The U.S.A. and the Relay Challenges


Coach John Chaplin once said that as a head coach for the U.S. track team, the most important thing you can do it to make sure the relay teams get their batons around the track. In honor of that thoughtful quote, this blog is about our challenges as a country in the 4 x 400 meters and 4 x 100 meters relay departments.

The bad karma of the US track team with relay hand offs go back to the 1912 Olympics, when the US had problems in the 4 x 100 meters relay and it has been a challenge for the US ever since. The irony of the country who leaves, in an average Olympic quadrennial, several potential gold medal sprinters at home, not being able to get a baton around the track is too much for some track fans.

Face it, anyone who has been a high school, or a club track coach knows that relays take time, practice, practice and practice. When I coached junior college in the early nineties, our relay teams practiced at least three days a week with the baton. It became their friend, we found which leg of the relays are best for that runner, and the concept is to keep them there.

Look at Baylor University. Coach Clyde Hart develops sub 45 second relay runners like Vinn Lananna develops middle distance runners. And if you remember this years NCAA outdoor, his 4 x 400 meter team knows how to hand a baton to the next runner.

The truth is, for the majority of the time, since the 4 x 100 meters started in 1912 and the 4 x 400 meters started ( 1912), the United States has been the overwhelming winner. However, with the quality of our sprinters and the quality of our college relay teams, and high school teams for that matter, we should own these events.

The key to the relay, either long or short is to get the baton around the track, in the zones, as fast as possible. It is one thing to loose a close relay, like the 1952 4 x 400 meters' Mens 'race, where Jamaica edged the United States, or in 1996, when Canada dusted the U.S. in the 4 x 100 meter relay--those things happen.

However, since the mid 80s, as money has seriously come into the sport, some coaches and some sprinters and even some clubs tried to control the relay teams. And that has been disaster.

In the early 90s, a French 4 x 100 meter relay team, all good sprinters, none who had broken 10.00 for 100 meters, broke the world record with great passes and nearly flawless running between handoffs. We did a huge piece about this in American Athletics in 1993, I believe. Our readers were fascinated about the handoffs and what were these guys doing special? I will tell you the secret: they practiced their butts off and had run with each other for five or six years.

Tyson Gay, whose 9.84/19.62 double at the AT&T Outdoor Championships last month, spoke about focusing on the relays at Osaka so that the U.S.A. could do well. That is key. The sprinters must dedicate some time, and focus to make the relays a success. The quality of our sport worldwide is such that a nation with a strong team of relay runners, who practice and race, can be dangerous on the world stage.

Running fast and handing off a baton is a complicated series of actions-how fast does one run as they are giving the baton to the next runner? When does the next runner take off in order to keep the sprinting runner from running up the receiving runner's back? How do you keep the handoff in the zone? All of this takes time, training and practice and good coaching.

So, tonight, as I head off to dreamy land, I will say a quick prayer that our great sprinters, both short sprinters and long sprinters, take the time to get the zones down, listen to our coaches and get those batons around the track as fast as possible.

I will end with a good thought: last fall, in Athens, I watched Darold Williamson (fourth in 400m this year in 44.97), run the perfect leg and catch his competition just five meters before the finish line and take the win! There is nothing more exciting than a close relay win, and we want, we need the US relay teams to take these events seriously! On to Osaka!

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