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Archive for Saturday, September 23, 2000

Kansans proud of Olympians

Small towns burn midnight oil to watch hometown athletes

September 23, 2000

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— Residents in two small Kansas towns are staying up later than usual they want to see their hometown stars in the Sydney Olympics.

The southwestern town of Protection is the hometown of high jumper Nathan Leeper, and the far-western town of Ulysses is home to Sarah Noriega, a member of the women's volleyball team.

"It's so exciting to see somebody's dreams come true. We all have dreams, but they don't always come true."

Ulysses Chamber of Commerce President Carol Norwood

Friday was Leep Day in Protection, when the town of fewer than 600 planned to honor the 1996 high school graduate. Earlier Friday in Australia, Leeper finished third in his group in the high jump, advancing to the next round with a jump of 7-feet 5 1/4.

"Can you think of a better name for a jumper?" asked Kristal Sherman, a secretary at Protection's South Central Elementary Middle School.

Leep Day activities included a high jump, crafts, track and field events, and a game of Leep Frog.

At the Protection Co-op, general manager Danny McLarty said the town was ready for Leeper's jumps on Friday. It was the main topic of conversation at the coffee shops, he said.

"They've got the downtown windows all decorated up and flags flying up and down Main Street," McLarty said. "It's quite a deal for a little old spot like this. He's a real good kid, from a real good family."

Joe Murphy, a high-school classmate, said Leeper was a "heck of an athlete." He credited his friend's accomplishments to ability, practice, hard work and dedication.

"He was always competitive," Murphy said. "A great guy, just normal, not cocky."

Leeper set records in high school, then attended Kansas State University, where he won the NCAA outdoor meet.

Leeper spent time talking to Protection students before leaving Sept. 11 for Australia. He promised to return after the games for a high-jump demonstration.

At 6-feet-2-inches tall, his record jump is 7 feet, 8 1/2 inches.

In Ulysses, a town of about 6,000, residents are celebrating the success of Noriega.

Noriega is a 1994 Ulysses High graduate. Noriega made the team, but didn't play when the United States advanced after defeating Australia Friday.

Ulysses Chamber of Commerce President Carol Norwood said "the town is really excited" about her role in the Olympics.

"Everybody is trying to stay up from 11:45 p.m. to 2 a.m. to watch her on TV," Norwood said.

Schoolchildren held a parade to honor Noriega, and they've placed new green and white signs at the town's entrances, proclaiming Ulysses as the home of Sarah Noriega.

The town raised $5,200 to help send Noriega's parents, Joe and Carol, to Australia.

High school activities secretary Marieta Hauser said that Noriega was goal-oriented as a student.

"From early on, she started playing club volleyball," Hauser said. "It's a goal she's focused on. We knew she had the talent when she was in high school, and we're all really excited for her."

During a visit two years ago, Noriega gave the school one of her No. 16 USA game jerseys.

"It's so exciting to see somebody's dreams come true," Norwood said. "We all have dreams, but they don't always come true."

The American women have won four games at the Olympics, defeating China, Croatia, Kenya and Australia.

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