Jenn Stuczynski is the Pride of Fredonia, NY
The stories crop up every two years. Dateline: Quaintville, USA. Watch the send-off rally organized by the smiling politicians. See the red-white-and-blue bunting, the children lining the streets and waving signs. Read the local newspaper stories about how dang proud the community is of this or that fresh-faced Olympian.
Yeah, well, this time I'm the proud one. Like me, Jenn Stuczynski -- America's top female pole vaulter and a medal threat in Monday's finals--is from the village of Fredonia, N.Y. She hung out on the same Lake Erie pier I did, went to the same annual Farm Festival and the same Chautauqua County Fair, walked along the same Canadaway Creek looking for salamanders.
We both had Mrs. Cobb for Global Studies. Jenn's mom used to snag the treadmill next to my dad at Darwin's Gym. We played sports wearing the same orange-and-black colors, both representing the Fredonia High Hillbillies. (Really.)
And our village of 10,000 people, about 45 minutes southwest of Buffalo, is following the classic Olympic script. There was the fund-raising drive to pay her parents' way from Fredonia to Beijing, which netted three times the necessary amount. There was the downtown rally, with thousands of residents coming to Barker Commons to watch Jenn sign autographs for two-and-a-half hours. The houses in my neighborhood have Jenn signs in their yards, and the people on my street are wearing Jenn t-shirts.
"It's weird, I walked into [popular bakery] Upper Crust, you know, right on Main Street," she told me today. "And some guy was sitting outside with my t-shirt on. But it's cute. They're so excited. You know, it's emotional when I sit and think about it, but I try not to."
Today she made her Olympic debut, needing just one jump to qualify for the finals. The only drama came when she tried to warm up on a crowded track during the steeplechase; "I think I almost took out about 10 steeplechasers," she said.
As any good Fredonian knows, our village already has plenty of claims to fame: the first commercial natural gas well in the U.S., the first Grange hall, the first meeting of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. We have our sports stories too: Mr. Criscione, from neighboring Dunkirk, played a handful of games for the Orioles in the late '70s. The Buffalo Bills held training camp in Fredonia before all four Super Bowl seasons. My friend Michael Heary was the area's high school basketball Player of the Year in 1994, and went on to star at Navy.
But this is bigger, way bigger. Jenn is now a regular in the Buffalo and Rochester news. She dominates the front page of the Dunkirk Observer; and was the subject of the two lead stories on the paper's Web site today. (The third? "Apple Festival delayed until 2010.")
"She's still a hometown girl," her mom, Sue, told me today from Beijing. "She loves Fredonia, she loves the lake, she loves everything about Western New York. And they've just accepted her with open arms."
Sue Stuczynski said the entire county has rallied behind her daughter--who didn't pick up the pole vault until her senior year of college--and every time I talk to anybody from Western New York, her name comes up.
"They're crazy," Jenn summarized. "They're Olympic crazy."
Even as a sportswriter trained to reject all sporting allegiances, I understand why. Most of my friends moved far away from Fredonia after school, but we still have puffs of nostalgia for a place where you leave your front door unlocked and wave at every car that drives by and fulfill every other hackneyed stereotype of the American small town.
There aren't many ways to express that feeling--you can only wear so many Fredonia sweatshirts--and so your loyalty gets transferred to the area's sports franchises, and you hope that somehow a Super Bowl or Stanley Cup will force people to say something nice, to pay attention to a part of the country that's easy to ignore.
Hasn't worked too well, as it turns out. But what the heck; on Monday, we're gonna try it again.
"I don't ever remember an event like Stuczynski going to the Olympics that has drawn so much excitement to a community like this before," the Observer's sports editor, Craig Harvey, recently wrote. "As the Olympics begin, it usually reminds us how proud we are to be an American. Right now, there has never been a better time to be a resident of Northern Chautauqua County."
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