MORRISTOWN _ The questions from the third graders at Alexander Hamilton Elementary School came at Olympic triple jumper Christina Epps rapid fire.
Do you have a gold medal? How old are you? What was your favorite subject in school? Did you meet Gabby Douglas? What about Simone Biles? Serena Williams?
One of the students mentioned Michael Phelps and Epps, a 2009 graduate of Morristown High School, said she had met the world's most famous swimmer, too. Before Epps could elaborate, a curious boy inquired boldly and loudly "Are you together?"
Epps laughed, of course, and as did the staff in the media center. There were many other light-hearted and touching moments for Epps on the second day of her return to her hometown.
The 25-year-old athlete visited three Morristown schools on Friday, Oct. 14, including Alexander Hamilton and Frelinghuysen, both of which she attended, two months after competing at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janieiro. She told the students about how she hoped to be drafted by the WNBA and how she got started with the triple jump. Epps revealed that while at Alexander Hamilton, she enjoyed English and reading.
"This has been great," Epps said. "I've had so much fun. I'm so glad everyone is embracing me. Seeing my old teachers and speaking to the students has been wonderful. I'm glad I'm able to give back to the community."
And, that was just the beginning. On Saturday, Oct. 15, Epps received a key to the city and was feted during halftime of the Colonials' homecoming football game. She'll have Sunday off before being honored by the Morris School District Board of Education on Monday evening. On Tuesday, Epps will attend the New Jersey Devils home opener.
One of the girls at Alexander Hamilton, Catalina Herrera, had a conversation with Epps about her family's trip to Rio. It was apparent Herrera was excited about their chat and was the last child to exit the media center.
It was a long, winding journey to Rio for Epps, a three-sport athlete while at Morristown High School. Epps had her heart set on the WNBA and, if she were to get to the Olympics, she felt she would be wearing a USA Basketball jersey. That dream ended when Ron Davenport, her volleyball and basketball coach, informed her she was not likely to play Division 1 hoops.
"I had to abandon that idea," she said. "I played out of position my entire career. I was too short for the four or five spots in college. I had a reality check and it all changed."
Epps, the youngest of seven children, then turned her sights to being a top-notch triple and long jumper at the age of 16 and continued to compete in her other two sports. She found more success in track and field at Coppin State, claiming several national championships.
Beyond college, she continued on and competed internationally. Epps earned a place on the triple jump squad and went on to Rio, where she was 15th, along with Mount Olive High School graduate Keturah Orji. A foul on her second attempt in the qualifying round proved costly.
"I sensed it when I landed," Epps recalled. "I thought to myself 'That's too far.' I fingernailed fouled. I toenail fouled. I barely missed it. That was still a pretty good attempt and showed me I can compete on this level. I need to be more consistent. That's key."
That's made her hungry for another opportunity to go to the Olympics. Epps will try for a berth in Tokyo in 2020. Until then, Epps will stay busy, working as an academic advisor at Coppin State, and planning a wedding to her college sweetheart, Emeka Chiazor, the men's basketball coach at Howard County College in Columbia, Md.
Through Chiazor, Epps still has a connection to basketball and isn't afraid to give her input.
"I get to be around basketball and give Emeka my thorough knowledge of the game," Epps joked.
The time she spent at the Olympics was filled with special memories. She realized she had made it during the opening ceremonies.
"It all hit me then. I was an Olympian," Epps said. "I thought 'This is happening. I'm here.' It was my goal. Words just can't explain it."
For much of the opening ceremonies, Williams walked near the track and field contingent. Epps said she walked with the tennis star for awhile and noted that she was "funny and good spirited."
"Serena was an inspiration to me as an athlete," Epps said. "It was nice to meet her and be in her presence."
Epps found NBA men's basketball player Kevin Durant to be "sweet, kind-hearted and down to earth." In her talk to the students, she told them how small the gymnasts were.
Beverly Epps-Blackwell saw her daughter perform at the Olympic qualifier and in Rio.
"When Christina qualified, I cried," Epps-Blackwell said. "We all screamed and cheered. Everyone was in such high spirits. In Rio, the hospitality and the people were beautiful. What a wonderful city and country. We felt so welcome."
Epps-Blackwell said she felt Christina would distinguish herself in athletics.
"Christina has always been tenacious," Epps-Blackwell said. "She does not like to lose. I'm so happy for her. Only 700 people in the world go to the Olympics so what she did is a great feat. I am so proud to be her mother."
Media specialist Linda Murphy remembered Epps attending Alexander Hamilton.
"Christina always knew what was going on," Murphy said. "She was front and center paying attention."
As evidenced by her return, nothing has changed.
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