As we post this, David Hunter and his extremely patient wife are driving 400 miles back to Ohio. His 800 mile round trip to the 123rd Penn Relays show his devotion to the sport and you, our readers. This is his third column in three days, covering the amazing Penn Relays! Thanks, David!
April 29th, 2017
In 2000, Penn mastermind Dave Johnson concocted a novel plan to incorporate track & field professionals into the Penn Relay Carnival. The idea was grounded upon the concept of a global team relay competition. The United States – the “home country” – would take on teams assembled by other nations comprised of pros looking for an appropriate season opener for their extended outdoor seasons. When the approach was embraced by both USATF and NBC, the threads of both professional track & field and international team competition were weaved into the Penn Relays tapestry.
18 years later, USA vs. The World is a beloved fixture and a critical element of Penn’s concluding day. Yellow, black, and green are predominant throughout Franklin Field as roving throngs of Jamaican fans – armed with air horns – help fill Franklin Field on Day Three. With a new pact recently inked among USATF, NBC, and Penn, the USA vs. The World concept – borne at the turn of the century – will march on for at least another 4 years.
The annual 6-event global battle got underway with the women’s 4 x 100 meter relay. The race would be a 4-team competition among the British Virgin Islands, Jamaica [which would be anchored by reigning Olympic 100 meter and 200 meter champion Elaine Thompson], USA Red, [America’s “A” squad of Dezerea Bryant, Kim Duncan, English Gardner, Morolake Akinosun] and USA Blue [a quartet comprised of veteran Miki Barber and 3 of the nation’s emerging young sprinters: Lekeisha Lawson, Tawanna Meadows, and Alexis Love]. USA Red got out well with serviceable exchanges from Bryant to Duncan and then from Duncan to Gardner. The Blue team also was gliding along with solid passes on their first two exchanges. Indeed, USA fans were roaring as the USA squads were 1-2 as American sprinters Gardner and Barber raced past the Wall of Fame toward the final exchange. Gardner cleanly delivered the stick to Akinosun in full flight, giving her a 4 meter lead on Jamaica. What happened next demonstrated why Elaine Thompson won double sprint gold in Rio. Trailing both American quartets and yet unflustered, the Jamaican anchor quickly revved up to top speed, passed both Yanks about 50 meters out and won going away – stopping the clock in 42.25. Akinosun crossed next in 42.42 for USA Red and USA Blue got up for 3rd in 42.90 with the BVI 4th in 44.99. World 1, USA zip.
Next it was the men’s turn for the short relay. LeShon Collins – who would later run 10.11 to win the Penn Relays 100 meter title – got out well, passed effectively to veteran Wallace Spearman, but USA Red still trailed its Jamaican rivals as they raced down the backstretch. A strong curve run by USA Red’s Beejay Lee tightened the race. A perfectly-timed baton exchange between two athletes in full flight is beautiful to behold – and the capacity crowd at Franklin Field witnessed one when the incoming Lee made a picture-perfect, textbook pass to John Teeters on the anchor. That precise execution gave Teeters – a towering dash man – just the margin he needed. Holding off Jamaica’s Jevaughn Minzie down the stretch, Teeters crossed first in 38.87 with Jamaica close behind in 39.01. The Dominican Republic finished 3rd in 40.32. The specter of prior relay disasters still lingers as the USA Blue team did not finish. Yet with the Red team’s victory, USA knotted the score at 1.
Next up came the sprint medleys. Perhaps influenced by the available athletes, the women ran a shorter, speedier version of the medley – 100/100/200/400 – as opposed to the more conventional sequence of 200//200/400/800. While the thought of stick passes between sprinting athletes running at different speeds gave rise to some anxiety, the baton remained unbruised. Akinosun, Gardner, and Dezerea Bryant got the stick around the first lap without incident, but the race remained close as the teams reached the third exchange. Shrewd veteran Barber – the USA Red anchor – quickly grabbed the stick and immediately bee-lined to the rail. It was a nimble move that gave her the lead she never relinquished. Running a savvy closing 400, Barber hit the line in 1:35.59 – a new American and world record for this seldom-run medley sequence. Jamaica crossed 2nd in 1:36.67, while USA Blue – anchored by former Harvard star Autumne Franklin – finished 3rd in 1:37.22. USA 2, The World 1.
