earlier this month. Triple jumper Amanda Smock returned to Melrose to ride a float in the July 7 Riverfest parade and sign autographs. Several parties are being planned in Eden Prairie and Minnetonka to watch swimmer Rachel Bootsma race in the 100-meter backstroke.
For the first time in history, the U.S. Olympic team has more women (269) than men (261). Minnesota's Olympic contingent reflects those numbers, with women outnumbering men 12-2. The group of 14 boasts athletes in old-school Olympic sports (fencer Susie Scanlan) and emerging ones (women's wrestler Ali Bernard). Some toil in anonymity, save for Olympic years (rower Megan Kalmoe), while some are pro-sports superstars (Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore and Seimone Augustus of the Lynx and the Timberwolves' Kevin Love).
Most of them are making their first Olympic appearances, joining more than 10,000 athletes from 205 countries who will compete in 300 events. All of them will be celebrities for the next two weeks, particularly in the towns, schools and arenas that have been part of their path to London.
"The community has been so supportive," said Betts' sister Melissa Roelike, who helped organize the sendoff party. "People can identify with Chas. They've watched him and [his brother] Parker wrestle for years, and they know how hard he worked to make it to the Olympics.
"I work at the nursing home in Elk River, and even the people there are excited about it. They all feel like they know Chas. It's something that draws people together."
People lined up on a sultry Saturday to see Betts, still known for winning individual and team titles at the state wrestling tournament during his days at St. Michael-Albertville High School. Roelike, who wore a sparkly red headband to complement her Chas Betts T-shirt, did a steady business selling raffle tickets.
Local merchants donated gift cards and other items to raise money for the Betts family's travel expenses. A silent auction featured a handmade quilt and a bat autographed by Twins star Justin Morneau. Betts greeted a steady stream of guests -- including Jordan Holm of Northfield, whom Betts defeated in the 84-kilogram championship at the Olympic trials -- and signed autographs with a gold pen.
Two weeks earlier, Smock had experienced a similar outpouring at her hometown's summer celebration. On June 25, she won the triple jump at the Olympic trials for track and field in Eugene, Ore., and an acquaintance wanted to sponsor a parade float to celebrate her accomplishment.
"It was so cool to spend the day with the people of Melrose," said Smock, 29, who lives and trains in Minneapolis. "I got to ride the float and do my queen's wave, and there was a meet-and-greet session where I got to take pictures with people and sign autographs. To hear their words for me, to hear them say they were proud of me, it was just awesome.''
Betts was thrilled to see so many people from Minnesota's wrestling community turn out for his party. He will maintain the state's streak of sending at least one Greco-Roman wrestler to every Olympics since 1968.
He and his family were even more touched to see so many others -- neighbors, childhood friends and supportive townspeople -- come to the bar on flag-lined Main Avenue, just to shake the hand of a local Olympian and wish him luck.
"Everyone we talk to is so proud to say they know Chas or that they wrestled Chas," Kristi Betts said. "But we had no idea this many people would turn out. It's really special."