- Associated Press - Sunday, August 21, 2016

PLEASANTVILLE, N.J. (AP) - 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, Pleasantville Mayor Jesse Tweedle told The Press of Atlantic City (https://bit.ly/2bs7whz ). 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.

Ojserkis, 27, is lauded as an example of someone who loved a sport and persisted in it, even when he wasn’t the biggest high school star.

He wasn’t on Mainland’s first crew boat as a senior, said athletic director Mike Gatley. He was on the second.

“The greatest thing for me is the subliminal message it sends. Look at (Sam’s) journey to the Olympics. It was never about him being the best guy in high school,” said Gatley. “His story is one about: Never quit, never look at your position as a finality, rather as a journey to get where you want to go.”

As the coxswain, the 5-foot-8, 121-pounder sits in the stern facing his eight teammates and steers and directs the boat.

Ojserkis graduated Mainland in 2008 and went on to row at the University of Washington, where he was a part of two national championship teams.

The high school sent Ojserkis a package of Mainland T-shirts and football shirts to wear in Rio, Gatley said.

He said the community will be welcoming Ojserkis home after his team’s fourth-place showing, just out of the medals, but plans are not final yet.

There will undoubtedly be more tributes to triathlete Joe Maloy, 30, a 2004 Wildwood Catholic High School graduate, who was the top American finisher in the triathlon.

The former swimmer and runner at Wildwood Catholic and swimmer at Boston College placed 23rd overall among 55 competitors at Copacabana Beach, with a time of 1 hour, 48 minutes, 30 seconds.

His community has rallied behind Maloy, along with his dad, Joe Jr., and mom, Mary.

“Just to have a hometown boy (competing) was just awesome,” said Lisa Fitzpatrick, owner of Fitzpatrick’s in Wildwood Crest. “To see someone put their mind to something and finish strong was wonderful.”

The restaurant hosted a viewing party for Maloy’s event Thursday on three of its big TVs and has a shirt hanging next to the front door that is signed by Maloy.

People came in all day wearing Maloy T-shirts, she said.

In May, the community surprised him with a ceremony at a beachfront pavilion. Hundreds of fans packed the lawn around the stage.

“This is not just my journey. It’s about us, it’s about my friends and family and coaches and everyone,” Maloy said at that celebration. “You are all part of me, and I’ll be taking you with me. And on Aug. 18, we’re going to show the whole world what Wildwood Crest is all about.”

His parents were on the beach with him in Rio, as was younger brother John and friends from college and the Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol, where he was a lifeguard for six summers.

“I’m even becoming a celebrity,” his father said a few weeks ago. “People (are) introducing me as the father of an Olympian. Even Avalon is claiming him as one of theirs because I play tennis there a lot. It’s been overwhelming.”

Freestyle wrestler Frank Molinaro, 27, competes Sunday- the final day of the Rio Olympics.

He grew up in Barnegat Township and graduated from Southern Regional High School in 2007, where he won three state titles and joined Absegami alumnus Labe Black as the only Press-area wrestler to accomplish the feat.

Molinaro excelled in college at Penn State, where he won an NCAA title for the Nittany Lions in 2012. He is now a Penn State assistant coach, and his wife Kera, a former competitive gymnast, has a coaching position with the gymnastics team.

But a year ago, a series of disappointing performances in tournaments had left him near the bottom of the rankings in his weight class. He has said he needed to change his life.

Molinaro became a devout Christian, then worked his way back up in his sport.

Although he won the U.S. Olympic Trials in April, he still had to compete in a series of qualifying tournaments to earn a spot at the Olympics.

Molinaro originally fell short in tournaments in Mongolia and Turkey, but was awarded a berth when a Russian wrestler was disqualified for violating the policy against performance-enhancing drugs. That wrestler was eventually reinstated, but Molinaro was still allowed to compete.

John Germano, athletic director at Barnegat High School, said Molinaro’s success serves as a lesson for children. Molinaro’s celebrity status, as well, gives a boost to his hometown.

“It shows that no matter where you are from, if you work hard and have the talent, you can go anywhere,” Germano said. “It’s a great lesson. Everyone is taking great pride in it.”

Whatever happens, Molinaro is bound to be on cloud nine.

Kera gave birth to the couple’s second son after Molinaro had arrived in Brazil, and he will be returning to his newly expanded family after the games are over.


Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), https://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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