The 2014 Penn Relays were a fantastic event. Another reminder of the true excitement for our sport and where our strengths are in track and field. Dave Hunter wrote this third of three articles on Day three for our coverage of the Penn Relays. I lost it for a day in my emails, so my sincere apologies. Read it. Enjoy it. Savor the experience.
120th Penn Relay Carnival
Global Relay Combat At Penn
“USA vs. The World” Highlights Day Three
April 26, 2014
15 years ago, the Penn Relay brain trust came up with an innovative concept to spice the closing day of the Carnival: a final day competition pitting the best post-collegiate American athletes against other national teams from around the globe. The mini-meet embedded within the Penn Relays -which came to be known as “USA vs. The World’ – has been a fixture ever since.
On yet another beautiful spring day in the City of Brotherly Love, the first event in the USA vs. The World competition was the women’s 4 x 100 relay. The Penn Relays – often the outdoor season opener for many professional track & field athletes – is successful in capturing some, but rarely all, of the top post-collegian athletes to represent the U.S. in this marquee global showdown. But the High Performance division of USATF did an admirable job in rounding up a U.S. squad which was an impressive mix of promising newcomers and experienced veterans.
Jamaica exploded to a fabulous start in the women’s 4 x 100. An excellent first pass from Carrie Russell to Kerron Stewart gave the Jamaican women the lead as they roared down the backstretch. American sprint veteran Muna Lee – a superior curve runner – chipped away at the Jamaican lead on leg three to give the USA women a chance. But USA’s fourth runner Lekeisha Lawson was no match for Jamaica’s anchor. UConn-trained sprinter Trisha-Ann Hawthorne – with an 11.22 100m PR to her credit – powered down the homestretch unthreatened for the Jamaican victory. Jamaica’s world-leading clocking of 42.81 gave Jamaica the win – and The World a 1-0 lead as the afternoon got underway.
Next up on the track was the men’s 4 x 100 relay. While the USA has averted baton gaffes in recent years, the specter of past exchange disasters still lingered. Could the Americans get the stick around unbruised? The USA quartet of Charles Silmon, Justin Gatlin, Rakieem Salaam, and Walter Dix – while not likely the American “A” squad – would be a formidable opponent for the Jamaican foursome which would be Blake-less and Bolt-less.
Charles Silmon’s excellent start got the USA team rolling. At the first exchange Gatlin – running out of exchange room – was forced to slow for just an instant to avert a lane violation. Gatlin roared down the back stretch, closing in on Jamaica and exhibiting the speed that earned him gold and bronze Olympic 100m medals. Gatlin’s spectacular baton pass to Mookie Salaam was enough to give USA a slight lead. Salaam ran a scorching curve to give Dix all that he needed. An impressive anchor leg by Oshane Bailey was not enough as Dix held off the Jamaican to win by inches – 38.57 to 38.58. “For the race to come down to the wire the way this did is what you live for as an athlete,” exclaimed Dix. “You prepare for moments like this.”
The USA women next took the track looking to give the U.S. the lead by winning in the Sprint Medley. As is almost always the case in this short tactical relay, the 800 meter anchor leg would be crucial. Knowledgeable Penn fans were eagerly anticipating a final leg duel between Jamaica’s Natalya Goule – a former LSU star turned professional – and Ajee Wilson of the USA. New Jersey native Wilson – pursuing her professional middle distance career while a student at Temple – is an adopted favorite of the Franklin Field crowd. Alexandria Anderson – warmed-up from her earlier participation in the 4 x 1 – pushed the Americans out to a slight lead over the first 200. A strong leg two carry for the Jamaicans sent the leg three 400 runners off in a virtual tie. Patricia Hall’s stunning lap opened up a 12 meter lead for 800 meter Jamaican anchor Goule. Could USA’s Wilson get the Americans back into the race? It looked unlikely when Goule’s 12 meter lead remained unassailed at the bell. Was Ajee out of gas – or just being patient? The American junior record holder in the 800 – fully composed – began to move with 250 meters remaining. With the capacity crowd offering deafening encouragement, Wilson caught and easily passed a spent Goule to give the USA the victory in 3:37.94.
The U.S. anchor offered some insight into her real time race strategy. “Hearing everybody cheering made me say, ‘let me just go and catch up to her.’ But then I thought about it and said, ‘no, let me just be patient and pick her off little by little then the last 200 give it all you have.'” Wilson’s 1:59.6 early season anchor leg suggests she is ready for big performances in this non-championship year. And just like that, it was USA 2, The World 1.
