sports

Germantown block party to celebrate Olympic silver medalist Nia Ali

Jenice Armstrong, STAFF COLUMNIST

Updated: Friday, September 9, 2016, 8:30 PM

Nia Ali will sign autographs and pose for pictures during the block party in her honor on Sherman Street between Washington Lane and Johnson Street.

I WILL NEVER forget that thrilling moment last month when the starting gun went off during the finals for the Rio Olympics women's 100-meter hurdles.

A mere 12.59 seconds later, Nia Ali had raced across the finish line and into the history books, along with her American teammates Brianna Rollins, who snagged a gold medal, and Kristi Castlin, who won the bronze.

It was the first medals sweep ever for female track and field participants. An unforgettable moment.

Since returning from Brazil, Ali's life has been such a busy blur that she's not even sure how long she's been home. The phone has been ringing with offers of speaking engagements. Her Uber drivers recognize her now, as do takeout delivery folks.

When I caught up with her Friday, the 27-year-old had just returned to Philly after attending New York Fashion Week. As her car approached her mother's house in the 6300 block of Sherman Street, she giggled at the sight of all of the fliers tucked on car windshields announcing Saturday's block party in her honor.

"I actually just pulled up to my mother's street. I'm seeing signs on people's cars right now, and it's just funny. It's bringing back memories," she told me. "I'm super-excited about it."

"My whole family is so excited right now," Ali added. "I think it's not going to hit me until I walk out tomorrow and it's like a big deal, because everyone's waiting and they want to take pictures."

The block party, on Sherman between Washington Lane and Johnson Street, is a joint effort organized by her mother and local politicians. It's from 1 to 7 p.m., and will feature moon bounces for children, free food, and a deejay. The event is free and open to the public.

"We wanted to be able to have the kids from the track club come, so we had to find something that would fit everyone," said Ali's mother, Melita Johnson, who is a former runner herself. "So I talked to my state representative, and he helped set up a block party."

Ali, who plans to wear her Olympic medal for at least part of the day, will sign autographs and pose for photos, and hopefully inspire young people - particularly single mothers - to work hard and achieve their dreams the way she did.

"Folks look up to athletes and Nia is at the top of her game," State Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D., Phila.) pointed out. Her success "just encourages young black girls to dream."

Kinsey, a former runner who lives a few houses down, started galvanizing neighborhood support for the affair a couple of weeks ago. He collected a $1,000 donation from Peco to purchase food, and also solicited contributions from other politicos. "I want everything to focus on Nia," Kinsey said.

As if people would be able to focus on anything else once Ali steps outside the four-bedroom house where she grew up and starts shaking hands.

At 4 p.m., there'll be a formal presentation with a reading of an official citation.

No doubt, her young son, Titus, will be right by her side, as he was as she posed for photos with her teammates after making Olympic history. Just 1-year-old, he already has a manager, and has been selected as brand ambassador for some children's clothing lines.

"When I first got pregnant, a lot of people who know me from track were like, 'Oh my gosh! What about track? What are you going to do,' " Ali recalled. "I didn't think about that at all, because I just knew I would keep going."

And going and going, it turns out. After Saturday's block party, she heads back to New York City, where she's scheduled to walk in her first fashion show on Tuesday. Then, on Sept. 19, she tapes an episode of The Steve Harvey Show.

The following week, Ali will travel to Washington for a White House visit with her fellow Olympians. She also plans to visit the two high schools she attended, Pleasantville High School in Atlantic County and West Catholic.

One of the things that struck me the most about Ali's triumphant moment in Rio was that she and her teammates looked so genuinely happy for each other, despite the fact that each of them wanted to come in first.

"We had prayed that morning," Ali recalled. "We didn't put pressure on ourselves. We said, 'Hey, everyone go out there, and you try to win.' "

"It was hard to be happy for my medal before seeing where Kristi finished, because once we started, we kind of wanted to keep the ball rolling. 'We got first and second, did we get third? Did we sweep?' It was something that had never been done."

The answer, of course, was yes, yes and yes. USA gold, silver and bronze. What a moment.

"It was a great feeling."

@JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

armstrj@phillynews.com

Jenice Armstrong, STAFF COLUMNIST

Read full story: Germantown block party to celebrate Olympic silver medalist Nia Ali

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