Before they took the world stage at the Olympics, these athletes had humble upbringings. From teeny towns to news-making cities, these gymnasts, divers, boxers, and more learned the ropes while growing up. Next time you’re visiting one of these states — from New Jersey to Texas — make a pit stop to get to know the hometown behind your fave Olympian.
1. Laurie Hernandez, Gymnastics: Old Bridge Township, New Jersey
It’s hard to take your eyes off of Laurie Hernandez, the 16-year-old Olympic gymnast who just helped the team win gold at Rio. International Gymnast magazine has dubbed her the "Human Emoji" for those gorgeous big eyes and sass during her (incredibly impressive) routines. She’s also one of the very few Latinas born in the U.S. to make it to the team, with the last one being back in 1984 at the L.A. Olympics. Though Hernandez is of Puerto Rican descent, she grew up in Old Bridge Township, New Jersey.
Not too far from New York City, this township was named one of the best places to live in the U.S.A. by Money magazine in 2005 and 2007. While it was originally known for its old mill streams and the clay industry, these days, city slickers visit this town for apple farms in the fall. You can also access Cheesequake State Park, the Laurence Harbor Beachfront and the Old Bridge Ice Arena, too.
2. Mallory Pugh, Women’s Soccer: Highlands Ranch, Colorado
As if you need more inspiration to rally behind the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, get this: Striker Mallory Pugh is the youngest woman to play in the Olympic qualifier, ever. And even though she is competitive, her coach, Jill Ellis says she always has a smile and keeps a great game face. That might be because of her upbringing in Highlands Ranch, Colorado with a super athletic family: Her mom is a long distance runner, her dad ran track and played football, and her older sister (who she calls her role model) got her into soccer. She’ll play with the team on August 12 at Rio, and after she (hopefully) brings home the gold, she’ll start college in 2017 to play for the Bruins at UCLA.
As for where she called home as a kiddo? Highlands Ranch is a suburb located about 12 miles outside of Denver and has about 86,000 people. It’s also the hometown of another Olympian, U.S. luger Courtney Zablocki. And if you love checking out beautiful houses, the Highlands Ranch Mansion might be a place to visit with sweeping views of Denver and a newly renovated interior.
3. Claressa Shields, Boxing: Flint, Michigan
While she throws jabs, crosses, hooks, and uppercuts fin Rio, Claressa Shields has a lot to fight for. Her dad was an underground boxer and was incarcerated from the time she was two until she turned nine. He made her wait until she was 11 to start wailing at the bag, and well — she caught on quickly. You can check the Netflix documentary about her, T-Rex: Her Fight For Gold, and soon, see a feature film from Universal Studios too.
She may have earned that determined spirit from growing up in Flint, Michigan, now infamous for its contaminated water that’s attracted the attention of politicians and celebrities alike. The crisis started in April of 2014 when Flint changed its water source and traces of lead were later found. Some estimates suggest 12,000 children have been affected. It’s also led to an outbreak of Legionnaries’ disease that’s killed 10 people and affected 77. To this day, the access to clean drinking water remains limited. For Shields? She wants to help the people of Flint — and says her family drinks bottled water to stay safe.
4. Caeleb Dressel, Swimming: Green Cover Springs, Florida
Already taking home the gold for the men’s relay in swimming, Caeleb Dressel will continue to fight for those medals before leaving Rio. This 19-year-old is one of the few athletes to show off his tattoos (look at those shoulders) and he currently has the record for the fastest 50-meter freestyle in history. But before the Olympics, Dressel was living in Florida with his family of competitive swimmers. That’s right: His siblings, Kaitlyn, Tyler, and Sherridon all compete in the pool.
But where did this active crew grow up? None other than Green Cove Springs. This picturesque town is known for its natural spring (hence the name) and sits atop the St. Johns River. It’s not a big town — just around 6,900 citizens — but it’s home to a rumored Fountain of Youth, so you better believe many people come for a glimpse (and a quick bath).
5. Kassidy Cook, Diving: The Woodlands, Texas
Though there are more reports about her dating life than her swim meet right now (c’mon, media!), Kassidy Cook will dive in for the gold later this week. As one of five children, Cook is no stranger to competition: Her older sister, Kara, was a diver at Purdue University. In addition to training five hours a day, six days a week, this impressive 21-year-old also is a junior at Stanford University.
But before all of that, Cook called The Woodlands, Texas home sweet home. If you’re not familiar, this town outside of Houston is rapidly growing, with an estimated 107,000 residents. Why? It’s really close to a bunch of corporate campuses, including Chevron Phillips, ExxonMobil, Huntsman Corporation, and many more. Since its growth spurt in the past two decades, the town has added many attractions, including singing waterfalls, hundreds of restaurants, a huge mall, and lots of local Southern-inspired music.
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