Heavy Medalists

N.J.’s Olympic and Paralympic stars are winners in every way.

Last summer, more than 850 American athletes participated in the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games. More than 60 hailed from New Jersey. Of those, 10 came home with medals, proving themselves among the state’s athletic finest. We caught up with eight of the ten—all six individual medalists and the captain and scoring star of the gold medal-winning women’s soccer team.

Stuffing their discs of precious metal in drawers or losing track of where they put them, the athletes enjoyed their perks but never took their eye off the ball or the finish line. All have returned with relish to train, compete, and prepare for the next golden opportunity. As Paralympic sprint champion April Holmes explains, “Not that many people can say they’ve got an Olympic medal.”

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Rebecca Soni
Sport: Swimming
Age: 22
Hometown: Plainsboro
Medals: Gold, 200-meter breaststroke; Silver, 100-meter breaststroke and 4x 100 medley relay.
Garden State Start: Soni was a child gymnast. “But my sister started swimming, so I quit gymnastics so we could be in the same place.”
Olympic Memory: On the pool deck before the 200, with a surprising silver already in hand, “I thought I was going to be shaking in the blocks, but I just kind of relaxed. It was the coolest feeling. I never felt that way before. I knew I was going to go fast.”
Where Her Medals Are: “In a dresser drawer.”
After the Games: Soni returned to the University of Southern California, where she is finishing her last season of intercollegiate swimming and her last semester for a communications degree. “For a while, I was kind of getting into this rut—I’ve got a whole year of school and I’m not motivated to swim. When I’m having a rough week, I say to myself, ‘Did that [Beijing] really happen? Was that really me? Am I really a world record holder?”
Post-Olympic Perk: Though her family didn’t travel to Beijing, Soni’s mom took the week off from work. Too nervous to watch the events, she made a quilt instead. “She gave it to me afterward and said, ‘It’s your Olympic quilt.’ But it has nothing to do with swimming or the Olympics. It’s got all these funky ducks on it.”
What She Misses About Jersey: “It’s a little weird, but I miss the winter and the change of seasons.” Also, hanging out with her friends on Bradley Beach: “I would go three or four times a week.”
What’s Next: 2009 World Swimming Championships in Rome.

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Cullen Jones
Age: 25
Hometown: Irvington
Sport: Swimming
Medal: Gold, 4x 100 meter relay
Garden State Start: After Jones almost drowned in a water slide at Dorney Park at age 5, his mother took him for swimming lessons. “I had a friend swimming on a team in Newark, and I went to watch a meet, and I said, ‘I know I can swim faster than that.’”
Olympic Memory: Being cheered on by NBA stars like Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwayne Wade.
Where His Medals Are: “In a closet.” Jones has taken it to Mexico, California, Las Vegas, but the best reaction came from a girl in a Newark school: “She just broke down crying, because she knew how much effort it took.”
After the Games: Jones is working with a new coach in Charlotte, North Carolina, hoping to earn a spot in the individual 50- and 100-meter events. He also tours the country in support of the Cullen Jones Diversity Tour, which aims to increase diversity in both recreational and competitive swimming, as well as water safety. 
Post-Olympic Perk: Judging the Miss America Contest. “It’s a lot harder than people think. We had to come up with our own questions. These girls have been practicing for their whole entire lives, so the last thing you want to do is make it like a joke.”
What’s Next: 2009 World Swimming Championships;  2012 Olympics.

