119th Penn Relay Carnival, Day Three, USA vs. The World, Global Contests Electrify by Dave Hunter

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Dave Hunter's final piece on the 119th Penn Relay Carnival should put the historic meet in perspective for you, kind reader. In quoting Sebastian Coe, on his first visit to the Penn Relays, Lord Coe noted that one is taken at Franklin Field not only by the history of the meet, but the passion of the athletes and fans. 

Willis_NickFV-Penn05.jpg
Nick Willis, 2005 Penn Relays, 
photo by PhotoRun.net




119th Penn Relay Carnival / Day Three / USA vs. The World
USA vs. The World:  Global Contests Electrify


April 27, 2013
Philadelphia, PA

The longevity of the Penn Relay Carnival has been promoted in large measure by its ability to adapt. You don't survive for 119 years without the foresight and the willingness to change. Over a decade ago, the concept of an international component for Penn was born. "USA vs. The World" has - for more than a decade - provided a platform for post-collegiate Olympic caliber athletes from all nations to showcase their talents on the Franklin Field stage. It is a facet of the three-day Carnival that has been lovingly cultivated over the years and proved to be marketable enough to attract two hour live television coverage on a major network. Those who love the sport should send Penn organizers a thank you note.

USA vs. The World adds some special spice to the track & field smorgasbord that is the Penn Relay Carnival. For the professionals - who must gauge their outdoor buildup to stretch deep into the late summer - these Day Three marquee events - which are cleverly weaved into Dave_Hunter_Right_On_Track.pngPenn's non-stop Saturday heat sheet - are the perfect, somewhat low-key way for the pros to open up their outdoor season.

A most impressive Franklin Field crowd of over 48,000 gathered to see how the USA might fare on yet another glorious spring day as it took on The World.  

The ladies were first up with the 4 x 800. A truly international field had been assembled to test the mettle of USA"s two entrants. Phoebe Wright - running leadoff for USA Blue - ran a savvy 2:01.6 to lead a bevy of runners through the first two laps. Confusion reigned at the first exchange which resembled the 30th Street Station at rush hour. Brenda Martinez - running leg two for USA Red - emerged unscathed from the hand-off tangle and moved up smartly. Her sparkling 2:00.6 second leg gave USA Red a slight advantage as she handed off to Ajee Wilson. The newly-minted professional posted a solid 2:03.1 on her third leg carry as she handed off to always-beflowered Alicia Montano to bring it home. Taking the baton only a handful of meters ahead of Kenya's Janeth Jepkosgei, Montano - a fearless front runner - knew what she had to do. Montano - who finished 5th in Olympic 800 final last August - went out hard and was successful in killing hope - breezing to an easy triumph. Montano's 1:58.6 anchor allowed her to hit the line in 8:04.31 to destroy the old American 4 x 800 record [8:17.91; Tennessee, 2009]. The USA Blue quartet [Wright; Geena Gall; Alice Schmidt; and LaTavia Thomas] got up for third in 8:10.99 - posting a mark that also bettered the old American standard. "When you take down records and put yourself out there to push the limit, you're setting yourself up for success," offered Montano in the post-race press conference. "It is an absolute confidence builder knowing that I am training through this race. I never even knew what the [American record] was. I just like to go and race."

Next up was the men's 4 x 100 and a rematch with the Olympic champion Jamaican quartet. OK, not the full complement of gold medalists, but a Nesta Carter-lead squad that nonetheless would be competitive. Call it the Jamaican "B" team. The good news is that both USA teams got the stick around - a task that has seemed more formidable prior to 2012. The United States Red Team - comprised of Mike Rodgers, Justin Gatlin, Darvis "Doc" Patton, and Ryan Bailey - turned in a workmanlike performance to capture the championship going away. The exchanges for this foursome - which probably is America's "A" team - were solid and devoid of melodrama. Don't despair the winner's pedestrian clocking of 38.26 - it's early spring. And anchor Bailey's spontaneous act of fluttering his USA jersey over the final 15 meters detracted from the clocking.  "My anchor was good. I felt like I left a little early," explained an effusive Bailey. "I saw Doc rolling around the corner so I knew I had to get out. So I tried to get out the best I could. It wasn't a blistering time, but it was a good time, so I was happy."  Patton was reflective in the wake of the victory. "It was special for me because I know this might be my last one. I had the crowd pumped. They got really excited and it felt good."

Could the USA women sprinters duplicate the men's victory in the short relay?  The USA Red squad had the horses. With Tianna Bartolleta [née Madison], Allyson Felix, and Bianca Knight running the first three legs as they did in the USA's gold-medal WR relay performance last August in London, only Carmelita Jeter - nursing a Mt. SAC hamstring cramp - was missing. But Jamaica had a weapon. No Jamaican squad can be overlooked when Shelly Ann Fraser-Price - two time Olympic 100 meter gold medalist - is on the anchor. After the starter's pistol sounded, the exchanges looked crisp for the US as anchor Jeneba Tarmoh - subbing for Jeter - took the stick with the slimmest of leads. But the petite Fraser-Price - always a money player - was up to the task. Catching Tarmoh surprisingly early in the final leg, the Jamaican anchor - exhorted onward by the deafening roar from the Jamaican faithful - powered through the finish in 42.42. A spirited stretch drive by USA Blue Team anchor Porsche Lucas was just enough to enable her foursome to nip the Red squad by .01 seconds. It is clear that Fraser-Price has no motivational problems. "I consider myself to be a very hungry athlete whenever I compete and whenever it is a new season," said the Jamaican anchor.

African domination highlighted the men's distance medley relay. The US had assembled two interesting teams - both featuring emerging young talent with several proven veterans sprinkled in. Former Oregon teammates Andrew Wheating [Red team] and Matthew Centrowitz [Blue team] were called upon to handle the 1200 meter leadoff leg. The Americans tucked in as Ethiopia, followed by Morocco, took the early lead. After the first 800 was passed in an unpunishing 1:58, the tempo quickened. Kenya's Anthony Chemut polished of his 2:51 1200 to give his team a narrow 5 meter advantage at the first exchange. The 400 meter second leg - usually of minor importance in the DMR - proved to be a game changer. A blistering 44.8 lap by Quentin Summers of USA Red gave Duane Solomon a significant advantage as the third leg began. But the race was not yet over. Only the most observant track fans appreciated that the Ethiopian team was relying upon the gifted Mohammmed Aman - a sterling 2-lap runner with an 800 P.R of 1:42.53. Aman - an 800 finalist in London last August - was the only athlete in 2012 to vanquish AOY and Olympic 800 meter gold medalist David Rudisha. Solomon's opening 400 in 50 seconds revealed his focused determination to press his advantage. His effort gave USA Red's untested anchor David Torrence a 15 meter lead - and a chance. After a first 800 in 1:53 on the anchor 1600, three teams were bunched as Kenya's Caleb Ndiku, USA Red's Torrence, and Ethiopia's Aman Wote were left to battle for the win. Ageless Bernard Lagat - anchoring USA Blue - was late to get the stick and was stuck in no man's land - 25 meters in arrears. Wote's strong finishing move over the final 130 meters - unanswered by his competitors - gave Ethiopia the narrow win in 9:16.34. Kenya [9:17.03] nipped USA Red [9:18.21] for second. And Lagat's spirited but futile final 200 - too late and from too far back - pushed USA Blue [9:19.33] up to close in 4th.

The anticipation throughout the Franklin Field crowd could be sensed as the international competitors loaded into the blocks at the start of the women's 4 x 400 relay.  For the USA to capture the race, it would have to be done without its premiere quarter miler - Sanya Richards Ross. The reigning Olympic 400 gold medalist is still recovering from last fall's surgical procedure on her big toe. A stiff challenge was expected from the Great Britain squad - featuring '08 Oly 400 gold medalist Christine Ohuruogu on the third leg. Even with Richards Ross out, the USA had assembled a Red Team lineup that was certain to be competitive. The lineup positioning proved to be genius. Veteran Jessica Beard opened for the Red Team with an out-of-the-blocks 50.9 which gave her squad a narrow advantage as she handed to Natasha Hastings. Her 50.2 split preserved the lead as she passed to Dee Dee Trotter. Utilizing her experienced racing against Ohuruogu, the Oly 400 bronze medalist craftily guarded against the inside pass and never relinquished the lead. Her 51.1 carry gave anchor Francena McCorory a slight advantage over the UK and Kenya as the final circuit began. Inspired by the din of the frenzied crowd, McCorory - who later confided she hadn't anchored since high school - summoned all that she had to fight off Brit anchor Perri Shakes-Drayton. It was just enough. McCorory's well-timed lean at the line might have been the difference as USA Red [3:22.66] nipped Great Britain by .02 seconds. Trotter summed it up succinctly. "I think Francena brought it home in a fashion where competitiveness is definitely the key and she is good at that."

With the scorecard reading USA 3 - World 2, it was left to the USA men to capture the 4 x 400 and seal a clear winning margin for the afternoon. Like the US women, the American men were at a disadvantage without the services of 400 big dog Lashawn Merritt. While the US had assembled a group of very fine quarter milers, would they have the horsepower against the likes of the Olympic 4 x 400 gold medal squad from the Bahamas and the always-dangerous Jamaicans?   Jamal Torrence lead off in 45.6 to give to give USA Red the early lead. Manteo Mitchell - in his first competition since coming back from extensive rehab after breaking his leg racing in the early rounds of the Olympic 4 x 400 relay - threw down a stunning 44.8 lap to preserve the USA Red lead and fend of Kirani James of the Caribbean All-Stars and his 44.1 monster circuit. Running third, veteran Bershawn Jackson turned in a 45.2 performance and his carry gave emerging star Tony McQuay a 5 meter lead as the final leg began. "I told Tony we were going to work hard and bring him the lead," Batman later explained. "And there's no better man to bring it home than Tony McQuay." The former Florida star did not disappoint. Running a savvy leg, McQuay rang up a 44.8 carry which was enough to hold off Jamaican anchor Errol Nolan [44.3]. USA Red's winning time of 3:00.91 bettered the Jamaican squad by .24 seconds while the Bahamas captured third [3:02.23]. "I just had to trust these guys," an enthused McQuay added. "I had to let them go out there and run their race, and bring it home for USA, and let the world know we're back on top."

The impact of the three day Penn Relay Carnival was probably best summed up by middle distance legend Sebastian Coe. Lord Coe - not only in attendance, but also honored on the field Saturday along with other legendary milers Marcus O'Sullivan, Eamonn Coghlan and Kip Keino - helped put the Penn experience in proper perspective. "This is my first visit here and you couldn't be in track and field as long as I have without recognizing the extraordinary contribution that this meeting [the Penn Relays] has made to track and field down the ages, probably the oldest track and field meets ever," Coe remarked. "When you come here for the first time, you are not just confronted by history, you are confronted by passion. And it is fantastic."

~Dave Hunter

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