Very few TV moments could bring us back to our couches after the quarantine last year, but get ready to settle in and pass the popcorn once again. The 2020 Olympic Games are finally here, and although the events are a year late, people across the world are perhaps more excited than ever to watch. Essex County fans, in particular, might be interested to learn that their hometowns are sprinkled across four team rosters.
Over the next two weeks, county natives Bam Adebayo, Alen Hadzic, Molly Reckford, and Elizaveta Pletneva will be competing in Tokyo. Adebayo, who was born in Newark, will attempt to secure a fourth consecutive gold medal in men’s basketball for Team USA. Reckford, of Short Hills, will be rowing in the women’s lightweight double sculls event. At nineteen, gymnast Pletneva is the youngest Essex County resident competing in Tokyo. Alen Hadzic, from West Orange, will remain an alternate for the men’s fencing team despite an ongoing investigation into misconduct claims made against him. The four competitors join a long list of Essex County natives and residents who have represented the United States at a Summer Olympics. Read on for our roster of fifteen athletes who hailed from Essex County.
William Ross Sheppell, also known as “Bill” or “Billy,” was born in Newark in 1926. He attended Kearny High School where he was quickly recognized as a talented soccer player. After graduation, he played in both the American Soccer League and the German American Soccer League, as well as for Seton Hall University (where he studied from 1947 to 1950). In 1952, having been a part of national teams, Sheppell was selected to compete at the 1952 Olympics. Unfortunately, the United States lost to Italy, failing to advance beyond the first game in Helsinki.
Like Bill Sheppell, Carin Jennings-Gabarra is a retired soccer forward. Though she grew up in California, she was born in East Orange. By the time Jennings-Gabarra (nee Jennings) was selected to play at the 1996 Olympics, she had already seen tremendous success in her sport. However, winning a gold medal in Atlanta was particularly significant as this was the first time women participated in the Olympic soccer tournament. Today, Jennings-Gabarra is the head coach of women’s soccer at the Naval Academy.
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Claudio Reyna is yet another Olympic soccer player from Essex County. This midfielder learned the game from his father, who had himself played professionally in his native Argentina. Reyna was born in Livingston, and attended St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. He represented the United States at both the 1992 Olympics (Barcelona) and the 1996 Games (Atlanta). Reyna ended his career playing for the New York Red Bulls, retiring on the same New Jersey soil where he launched his career.
Wrestler George Mehnert was born in 1881 in Newark, making him the oldest person on this list. After winning gold at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, he made history by winning again in 1908. The second victory, this time in London, saw him become the first American wrestler to win two Olympic gold medals.
Ginny Duenkel Fuldner
Virginia “Ginny” Duenkel Fuldner of West Orange swam at the last Olympics in Tokyo. Though Fuldner was only seventeen, she medaled twice in 1964. The swimmer brought home the gold in the women’s 400-meter freestyle and came in third in the women’s 100-meter backstroke. Today, West Orange swimmers of all levels are welcome to enjoy a day at the municipal pool named in her honor.
Gregory Crozier Gates of Montclair was a member of the men’s rowing team that went to the 1948 Olympics in London. His boat ultimately came in third in the coxless fours event. Gates died just last year at the age of ninety-three.
Hazel Clark + Joetta Clark Diggs
Hazel and Joetta Clark, sisters born in Essex County, are both retired middle-distance runners. Alongside their sister-in-law Jearl Miles-Clark, herself an Olympic runner, they have been dubbed the “First Family of Track and Field” for success in the sport. Hazel competed at the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Games while Joetta ran for the United States at the 1988, 1992, 1996, and 2000 Games.
Right as Greg Gates was hitting the lake, fencer James Flynn was unsheathing his sabre. Like his neighbor from Montclair, Flynn was a competitor at the 1948 Olympic Games. Funnily enough, both men returned home with bronze medals in their respective sports. But, there is still a generation of difference between these seemingly similar champions. Flynn, who resided in West Orange, was nineteen years Gates’s senior.
Soccer player Josmer Volmy “Jozy” Altidore has much in common with Claudio Reyna. Like Reyna, Altidore was born in Livingston and played for the New York Red Bulls. In fact, the two were actually teammates for the 2007 – 2008 season. In 2008, the young striker also went to the Beijing Olympics with America’s under-23 team.
Belleville native Michael Devaney was an Olympic runner who represented the United States in Antwerp in 1920 and Paris in 1924. At his first games, he won a gold medal, alongside his teammates, for the 3000-meter team race.
Weightlifter Phil Grippaldi, born in Newark and raised in Belleville, competed at the 1968, 1972, and 1976 Summer Olympics. A life-long bodybuilder, Grippaldi quickly became known for his large arms. At nineteen, standing only five foot five, the weightlifter’s biceps measured twenty inches.
Track and field athlete Platt Adams is another Essex County resident to take up the Olympic torch (metaphorically speaking). Adams journeyed to the 1908 and 1912 Games, medaling twice in 1912. He participated in multiple events, including the high jump and triple jump. Born in Belleville, Adams moved to South Orange as an adult, where he got involved with local politics.
Rich Kenah was born in Montclair and attended Immaculate Conception High School in town. He then studied at Georgetown, graduating in 1992. Eight years later, Kenah went to the Summer Olympics in Sydney, where he represented the United States on the men’s track and field team. While there he placed sixth in the 800-meter race. He and his family now reside in Georgia where he directs the Atlanta Track Club.
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Thomas William Courtney, born in Newark in 1933, first gained widespread recognition while running track as a student at Fordham. A year after receiving his undergraduate degree, he ran in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. While there, he won two gold medals for the 800-meter race and the 400-meter relay.
William Thomas Pecora
Rounding out the list is William Thomas Pecora of Belleville. Pecora went to Berlin for the 1936 Summer Olympics, where he was a member of the American fencing team. But, as his real success was found in the field of geology, we have good reason to believe he may have coined the colloquial college term “rocks for jocks.”