NJ's Olympic contingent is 17 strong

July 19, 2008 1:52:53 PM PDT
The soccer field is so rudimentary that there are no lines painted on it, just goals and big orange cones. But the players at the Universal Soccer Academy are focused, dribbling through a maze of cones, then planting and shooting on goal.

Most of them are tweens. One is decidedly not: Carli Lloyd, a starting midfielder for the U.S. women's team, who is taking her kicks along with the kids.

"I do the same stuff they do," says Lloyd, who stands out because she's a head taller than most of the players and because her shoes are the bright red ones worn by the national team. "Just working on technique."

When she's not with the national team, Lloyd can often be found at the soccer academy, which is run by her personal coach.

She is among at least 10 women and seven men from New Jersey or living here who are destined for this summer's Olympic Games; at least another six athletes from the state are alternates.

Most of the Olympians-to-be are in their 20s and most of them train for their sport full-time. They include Lloyd and three other women's soccer players from the suburbs, a sharpshooter from the Pine Barrens and the rarest of athletic breeds - a swimmer from inner city Irvington.

While some live in New Jersey, several of them spend most of their time in hotbeds for their sport, or at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. But competing as youngsters in New Jersey gave several of them their starts.

They include Olympic veterans such as soccer player Christine Rampone, of Point Pleasant, who won a silver in 2000 and a gold in 2004, and Matt Emmons of Pemberton, who won a gold in prone shooting in 2004; and first-timers Erin Donohue, a 1,500-meter runner from Haddonfield, and Rebecca Soni, a swimmer from Plainsboro.

Some, like sailor Sarah Mergenthaler, always dreamed of becoming Olympians, though her earliest goal was to play soccer.

Lloyd says she didn't dream of being on the Olympic soccer team as a kid; she just loved playing.

In a break between international Olympic warmup matches, Lloyd, 25, was working out with much younger players in front on an audience of appreciative soccer moms and dads.

"This has been an inspiration," said Mimi Guzman, mother of 10-year-old Olympic dreamer Sarah Guzman.

Lloyd grew up in Delran and was a star at Rutgers. She was on the national under-21 team five years ago and was looking for a way to make the leap to the main team, which featured soccer legends like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain.

The answer was Australian-born James Galanis, who coached her younger brother's club team.

Galanis agreed to train Lloyd to become an elite player. He refined her technique, gave her workouts to increase strength and endurance, and worked with her on the mental aspects of the game.

"I wouldn't say I was a nutcase," she said. "But I wasn't as confident as I should have been."

Galanis' drilling is why Lloyd, who scored goals in games earlier this month against Norway and Sweden, was back on the practice field near her home last week.

Other athletes, meanwhile, were scattered around the world preparing.

Wrestler Steve Mocco was in Tempe, Ariz., getting ready for his matches in the 120 kilogram (or 264.5 pound) weight class.

He spent his college days wrestling at the University of Iowa and Oklahoma State. But it was at Blair Academy in Blairstown, a private New Jersey high school renowned for wrestling, that he saw his future on the mat.

"It was when I started seeing myself as a wrestler," Mocco said. "That that was what I wanted to do." The Olympics soon became part of the goal, because in wrestling they represent the ultimate championship.

Blairstown coach, Jeff Buxton, took Mocco around the country to wrestle against other competitors who were at the top of the sport.

Another New Jersey coach helped get an unlikely Olympian his start.

Ed Nessel, known to generations of New Jersey swimmers as Coach N., calls Cullen Jones "The Stork" for his lanky form. Earlier this month, Jones broke the American record in the 50 meter freestyle - the sport's version of a sprint.

But Nessel recalls when he was just a teenager from Irvington who was in Nessel's swimming program.

Jones stood out on the youth swimming circuit because of his skill, but also because he was one of only a few competitive black swimmers.

"Some New Jersey coaches were asking: 'What do you care about the black kid,"' Nessel said. "My answer was, 'Is he black? He's so fast I didn't notice."'

Jones has become a shining example of Nessel's teaching methods. The former pharmacist who now coaches swimmers in Florida taught Jones to think about racing strategy, not just sprinting. He says his bond was especially intense with Jones because the young athlete's father and one of Nessel's sons died at about the same time.

One of his lessons is evidence at the start of every race: Jones always reaches down and puts his hands on the rough surface of the starting blocks just before the race to increase the sensation on his fingers.

"It's a certain ritual that he did since he was 13 years old," Nessel said. "I took certain pride because of how he retained it."

It's not just coaches who helped the athletes break into the top level of their sports.

Mergenthaler, the sailor who is currently training in China, said her family of sailors has been important too.

"When I quit my job to train full time, they were nothing but excited for me," the 29-year-old former money manager said in an e-mail. "I think some other families might have thought I was crazy!"