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Christie Rampone
Sport: Soccer, captain of U.S. Women’s Team
Age: 33
Hometown: Point Pleasant
Medal: Gold
Garden State Start: Playing recreational soccer since the age of 5. (“I was always looking forward to the orange slices at halftime.”) Rampone later starred at Monmouth College, where she was on a basketball scholarship, and became the first small-college player to make an impact on the U.S. Women’s National Team.
Olympic Memory: After security guards confiscated the coffee and snacks she brought into the Olympic Village, she persisted until they finally acquiesced. (“It’s funny to spend that much time fighting over food.”) Through similar determination, she was able to get her husband, Chris, and her 3-year-old daughter, Rylie, into the village on the day of the gold-medal game. “I was at peace the whole day, just walking around showing them the cafeteria.”
Where Her Medals Are: “In a bag in my pantry. I keep moving them around so no one can find them”—especially her Labrador retriever, Tiger.
Post-Olympic Perk: At last year’s Point Pleasant Halloween Parade, the town named a field in her honor. “There were a big bunch of little girls dressed as soccer players.” She also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and played with the National Team in Europe.
What She Misses About Jersey: Pat’s Pizza in Point Pleasant. Skee Ball on the boardwalk.
What’s Next: Playing in the fledgling Women’s Professional Soccer league this spring and training for the 2011 Women’s World Cup. “I enjoy the game of soccer more now. I love my time on the field and I love my time with Rylie. And as captain, she helps me connect with the younger players.”

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Carli Lloyd
Sport: Women’s Soccer
Age: 26
Hometown: Delran
Medal: Gold
Garden State Start: After a standout career in travel soccer, Lloyd surprised college recruiters by enrolling at Rutgers. “It was an up-and-coming program, and my goal was to put it on the map a little.”
Olympic Memory: Scoring the winning goal against Brazil in the gold-medal game. “When you kick a soccer ball really well, you barely feel it leaving your foot. I knew I got a hold of this one, but I just waited until it hit the back of the net.”
Where Her Medal Is: In a safe deposit box. “It’s just amazing to think I have an Olympic gold medal. I think my family and friends were more into it than I was. But every now and then I take a peek at it.”
Post-Olympic Perk: “I got to meet David Beckham and Vince Vaughn.”
What She Misses About Jersey: The beach at Wildwood Crest. “Growing up, my aunt had a place there. It has a great boardwalk and that great wooden rollercoaster.”
What’s Next: Playing in this spring’s Women’s Professional Soccer league; training for the 2011 Women’s World Cup; the 2012 Olympics. “I want to keep going and get a couple more medals.”

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Jessica Galli
Sport: Paralympic Track and Field Wheelchair Racing
Age: 25
Hometown: Hillsborough
Medals: Gold,  400 meters; silver, 100 meters, 200 meters, 800 meters; bronze, 4 x 100 meter relay
Garden State Start: Paralyzed in a car accident at age 7, Galli took up wheelchair sports during her rehabilitation. “I resisted it at first, but once I tried it I loved it.”    
Olympic Memory: Holding off a Chinese athlete in front of 90,000 partisan fans to win her first gold, in the 400. “I’d never crossed the line first before, so I didn’t know what to do, so I put my arms up and screamed.”
Where Her Medals Are: In a box in her apartment. “I have to take them out and show them a lot. My mom bought me a shadow box for my first medal, but that’s not going to be big enough now. I don’t think you should be embarrassed about showing them off.”
After the Games: Galli returned to the University of Illinios to finish classwork for her masters in community health. “I have no idea what I’m going to do when I graduate.”
Post-Olympic Perk: The university named her grand marshall of the 2008 Homecoming parade. “It was funny riding around in a Corvette.”
What She Misses About Jersey: “Sometimes I say something a little too loud or aggressively, and people look at me, and I wish I were back in New Jersey.” Also, Angelo’s Pizza in Hillsborough.
What’s Next: 2012 Paralympics. “I can’t quit now. My family wants a vacation in London.”

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April Holmes
Sport: Paralympic sprints
Age: 25
Hometown: Somerdale
Medal: Gold, 100 meters
Garden State Start: Holmes was an able-bodied track star at Camden High and an All-American at Norfolk State. After her left leg was amputated following a train accident in Philadephia, she began competing in Paralympic meets.
Olympic Memory: While Holmes tumbled in the 200 meters in Beijing—and almost lost an eye when she was spiked by a French runner—she earned the title of the world’s fastest amputee in the 100 meters. “I went there to do a job,” says Holmes. “It wasn’t my best race but at the end of the day I still won and that’s all that matters.”
Where Her Medal Is: “I really don’t know. I keep losing it. I keep putting it away someplace safe and forgetting where.”
After the Games: She has done “five gazillion things” on behalf of her April Holmes Foundation. “When you return to the U.S. with a gold medal, all of a sudden you have a whole lot of things to do,” she says.
Post-Olympic Perk: The Articulate Propulsion Technology used in Holmes’ Cheetah prosthetic foot has made its way into the latest generation of Nike Air Jordan basketball shoes. Holmes is the only female, and only track athlete, on Team Jordan, and won the brand’s athlete of the year award in 2008.
What She Misses About New Jersey: “The water ice. Mango.”
What’s Next: 2011 International Paralympic Committee World Championships; 2012 Paralympics.

