Whether competing in the Olympic arena, in front of billions of TV viewers, or vying with deep-pocketed communities to lure a multi-national company, some Western New York small towns are showing they can compete with the best in the world — and win.
Jenn Suhr is a product of Fredonia, from near my old stomping grounds in Western New York. She was a star basketball player there and moved on to Roberts Wesleyan College in North Chili, my alma mater. I saw her play a few times at Roberts. She was a bit gangly in those days, but even then she could run the floor with remarkable speed for a tall lady.
She transformed herself from a college basketball player who could score more than 20 a game to the best pole vaulter in the world. On Monday she won a gold medal, four years after earning a silver. She is coached by her husband Rick, who has roots in Lyndonville.
On Monday, when news of her victory spread throughout Lighthouse Christian Camp in Barker, many of the Roberts alums, myself included, were high five-ing, giving each other fist pumps.
“It makes you feel proud,” said Andy Sass, a Roberts alum, and pastor of Northgate Free Methodist Church in Batavia.
Jenn battled through celiac disease, a torn quadriceps a month before the Olympic trials and a fierce rival, Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia, to claim the top medal. I think Jenn’s small-town roots made the difference for her. She knows all about hard work. Her parents run a convenience store in Fredonia, about a mile from where my dad worked for about 25 years.
Jenn could have shied away from the pole vault, especially on an international stage, telling herself she didn’t have the Division I pedigree, or the fanciest training facility, or that she is a basketball player. But she re-made herself after her senior year of college, putting on some serious upper body bulk, mastering a new sport, and becoming absolutely fearless (you try flinging yourself 16 feet in the air).
Jenn isn’t the only one who has struck gold from these parts recently, showing this area can compete with anyone. Batavia landed a coveted economic development project, a $206 million yogurt plant that is a partnership between PepsiCo and the Muller Group of Germany. The leaders of the Genesee County Economic Development Center showed their mettle, negotiating the deal with the leaders of the two companies. Steve Hyde, the GCEDC leader, dreamed big and followed it up with all the painstaking details.
The CEOs from the two companies were in Batavia last week, celebrating the ground-breaking for the new yogurt plant that is expected to employ about 200 people. Muller Group officials said they considered 50 sites for the new facility.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo congratulated Batavia and the EDC on a “big win.” This will be Genesee’s biggest economic development project in about a half century.
The Genesee folks could have made a half-hearted try at making this deal, telling themselves a project of this scope was too much for their small agency. But Hyde and gang made all the right moves, didn’t back down from the pressure, and got it done. It’s worthy of a gold medal.
He may not have won gold in London, but I’m also feeling proud of Albionite Muhammad Halim who competed in the triple jump on Tuesday, finishing 18th among the 27 jumpers in the prelims. He didn’t advance to the finals.
Halim was a star at Albion and won the NCAA title at Cornell. For the past three years he has been training on his own, while juggling a day job, a rarity for an Olympic track and field athlete.
Some would have quit after a very successful college career, but Halim kept working, making incremental improvements to lengthen his jumps. He earned the right to compete at the Olympics, representing the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has the heart of a champion.
By: Tom Rivers