Local Olympians’ hometowns of Pleasantville, Linwood, Wildwood Crest and Barnegat Township are starting to plan celebrations for their athletes, with Pleasantville hoping to hold a parade for silver medalist track star Nia Ali.
“My phone blew up” after Ali came in second and her teammates Brianna Rollins and Kristi Castlin took gold and bronze, respectively, on Thursday, said Pleasantville Mayor Jesse Tweedle. That’s when the parade idea started to form.
But much will depend on when Ali can visit, since she now lives and trains in Los Angeles, Tweedle said.
One thing is certain: The athletes will give a local shot in the arm to their sports — track and field, rowing, triathlon and wrestling — said former Mainland Regional High School crew coach David Funk, who coached Olympic coxswain Sam Ojserkis during the Linwood native’s high school years.
“Any time you have a local athlete during the Olympic cycle make the team and representing us, I think it always is going to be a great recruiting tool,” said Funk. “It’s definitely going to spark an interest.”
But the life stories of the four — filled with struggle, persistence and hard work to overcome adversity — are what many say they will remember long after the Olympic hoopla has ended.
None of the four had an easy or smooth road to the Olympics, and all persevered through discouraging results earlier in their lives, finding Olympic success at ages 27 to 30.
Ali, a 2006 Pleasantville High School graduate, won a silver medal in the 100-meter hurdles this week, part of the first-ever Olympic sweep of that event by a country.
She had been somewhat overshadowed by other runners at West Catholic High School in Philadelphia, and that was part of the reason she moved to Pleasantville for her senior year, said Pleasantville High School track coach Alan Laws.
Laws is a close a friend of Ali’s family, and Ali had spent most of her summers training with him.
“She had lots of big runners at the same school,” said Laws. “She had been running track since she was a little girl and wanted her own identity.”
In Pleasantville, she started focusing on hurdles and won the 100 hurdles championship at the 2006 New Jersey outdoor track and field Meet of Champions. She still holds the Cape-Atlantic League 100 hurdles record with a time of 13.65 seconds.
But after high school, tragedy struck.
In 2009, Ali’s father died in a murder-suicide in Philadelphia, she told The Associated Press, after bronze medalist Castlin spoke out against gun violence.
Aleem Ali, a supervisor in the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, walked up to a car and shot his ex-girlfriend to death, then killed himself. Nia found out what happened over the phone from her uncle, the AP reported, then took some time off from track to focus on family, school and friends.
First lady Michelle Obama tweeted congratulations to Ali, 27, on Thursday. Ali tweeted back, “Thanks so much, can’t wait to meet you!”
“She represents what we are trying to do with our youth. The most significant thing, she is an inspiration,” Tweedle said. “(Young people) look at her and say, ‘I can do this.’
“When you have someone right from your hometown, it’s real, it becomes real. Now, they can say this is something that is achievable.”
The Pleasantville Public Schools website has a photo and message congratulating Ali, and the city has run its own congratulations on its electronic billboard at City Hall. Tweedle said the city is also planning other ways to celebrate, such as downtown banners and the aforementioned parade, if Ali can be there.