Just imagine. That should be the slogan of the Penn Relays. If you've never been to the Penn Relays before you should go. Pack your bags, book your ticket and go. Every year the Relays staff manages to put on this whirlwind event, managing thousands of athletes, hundreds of coaches and over 100,000 fans. Just imagine the sheer chaos of keeping over a hundred teams organized to run consecutive 4x400m relays, the starter's pistol being shot off every five minutes no matter what. It's a sight to be seen.
Just imagine running the 4x400m relay in front of nearly 40,000 people screaming and cheering at the top of their lungs, going crazy for a track race. Imagine comedian Bill Cosby firing the gun to start your race then helping pick you up at the finish line if you've fallen. Imagine Olympic gold medalists Jeremy Wariner and Allyson Felix watching you race, as they stand in the infield next to your teammates while preparing for their own races. Imagine air horns sounding as you cross the finish line in victory, as chants of U.S.A., U.S.A. echo in the grandstand. No other meet can match this, and that is what makes the Penn Relays so special
An Eleanor Roosevelt Kind of Weekend
A national record in the 4x800m relay and the best 4x400m relay time ever by a school not named Long Beach Poly or Long Beach Wilson capped the weekend for Eleanor Roosevelt (MD). In one of the most successful relay performance ever seen at the prep level, Eleanor Roosevelt proved once again why they are a serious threat year in and year out in whatever events they decide to run.
After amazing prelim results Thursday, the match-up in the girls 4x800m relay simply inspired. After narrowly missing the U.S. record in 2007 of 8:50.41 (set by Boys & Girls, New York back in 2002), Eleanor Roosevelt (MD) (pictured left by Pat Montferrat) had a lot to prove. To add to the suspense, the squad was the defending champion. Through the first two exchanges it was very apparent that Eleanor Roosevelt, Holmwood Tech (JA) and Edwin Allen (JA) were the three best teams in the field, breaking away by leaps and bounds.
At the anchor leg exchange all three were still packed together and the crowd was going wild. With Edwin Allen leading the pack of three, the anchors from Holmwood Tech and Eleanor Roosevelt looked relaxed. Then, with 200 meters to go, all three athletes really started moving, and into the homestretch they came.
Holmwood Tech pulled to the lead and ran to the win with thousands of Jamaican fans cheering them on down the homestretch. Holmwood Tech won in an amazing 8:41.92, while Eleanor Roosevelt earned a runner-up finish with a new American record of 8:43.12. Edwin Allen finished third in 8:44.75, while Manchester (JA) finished fourth in 8:56.78. Simply outstanding!
Afterwards the Eleanor Roosevelt squad acted incredibly disappointed. It's as if they expected to break the record and were down from getting second. After a few minutes of tears and talking to their coaches, the team came together and became more encouraged by their performance. They knew they had another race to run, another race to try and win. It's hard to grasp setting a national record by seven seconds but still placing second and this squad's emotions showed just that.
Running with the frustration of losing earlier in the day, Eleanor Roosevelt knew they had one last thing to prove at Penn. At the start of the 4x400m relay the focus that lay in the eyes of the squad was incredible. They wanted to win this relay not matter what it tooks and from the gun they attacked. Through the first two legs Eleanor Roosevelt was right with their chief competition of Manchester (JA) and Boys & Girls (NY).
With the baton exchange then going to Afia Charles, Eleanor Roosevelt captured the lead with her 53.5 split and never looked back. Handing off to star anchor Tasha Stanley, the senior cruised hom with a 54.2 leg, crossing the line in 3:37.16, besting runner-up Manchester by over three seconds.
Stanley was the rock that held together the team all weekend long. Her 2:09.6 anchor leg in the 4x8 and her fantastic anchor leg in the 4x4 helped cement the greatest day of relay performances ever by a girls relay squad. Eleanor Roosevelt still has much to prove and with Nike Outdoor Nationals left, you can bet they have a few more statements to make.
Ohio Milers Steal the Show
While the Penn Relays is generally dominated by athletes along the east coast, each year a few dozen national caliber athletes from across the country make the trek to Philadelphia to take part in the historic event. This year the boys and girls mile races stood out with top talent. On the girls side Stephanie Morgan (Barnesville, OH) and Emily Infeld (Beaumont, OH), who placed 1-2 at Nike Outdoor Nationals, were in the field, while Nike Indoor National 800m champion and all-star miler Chelsey Sveinsson (Greenhill, TX) was also entered. These three alone could create quite the race, with Sveinsson known for taking out a furious pace, Infeld known for grinding out the middle of races and Morgan known for a big kick at the finish.
As the gun sounded, marking the start to the second to last race of Thursday's session, Sveinsson jumped to the lead immediately. Through the first quarter the pack of athletes kept together despite the blazing opening split of 67.5 seconds. On the second lap the race split apart quickly, with Sveinsson, Infeld, Morgan (#12 pictured left by Don Rich) and Anna Shields (Lewis S. Mills, CT) continuing the fast pace. As the athletes hit the half way point in 2:20, the trio up top looked relaxed and fast, while Shields was struggling a bit, eventually dropping off the pace at 1,000 meters.
With Sveinsson still leading with 400 meters to go, the trio hit the 1,200 meter mark in 3:33 and were off to the races. Down the backstretch Sveinsson led, until Morgan shot to the lead coming up with 200 meters to go. Around the final turn the three athletes charged home to the finish, with Morgan pulling away over the final 100 meters to win in 4:41.22, a new meet record. Sveinsson and Infeld ran neck and neck down the homestretch, with Infeld pulling away in the last few strides to nip Sveinsson 4:43.31-4:43.51. The crowd stood on their feet cheering wildly, saluting the best girls mile race in the country this season.