In the men’s Distance Medley Relay, despite an opening 200 meter “jog” in 36 seconds, the 1200 meter leadoff runners quickly made it respectable with USA’s David Torrence running the opening leg in 2:59.53 to give the American quartet a slight lead. A workmanlike 46.12 second leg 400 by Quentin Inglehart-Summers gave USA teammate Brandon Johnson a 4 meter lead at the start of leg 3 – the 800. With adrenalin flowing, the young middle distance specialist went out hard covering the opening lap in 49 seconds. But Johnson didn’t crack as he finished his 800 leg in a sterling 1:45.55 to give the USA a 25 meter lead going into the final leg. It was now up to Leo Manzano to finish the job. The reigning Olympic 1500 meter silver medalist didn’t panic when Australia anchor Collis Birmingham came from behind to take the lead with a kilometer remaining. Manzano – a vicious closer – uncorked a 54 second final lap to drive without opposition for the win. The former Texas athlete’s 1600 split of 3:57.18 gave the USA a finishing time of 9:28.27. Team USA had it going now: USA 3, The World 1.
The USA women trotted out a top flight quartet to do battle in the women’s final “USA vs. The World” event: the 4 x 400 relay. Keshia Kirtz [formerly Baker] clocked an opening 52.17 but USA trailed after the first leg when Christine Day gave the Jamaicans a slight lead after leg one. On leg two, USA’s Monica Hargrove [51.7] mounted a valiant challenge for the lead, but when her bid to take over around the Wall of Fame curve was thwarted, wily Patricia Hall pushed the Jamaican lead out to 7 meters. On the third circuit, USA’s Dee Dee Trotter – bedecked in her customary race-final glitter war paint – went to work. The Olympic 400m bronze medalist split 51.7 to eliminate nearly all of Jamaica’s lead as the USA anchor Jessica Beard took the stick a half stride behind Jamaica’s Shericka Williams. Beard – a multiple-time Olympic and World Championship medalist – showed why she is often called upon in the clutch. With a veteran’s composure, Beard waited until the 200 meter mark before unleashing a powerful drive to the line that Williams could not match. Beard’s final lap in 50.46 was too much for the Jamaican anchor. The USA women’s 4 x 400 victory – in the world-leading time of 3.25.62 – upped the tally: USA 4, The World 1. “Once I saw that all my teammates laid it out on the line, I felt like they left me no choice but to go out there and represent everything that they’ve done and also for Team USA,” a smiling Beard exclaimed.
Could the USA men’s 4 x 400 squad put the capstone on a great day for American track & field? Kyle Clemons – the 2014 U.S. indoor 400m champion – set the tone early with an out-of-the-blocks
45.8 opening leg and a clean hand off to Kind Butler. The Bahamas second runner Demetrius Pinder – still smarting after temporarily losing his Olympic gold medal in a Florida car theft – was anything but kind to Butler as he snatched the pole for the Bahamians. David Verburg – USA’s third runner – set sail with a 4 meter deficit. Dueling for the lead around the Wall of Fame curve, Verburg [44.5] had the US poised for a last lap battle as 49,103 fans braced themselves for an expected anchor leg dog fight between USA’s Manteo Mitchell and Jamaica’s Jermaine Brown. It was not to be. Groans filled Franklin Field as Verburg and Mitchell bungled the pass. While the stick was never dropped, Mitchell – performing a ballet-like pirouette – spun completely around in one of the most confounding baton exchanges ever performed at the Penn Relays. The race was essentially over as Jamaica – unthreatened – cruised on for the win in 3:00.78. A clearly disconsolate Mitchell barely held on to second place [3:03.31] – nearly ceding the runner-up spot to the fast-closing Brazilian foursome [3:03.32]
While the re-emergence of USA baton exchange woes is a frustrating development, it should not be allowed to overshadow the many sparkling performances that over 100,000 Franklin Field fans witnessed on the track and in the field during the 3-day running of the 120th Penn Relay Carnival. Philadelphia’s annual springtime track bonanza clearly shows that the broad-based high school track & field program in this country remains an effective engine that cultivates and showcases young talent; collegiate programs are robust and serve as sophisticated incubators for further athlete development; and elite post-collegiate American performers have shown in London and Moscow – and in Philadelphia with a 4-2 edge in this year’s “USA vs. The World” – that U.S. athletes are worthy global competitors. Now if we can just figure out how to get that stick around…