The USA vs. The World sprint medley for the men was the more orthodox distance and sequence. And the customary version proved to be to the Americans’ liking. After no incidents on the first two sprint legs run by Lee and Spearmon for USA Red, Bryshon Nellum ran a heady 400 meter leg to deliver a 5 meter lead to anchor Donovan Brazier. USA Blue was right there with its anchor Casimir Loxsom only a few strides back as the 800 meter final leg commenced. Loxsom attempted to summon a decisive move with 300 meters remaining, but a subtle tempo shift by Brazier thwarted any pass by the former Penn State star. Pulling away slightly, Brazier finished his leg in 1:44.14, bettering Loxom’s 1:45.66. USA Red’s winning time of 3:11.45 set a new Penn Relays and Franklin Field record. USA 3, The World 2.
With a 3-1 lead and the two 4×4’s – always a strong event for the Americans – the only remaining competitions, prospects looked good for the Red, White, and Blue. But, as the saying goes, that’s why they run the races.
In the women’s long relay, USA Red found itself in a close battle with the Jamaicans. The islanders had a 10 meter lead at the final exchange as USA’s Natasha Hastings chased after Jamaica’s anchor. Rocketing around the opening curve, Hastings extinguished the Jamaican lead in the first 100 meters. That adrenalin-laced spurt proved costly as the American – who split 50.96 – was unable to mount any further attack. Jamaica’s anchor Janieve Russell [51.02] crossed first in 3:28.32 to edge USA Red which finished in 3:29.30. USA 3, The World 2. “I probably should have been more patient,” lamented Hastings afterwards.
It was up to the USA men to avoid a team tie with a victory in the final USA vs. The World event – the men’s 4×4. A strong 2nd leg by Brycen Spratling gave USA Red a 3 meter lead. Javon Hutchinson’s 45.39 3rd leg pushed the American advantage out to 8 meters when he passed to Calvin Smith for the final circuit. With the crowd roaring both “USA, USA” and “Ja-Mai-Ca”, Smith and Jamaica’s Fitzroy Dunkley went to work. The Jamaican anchor began closing as the duo raced past the Wall of Fame. Dunkley had the better lift down the homestretch, catching and passing a laboring Smith 35 meters from the line for the Jamaican win [3:03.14] over the Americans [3:03.25]. Final tally: USA 3, The World 3.
In addition to the global team battle among the professionals, the final day produced a number of other sparkling performances:
- The Oregon men – who won the DMR the preceding day – completed the distance double in the Championship of America college men’s 4 x mile relay when Duck anchor Sam Prakel unleashed a powerful kick over the final furlong for the win in 16:21.81.
- Jamaica’s G.C. Foster raced 38.84 to successfully defend its title in the C of A college men’s 4 x 100 meter relay.
- It was a record-setting day for Jamaica’s Calabar. The Kingston high school won its 7th C of A high school boys 4 x 100 meter relay. Calabar’s winning time of 39.00 flat crushed the old Penn Relays record of 39.63. Later in the day, Calabar returned to take the C of A high school boys 4 x 400 relay with a record-setting clocking of 3:08.59.
- The women of Oregon also altered the record book. After winning the C of A college women’s 4 x 100 meter relay with a record-setting clocking on Day Two, the Lady Ducks returned on the final day to complete the sprint triple with record-setting victories in both the C of A collegiate women’s sprint medley [3:xx.xx] and the C of A collegiate women’s 4 x 400 meter relay [3:24.72- faster than the pros!]
- Auburn [3:05.19] – with a fine anchor leg – held off Penn State [3:05.69] and Jamaica’s MICO [3:05.76] to capture the C of A college men’s 4 x 400 meter relay crown in the final event of the meet.
Oh, and Angel Piccirillo and her Villanova teammates did it again. Aided once again by another ruthless 200 meter kick by Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner, the Wildcats won their 13th C of A collegiate women’s 4 x 800 meter relay in 8:24.87. Piccirillo – who had Nova’s fastest split of 2:03.62 – captured her record-setting 9th Penn Relays watch. Those who say Angel’s record of 9 relay wins at Penn will never be broken are forgetting one thing: at The Penn Relay Carnival records are always broken. Dave Hunter