While I share a birthplace with a certain current President of the United States, I believe I have established my bona fides as a Jersey Guy through and through. And, despite the state’s reputation as a home for unsightly and malodorous oil refineries along the Turnpike, more than its share of political corruption and the place where Alexander Hamilton was killed in his duel with Aaron Burr, the Garden State is also a place with bucolic horse farms, a beautiful shoreline, the best summer produce in the world and Bruce Springsteen (the “Boss”).
Like their native state, Jersey Girls have been saddled with an undeserved image: of big hair, long nails, tight jeans and way too high heels, who notably crow about “not pumping their own gas.” (Well, maybe there is some truth to it). But yesterday Jersey Girls had perhaps their finest day ever, as two precocious young women, Athing Mu and Sydney McLaughlin, shattered records in their respective events and brought home gold at the spectator-less Tokyo Olympics, bringing life to a largely moribund exhibition that had been delayed a year and has been largely ignored by the American public.
Up until now, these games would have been remembered for the flame out of the U.S. women’s soccer team, evidence that the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, is all too human, and even fundamental questions about what it means to be a woman. New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly trans person to compete in the Games and Namibia’s Christine Mbomo was barred from her favorite event, the 400 meters, because of an excessive amount of naturally produced testosterone that she refused to artificially reduce under a bizarre IOC rule. The rule didn’t stop Mbomo from capturing silver in the 200 meter race (ostensibly because her natural condition doesn’t have much of an effect on shorter races).
Although the U.S. and Australia engaged in an epic battle in the pool, the games took on a decidedly upward trajectory when, in the men’s 400 meter hurdles, Norway’s Karsten Warholm obliterated his own five week-old world record, which had itself broken a 29 year-old record in the event. Then came Mu, all of 19 years of age, from Trenton and Sudanese immigrant parents, who demolished the field in the women’s 800 meter event in an American record 1:55.21. The fact that it looked so easy makes it even more remarkable.
At 21, Dunellen and Union Catholic’s McLaughlin is almost a grizzled veteran as she made the U.S. team as a high school junior in 2016, but fell short of the final just after her 17th birthday. After she bested her fiercest rival, former world record holder and defending Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad with a new world record in the women’s 400 meter hurdles at the U.S. Trials, she did one better by beating that record, and Muhammad again, in an astounding 51.46 seconds for the gold medal.
The fact that these two hale from New Jersey should not surprise anyone as the Garden State has a proud and illustrious legacy in the sport of track and field, represented not least by Plainfield’s Milt Campbell, widely regarded as New Jersey’s greatest athlete and the winner of gold in the decathlon in Melbourne in 1956, and Joetta Clark Diggs of South Orange, a four-time Olympian and the Godmother of New Jersey women’s track.
Yesterday’s outstanding performances prove beyond a doubt what Jersey Girls are made of. So, the next time someone derides the state, we can point with pride at their gold medals. And in a sign of progress, we can take comfort that not one interviewer asked them that most insulting question: “which exit?”