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BEYOND THE BELTWAY

Small-Town Heroes

Olympic athletes put communities like Drums, Pa., Melrose, Minn., and Westfield, N.Y., on the map.

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Team USA: Canoer Casey Eichfeld.(Victor Caivano/AP)

The triple jump, judo, and slalom-canoeing may not receive the same attention as basketball, gymnastics, and the 100-meter dash in the coming days, but some of the U.S. Olympians participating in lower-profile events in London are helping to raise the profiles of communities across America.

Take Team USA triple jumper Amanda Smock. She’s not as well-known as swimmer Michael Phelps or soccer goalie Hope Solo, but just about every one of the 3,599 residents of Melrose, Minn., can recite her story.

 

“We’re really proud of Amanda and her accomplishments representing the city of Melrose,” city Administrator Michael Brethorst told National Journal Daily. “This is pretty unique for us to have an athlete of her caliber to come out of our community.”

“For me to have my roots in a small town means more and more as time goes on,” Smock told InForum, North Dakota’s top news website. “To instantly have the population of Melrose all behind me is cool. I feel like if I grew up in Minneapolis, I would get lost in the shuffle.”

To recognize Smock’s accomplishments, Melrose is hosting a silent flag auction throughout the Summer Games consisting of 23 Olympic flags signed by the city’s favorite daughter. The proceeds will go the town’s parks program.

 

The enthusiasm for Smock does not stop there. Visitors to Melrose, about equidistant between Minneapolis and Fargo, N.D., will most likely see many residents wearing “Team Smock” T-shirts.

“Team Smock is just like her local fan club,” Brethorst said. “Yesterday, I even saw one of my fellow council members wearing one. We’re pretty excited.”

Before leaving for London to train, Smock rode in Melrose’s Riverfest parade, signed autographs, and mingled with the residents.

“She thought it was a great idea, but then she thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what if no one comes?’ ” Smock’s mother, Beth Theischafer, told InForum. “I said, ‘Amanda, everybody I know wants to talk to you.’ ”

 

Residents of Drums, Pa.—situated 2,500 feet above sea level next to Sugarloaf Valley in eastern Pennsylvania, with a population of roughly 9,000—are just as proud of their Olympian, canoer Casey Eichfeld.

At only 22, Eichfeld is in his second Olympics this summer, following his participation in the 2008 Beijing Games, and this has only raised the town’s excitement level.

Drums may not be throwing him a parade, but “I have a small army coming” to London,” Eichfeld told the Standard Speaker newspaper in Hazleton, Pa.

“Maybe there are athletes out there who want to come to the Olympics just to solely compete in the Olympics,” Eichfeld told NBC. “But I think each and every one of us up here wants medals, you know?”

Eichfeld began learning how to canoe when he was just 18 months old, according to his father, Steve, in an interview in the Standard Speaker.

“I had a rope tied to his boat and he watched what I was doing,” the elder Eichfeld explained. “He had an interest in paddling around gate poles. I set up courses in six inches of water and let him navigate. He took to it.”

Eichfeld has relocated to Charlotte, N.C., where he works and trains. His “army” consists of friends and family from all over the U.S., but you can bet that the mountain town of Drums will be tuned into the London Games when the slalom-canoe races are held this week.

Not all the small-town Olympians on Team USA started their athletic careers there. The story of Nick Delpopolo, a gold-medal hopeful in Olympic judo, actually begins in Niksic, Montenegro.

Delpopolo (born Petra Perovic) lived in a small, dilapidated orphanage in the former Yugoslavia until he was 21 months old, when he was adopted by Dominic and Joyce Delpopolo of Westfield, N.Y., on the Lake Erie shore. At the age of 5, Delpopolo was introduced to judo, and eventually he made the decision to move across the state to Glenville, just north of Albany, to focus full-time on his sport at the Jason Morris Judo Center.

“Ever since that day, it’s been my passion,” Delpopolo, 23, told the Times Union in Albany. “It’s mostly what I think about. It begins my day, it ends my day: What am I going to do today for judo? At the end of the day, did I do enough? Did I train hard enough? Did I do my mental work? Did I focus properly? Did I eat properly? The whole day’s based around judo and training, and now the Olympics.”

And so people in two suburban communities on opposite sides of New York will be connected during the Olympics—watching a sport that the average American may never think about except when watching an action movie.

This article appears in the July 30, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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