With Thursday night marking the girls mile, Friday night included the boys mile. With three of the top five fastest returning milers from 2007 in the field, the hope for a fast mile was something on the minds of many spectators. However, the athletes in the race seemed to have other plans as the race went out very slow.
Coming through the first 400 meter split, Nike Indoor National mile champion Kyle Merber (Half Hollow Hills West, NY) and Kyle Milks (Thousand Islands, ON) led the tight-knit pack through in 68 seconds. On the second lap Pennsylvania's Chris Aldrich (Henderson, PA) jumped to the lead, bringing the entire pack with him through the half way point in 2:13. With so many athletes having late race speed, it seemed as if everyone was content just to sit around and wait for the final lap to come.
With 700 meters to go, Merber took the lead one more time, this time pushing the pace quite a bit, realizing that in order to win the field needed to spread out a bit. A 62 second third lap did just that, stringing the field out, with Cory Leslie (Sandusky-Perkins, OH), Joe LoRusso (Oakton, VA) (#5 pictured right by Don Rich) and the NSIC mile champion Charles White (Cherry Creek, CO) hanging on Merber's shoulder.
Into the gun lap the athletes went, Merber still leading the charge, but looking vulnerable. With 250 meters to go it looked like White was going to make a move, until Leslie shot to the lead and hammered the pace. Around the final turn the group came, but suddenly out of no where, Robby Andrews (Manalapan, NJ) sprung onto the shoulder of Leslie, catching him from the 250 meter point. With 50 meters to go it was uncertain who would win, until Leslie got an extra step on Andrews and dove to the finish.
As the results were posted on the scoreboard, Leslie jumped up in excitement, seeing his name first with a time of 4:12.76. Andrews finished in 4:12.82, while White finished third in 4:14.29.
Afterwards Leslie exclaimed, "I wanted a fast time today, but I'll take a win any day." In a race of kickers Leslie never gave up, showing his late-race speed is as good as any at this point in the season. "With 300 meters to go I knew we all like to kick," he said, "but I thought I had the best chance to win." That's the type of confidence that wins championships, and Leslie showed Friday night that he has what it takes to be a champion.
Vena Keeps On Rolling
For the first time in meet history a freshman was named boys athlete of the meet. All season long one freshman has stood above the rest nationally, so it was no surprise when thrower Nick Vena (Morristown, NJ) (pictured left by Pat Montferrat) was awarded this prestigious title Friday. Since his first throws of the '07-'08 track and field season, Vena's been a star on the rise. His indoor national freshman shot put record put him on the map, but his 66-07.25 throw to win the National Scholastic Indoor Championships (NSIC) put him atop the national list in the event, showing he is the best shot putter in the country regardless of grade level.
Since that indoor championship win, Vena has continued his mission towards greatness. He consistently throws over 60 feet, creates new goals every time he accomplishes one and strives to be the best in the nation. "I've really enjoyed this year so far," Vena said this past Friday, "I have fun every time I go out and I know I have a lot improvements still to make."
On Friday afternoon, in the field covered by the shadow of the stadium across the train tracks, Vena added to his growing legacy. During the first round of the shot put Vena threw 63-06.50, taking the lead heading into the finals. In between the prelims and finals Vena took a few practice throws, one of which nearly eclipsed the 70 foot barrier. Every fan surrounding the ring stood in awe, not believing what they actually saw.
In the final round it seemed like Vena was pressing, scratching his first throw. On his second throw he threw just over 60 feet, while scratching his third throw. "I was really trying to get one out there like my practice throw. I wish I could just take that one and make it count," he said with a hint of disappointment.
Vena's closest competition, Mike Alleman (S.P.-Fanwood, NJ) is someone he's seen often. The two in-state rivals have gone head-to-head over a half dozen times this season and both showed why Jersey may earn a 1-2 sweep at Nike Outdoor Nationals comes June. Alleman's last throw was his best at 62-01.50, but not far enough to beat Vena. "We push each other so much," Alleman said, "Nick is a great athlete and every time we meet we bring out the best in each other."
When watching Vena, sometimes you need to take a step back and remember he's only a freshman. He doesn't look like a freshman, he doesn't throw like a freshman, but he's still getting stronger, still getting his technique down. "I love the shot put. It's my pride and joy," he says.
That pride and joy shows every time he steps in the ring. His competitive fire is easy to see. Tenacity is something you can't teach, you either have it or you don't and Vena certainly has it. It's a rare thing for a freshman to be so good on a national scale, but Vena doesn't want to be the best just this year, he wants to be the greatest of all time. With a Penn victory and athlete of the meet status, he certainly continues to build his credentials toward being the best shot put athlete ever.
The Show Carries On
With the 114th Penn Relays coming to an end, the focus now shifts to the rest of the season, where conference titles are still to be won, district and regional championships are up for grabs and the greatness of nearly every state meet yet to be contested. While the focus shifts forward, the magic of this year's Penn Relays will not be forgotten.
Meet records, exciting crowds, great weather and the rest of the story this meet always seems to offer will be remembered fondly when looking back at the best of '08. So, just imagine what this meet was like 114 years ago, remember what it was like this year and think about what it will be like next year, with a new set of faces ready to add to the history of the Penn Relays. Perhaps more national records will fall. Maybe a certain freshman shot putter will throw 70 feet as a sophomore. The options are endless really. Just imagine.