Baltimore Sun’s BEST party in 2 weeks

Harford's sporting distinction


Harford County is known for suburban sprawl, military munitions and hand-carved ducks.

Today it will earn the distinction as home to the youngest athlete competing at the Olympic Games.


When Bel Air resident Kimmie Meissner takes the ice today in the Turin Games, she will join a list of elite athletes from the booming exurb who have risen to the top of their games - a list that includes near-certain Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., boxing champion Hasim Rahman and even the world's reigning "high all around" champion in skeet shooting, Mike Kozak.

And, of course, swimmer Katie Hoff, who was the youngest U.S. athlete at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

"It could be probably one of the greatest gene pools in the U.S.," Olympic scholar Robert Mechikoff, a San Diego State University professor, said jokingly. "The U.S. Olympic Committee probably ought to go ahead and put a training center in the county."

It's not just humans who have excelled. The county is also the birthplace of Cigar, thoroughbred racing's all-time money earner, as well as 1961 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Carry Back.

Harford County, about 25 miles northeast of Baltimore with a population of 233,000, is perhaps best known as the home of Aberdeen Proving Ground, and is expected to grow significantly with a national military-base consolidation. But it is also a largely rural county where Interstate 95 motorists stop to check out landmarks such as the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum and the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum.

"You don't think of it as a place where a lot of outstanding athletes come from," said Mark Puckett, Fallston High School's baseball coach. "I've been here 24 years now. I see a big change. ... You get more athletes playing year-round" in one sport.

E.J. Henderson, an Aberdeen High School football player who went on to become an All-America linebacker at the University of Maryland, said young athletes in Harford County have fewer distractions than their counterparts in urban areas like Baltimore.

"There's not too much to do out here but getting into sports or kind of go the other way and get into trouble," said Henderson, who plays for the Minnesota Vikings. "So a lot of people who succeed in sports, that's what they've been doing since they were little. The thing to do was park and rec basketball, park and rec football."

Other athletes from Harford who have gone on to success include former Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman Irv Pankey; Dudley Bradley, a University of North Carolina basketball player who made the cover of Sports Illustrated as MVP of the 1979 ACC tournament and went on to play in the NBA; and his brother, Charles Bradley, who also played in the NBA.

Hoff, who moved with her family from Virginia to Abingdon several years ago, said it's probably a coincidence that Harford will have been represented in two consecutive Olympic Games.

"I moved to Harford County because Paul [Yetter] was there, and he was a great coach," said Hoff, 16, who now lives in Towson. "I think it kind of all just came together."

Nonetheless, she said, "It's really cool that such a small place that is kind of considered out there has so many great athletes."

Added Yetter: "The plain and simple fact of the matter, as far as I see it with swimming, [is] good athletes are everywhere. Behind every Kimmie Meissner or Katie Hoff there's a team that has quality coaching and quality administration. You've got these great athletes everywhere in the world, and they're not reaching their potential probably because they don't have the right type of conditions to actually do the training that they need to make it happen."

Those conditions include access to swimming pools and ice rinks, said Mechikoff, the Olympic scholar.

"It seems with regard to the Winter Games, most athletes do not come from big cities," Mechikoff said. "They probably come from rural areas where there's an abundance of snow and places to train, and in the big cities it just doesn't lend itself to that sort of thing. If you come from rural America, you really don't have access to the distractions and all the other amusement that the urbanities do."

A chart accompanying an article yesterday on sports figures from Harford County gave an incorrect birthplace for Cal Ripken Sr. He was born in the Harford County town of Stepney and later lived in Aberdeen.The Sun regrets the errors.
Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad