2014 Penn Relays: Philadelphia-Tradition-Tradition-Tradition, by Elliott Denman

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Penn Relays, photo by PhotoRun.net
PHILADELPHIA - Tradition-tradition-tradition.

  That's the Penn Relays. That's America's number one track and field extravaganza. That's what keeps the multitudes coming to Franklin Field, year after year after year.

  Forty-nine thousand, one hundred and three devotees showed up Saturday, for the third day and concluding session of the meet officially titled the University of Pennsylvania Relay Carnival.  They brought the three-day total to 108.660, by far the highest figures for any meet in the nation - or the rest of the world for that matter.

    It's better than even money that the adults in that crowd have been coming to "the Penns" for decades or two or three, and often more.  And yes, they keep making it a carnival, of flags, of foods, of fun, of festivities and ethnicities.

  Then again, there are handfuls of Penn Relays rookies, adult newcomers to these events that have been raging since  1895  (which makes the Penn Relays a year older than the Modern Olympic Games.).

  Those year-2014 "rookies" in the delegation from England's Achilles Club (which represents the combined forces of Oxford and Cambridge universities), for instance.

   "This is a truly marvelous spectacle," raved Mr. Paul Willcox, honorary secretary  of the Achilles Club group (which is unrelated to  the other Achilles Club, which provides opportunities for disabled athletes.)

   "Incredibly well organized, amazing in so many ways.

   "There is nothing like it in England, and probably anywhere else, for that matter."

   Mr. Willcox may have been new to the Philly Carnival, but it was Penn tradition that actually got him here.

   The Penn Relays program (a bargain at 10 bucks) is an astounding archive of all the goings on at Penn since 1895: Every winner; every winning performance; every top relay "split," ever since they became availableevery member of the array of  Olympic gold medalists who also competed at Penn. And more and more.

   That program will tell you that in 1914 Oxford University won the four-mile relay in 18:05.0 (with both Arnold Strode Jackson and Norman Taber in the lineup;  in 1912, Jackson's closing burst had carried him past USA's Abel Kiviat and Taber for the gold medal in the Olympic 1500-meter final at Stockholm; by 1914, Jackson and Rhodes scholar Taber were Oxford teammates.)

   Oxford did it in rain and mud; joining Jackson and Taber were George Sproule and David Gaussen.

   This being the centennial of that Oxford triumph (which occurred on the brink of the outset of World War One; Jackson would join the British Army, suffer three grievous wounds, and rise to Brigadier General), it was time to toast that Oxford win all over again.

   "I'm a bit of a fraud, you know," said Willcox, smiling.

  And just why?

  "Because I'm a Cambridge man, you see."

  But the Achilles Club is an Ox-Bridge group, and so Willcox (who was named the Carnival's honorary director of men's collegiate events) isn't the total fraud he alleged himself to be.

  Oxford. 1914. 100 Years. Tradition -tradition-tradition.

   Back in 1939, 75 years ago,  the magnificent John Youie Woodruff anchored the University of Pittsburgh to four Penn Relays titles - the 4x110 yards, 4x220, 4x440 and sprint medley, an unprecedented feat.

   Woodruff had already won the Olympic 800-meter title in 1936 as a Pitt freshman.  Just as it was in 1914, another World War was brewing.  Woodruff, like Jackson, would serve in his nation's military.

   So to commemorate the three-quarter anniversary of those Pitt feats, such Pitt notables as
Olympians Herb Douglas and Arnie Sowell were special invitees (along with John Y.  Woodruff Jr.)  and Pitt women's coach Alonzo Webb was named Penn's honorary referee of women's events.

   The topper to all this came in Event 497, the very last track event on the three-day slate, which had begun promptly at 10 a.m. on Thursday, and concluded right on the dot, with the starting gun of the men's collegiate Championship of America 4x400 relay at 6 p.m. Saturday.

   Was it simple coincidence, or pure karma, that the winner of that 4x400 turned out to be....yes, the Pitt Panthers?

  Seventy-five years after Woodruff had anchored his men to victory in 3:14.8, latter-day Panthers Micah Murray (46.9 split), Carvin Ncanata (44.9), Desmond Palmer (47.20) and Brycen Spratling (44.45 anchor) brought their school home proud winners in 3:03.44 over Texas, Oregon, Texas A&M, Jamaica's University Tech and LSU.

  The last Championship of America for Pitt had been the 1990 shuttle hurdles foursome.
   But it was still 75 years since Pitt had won the 4x4 (yards then, meters now.)

 Pittsburgh. 1939. 75 YearsTradition-tradition-tradition.

  Back in 1964, 50 years ago, Kingston College High School's foursome of  Jim Grant, Rupert Hoilette, Ken Keyes and  Olympian-to-be Lennox Miller ran off with the boys 4x110-yard Championship of America title in 42.7 seconds.

  It was the great Herb McKenley, himself a Penn Relays star of stars for Illinois, soon to be the main man of all Jamaica track and field, who first got his island nation's
top scholastic teams to come to Penn, and that 1964 Kingston team was the first to bring home one of those giant-sized Championship of America winners' "wheels."

    Well, half a century later, the boys high school Championship of America went to a team from....yes, Jamaica.

   This time, the winners, Ivan Henry (47.9), Martin Manley (47.7), Shamar Barnes (49.10) and Nathon Allen (47.03 anchor) of St. Jago ran 3:11.73 to beat out ...yes, two other teams from Jamaica, St. Elizabeth Tech and Calabar, with the Queen's Royal College high school team of Trinidad fourth and the top USA entry, T.C. Williams of Alexandria, Va. fifth in 3:18.19.

  Jamaica. 1964. 50 Years. Tradition-tradition-tradition.

  Needless to say, it's to the eternal credit of the very good people of the University of Pennsylvania -  from U. of P. president Dr. Amy Guttmann, athletic director Steve Bilsky and Relays Director Dave Johnson, and on down, that this extraordinary tradition continues being served, year after year after year.

  A small army - over 600 volunteer offcials included - is needed to get all this done.
 The 2014 Penn Relays attracted the representatives of 252 colleges and 1,020 high schools; 654 of those schools sent boys teams, 668 sent girls squads, making the three-day, 35-hour show again a spectacle in a category all its own.

  Take note, too, that Penn served as more than gracious host. 

  The Ivy Quakers had some cheering moments of their own. A pair of those golden P-E-N-N-S-Y-L-V-A-N-I-A champions' watches never left University City. 

   Over at the high jump pit, Penn's own Maalik Reynolds won it all with a clearance of 7 feet, 2 1/4 inches.

  Back on the track, Penn's own Thomas Awad outran a strong field of pro runners to win the Olympic Development Mile, and crashed through the four-minute once-barrier in the process, to take it in 3:58.34.

  Sam Mattis gave it his very best home-team, win-it-all-for-Ben Franklin try, too.
   Over at the newly-dedicated Irving "Moon" Mondschein Throwing Complex, Mattis (who'd broken through a barrier of his own, 200 feet in the discus, a week earlier) was giving it his all for the red-and-blue team.

  But he simply couldn't hold off Rodney Brown of LSU, who tossed one out there 210 feet, 9 inches, to beat the best marks of  every one of  his Penn Relays predecessors.

   They've been throwing the disc at the Penn Relays every year since 1900.  That first winner - as we're reminded on page 21 of the record section of the program - was Dick Sheldon, then of the New York AC, later of Yale, with a whirl of 120 feet, 5 1/4 inches.

   Flying disci. Ever since 1900. Tradition-tradition-tradition.

   Sam Mattis is only a sophomore and he's as promising as they come.

   You know for sure he'll throw his favorite implement a lot further in 2015 and 2016.

   Not even midway through his undergraduate career, he's already well-schooled in the
tradition-tradition-tradition of  the Penn Relays, the three days of the year when the track and field world comes to his own backyard.

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