We asked Dave Hunter to spend a few days in the city of Brotherly Love, to see his first Penn Relays. This is his third article on the Penn Relays, regarding Saturday, Day three. We think you will enjoy his keen observations.
Also, nice to see Mike Rodgers,Justin Gatlin, Doc Patton and Walter Dix, four of this writer's favorites, run a crisp 4 x 100m relays in 38.40. They are a great team.
Penn Showdown: USA vs. The World,
Americans Shut Out World / Baton Unbruised
by Dave Hunter
As 49,810 track & field fans streamed into Franklin Field Saturday morning, there was a festive air of excitement that permeated the throng. As reggae music flowed, you could sense that the happy, international crowd was ready to watch some special performances on the track and in the field. When the day is over, they will not leave disappointed.
While there are many moving parts to every Penn Relays day, Saturday at Franklin Field has come to feature "USA vs. The World' - an international competition between the elite athletes from around the globe and America's very best performers. And while it is true that many countries are represented [Belgium is here...] USA's primary rival has grown to be Jamaica. While it's a healthy competition founded upon mutual respect, it is truly intense.
As the American athletes, many of whom view the Penn Relays as the unofficial start of the outdoor road to the London Olympics, discussed the importance of this competition, the unspoken elephant in the room has been...the pesky relay baton. Would it be lovingly cradled and speedily transported around the track? Or would disaster strike again? If today is any indication, the USA relay teams are moving toward redemption. Somewhere, Jon Drummond is smiling.
First up in these elite races was the Women's Sprint Medley Relay. During the pre-race ritual of block installation and final run-outs, the American women looked poised, but anxious. Of course they wanted to win, but almost above all else, the USA Blue team of Porscha Lucas, Barbara Pierre, Phoebe Wright, and Maggie Vessey wanted to give that relay baton an uninterrupted ride around four laps of the Franklin Field oval.. The Americans got right after it - and set a positive tone for the US that would flow through the day. The stick passing bordered on the conservative - but everyone knew why. And when Vessey's sparkling 2:02.6 anchor leg was too much for Jamaica's 800 runner, the American women finished first in 3:42.85. USA: 1; World: 0.
Could the American men follow suit? They were up next in the 4 x 100 - which was run in 2 sections. Both USA entries looked sharp - especially the Blue team which dominated section 2. The quartet of Mike Rodgers, Justin Gatlin, Darvis "Doc" Patton, and Walter Dix hustled the stick around without calamity in 38.40 for the victory. The USA Red team of Ivory Williams, Shawn Crawford, Trell Kimmons, and Ryan Bailey sprinted crisply, exchanged cleanly, and was victorious in the Section 1. And its time of 38.47 held up for second as the Jamaicans (38.98) were relegated to third. And while it was heartening to witness two USA quartets finish in front of America's Caribbean sprint nemesis, the feat must be view in perspective. None of Jamaica's Big Three [Powell, Blake, and Bolt - surely to be on Jamaica's 4 x 100 Olympic entry] competed in Philadelphia on Saturday. To be sure, 4 well-practiced US sprinters executing cleanly in August could surprise Jamaica's first team in London.
In the women's 4 x 100, the USA Red Team of Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight, and Carmelita Jeter displayed mid-season form - getting the stick around for a decisive and impressive win in 42.19, a new Penn Relays and Franklin Field record. The Americans vanquished the second-place Jamaican entry [43.31] which - admittedly sans VCB - was still formidable with reigning Oly 100 champ Shelley Ann Fraser-Pryce on the anchor. Let's hope this American quartet emerges from the Trials healthy and on the team. Ladies, keep honing those baton exchanges!
A meter-measured Distance Medley Relay was next as the crowd sensed another USA victory. The race turned into a domestic battle as the two American entries dueled at the front. An eye-popping 1:44.0 800 on the third leg by Nick Symmonds gave USA Red's anchor Bernard Lagat a clear lead over USA Blue's anchor Leo Manzano. The crowd readied itself for a showdown between two of the sport's greatest kickers. After covering the early gap, Manzano stalked Lagat as the pace slowly quickened. In full flight over the final furlong, Manzano had too much for Lagat down the stretch.. His 3:54.9 over the final 1600 gave USA Blue the win in 9:19.31 - .57 ahead of Lagat's Red quartet.
Employing the baseball admonition of never jinxing a no-hitter by mentioning it, the Franklin Field throng was not talking about the flawless beat-down the USA was putting on The World. But let's be clear: the Franklin Field fans were thinking about it as only the 4 x 400's - exclusive USA property - remained.
In the men's 4 x 400, the USA Red team was clearly trailing after the first two legs - causing many to wonder who in the crowd had been talking about the no-hitter. It was up to Bershawn Jackson and Lashawn Merritt to save the day. Batman did his part: his 44.2 on the third leg erased the USA deficit and allowed Merritt to start his anchor circuit right behind the Bahamas final runner. Merritt's experience allowed him to keep his poise, measure his effort, and swing wide off the final turn to seal the victory. Merritt's 44.8 brought the USA home in 3:00.15 - .41 ahead of the Bahamian team Had Merritt not shut it down over the final 20 meters, a sub-3:00 clocking would have been assured. Kirani James' superb sub-44 circuit - camouflaged in leg two of Grenada's 12th place effort - went largely unnoticed.
Now it was up to the women to close the show. The quartet of Francena McCorory, Allyson Felix, Natasha Hastings, and Sanya Richards-Ross, clearly superior on paper, ran just like they should. The first 3 legs - highlighted by Hastings 50.3 clocking - made it easy for Richards-Ross who could have glided the final lap.. But the 2008 anchor on the USA Olympic gold-medal-winning 4 x 400 team would give the adoring Franklin Field crowd her best. A baton flourish as she crossed the finish line signaled the completion of her anchor leg - covered in 49.5. And as Jamaica - over 5 seconds back - and the rest of the field trailed over the line, the public address announcer solemnly intoned, "USA: 6; The World: Nothing."
The Olympic Games are three months away. A long and winding road remains. But one thing is clear: a good number of America's top track & field athletes are off to a great start in the outdoor build-up to London. Dave Hunter