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Matthew Emmons
Sport: Shooting
Age: 27
Hometown: Browns Mills
Medal: Silver, prone rifle
Garden State Start: A baseball player in his youth, Emmons took up competitive shooting after a friend told his family about the relative ease of securing a college scholarship in that sport. He ended up competing for the University of Alaska.
Olympic Memory: After winning his silver, Emmons narrowly missed gold in the three-position event. His commanding lead vanished when he fired accidentally as he was aiming on his very last shot. “My trigger is only about 100 grams, and my trigger finger must have been twitching a little bit. As soon as I touched the trigger, boom! The gun went off. That was that.”
Where His Medals Are: “I’m looking at them,” he said by phone from his apartment in the Czech Republic, where he lives with his wife, Katarina, a 2008 Olympic gold medalist for the Czech Republic. “We’re back to training like normal,” he explains. The couple met during the 2004 games after Emmons, closing in on a gold, knocked himself out of medal contention by shooting at the wrong target with his last shot, and Katy came over to console him. “If you can call it an exchange, it was the best exchange of my life.” His silver and a 2004 gold in prone rifle, he says, are “balled up on a table under some papers.” Katy’s 2004 bronze and 2008 gold and silver? “I don’t think she knows where they are. In the apartment somewhere.”
Post-Olympic Perk: Schmoozing with sponsors at the Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show in Orlando. “People like to play with my medals.”
What He Misses About Jersey: The blueberries and the Pine Barrens. “I love just sitting on my parents back porch with a glass of wine.”
What’s Next: “I’ve won just about everything you can win,” says Emmons, who’s aiming for a World Shooter of the Year award this season and more Olympic hardware down the road. “There’s nothing else I can do except continue to win. But some of my toughest competitors are in their upper 30s and early 40s, so as long as I’m still getting paid and having fun, I’ll keep doing it.”

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Blaine Neal
Sport: Baseball (pitcher)
Age: 30
Hometown: Haddon Heights
Medal: Bronze, in what could be the final Olympic baseball competition.
Garden State Start: As a little leaguer in Oaklyn, Neal was a strong hitter, but struggled with control on the mound. “I’d walk the bases loaded, hit a couple little kids, then strike out three.”
Olympic Memory: The sweltering opening ceremonies. “It was cool walking into the stadium, but after an hour it was miserable. It was probably the hottest day of my life.”
Where His Medal Is: “At my parents house.”
After the Games: Despite posting All-Star-style stats for the minor league Toledo Mud Hens, Neal found himself looking for a job shortly after the Games. It wasn’t an unfamiliar situation. Neal has pitched with eight organizations, including the Florida Marlins, with whom he won a World Series ring in 2003.
Post-Olympic Perk: None. “But it was definitely worth giving up a chance to get called up to the majors in September.”
What He Misses About New Jersey: Wawa classic turkey-and-cheese sandwich. “I have the trimmings board down to a science.”
What’s Next: Hopes to work his way back to the majors as a farm hand for the world champion Phillies. “My goal is to stay healthy and keep a job. There’s not too much you can control in baseball.”

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Heroes of the Hudson: When Flight 1549 hit the water, New Jersey’s well-trained ferryboat captains prevented tragedy.

These Buds Are For You: Cherry Blossoms aboun in Branch Brook Park in Essex County.

Sister of Invention: Georgetown University sophomore Catherine Cook created a yearbook for the digital generation.

Heavy Medalists: NJ’s Olympic and Paralymic stars are winners in every way.

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