The Penn Relays attract plenty of attention over three days of competition, with everyone from junior high school kids to octogenarians taking to the track at Franklin Field. The winners are saluted and rewarded for their victories, but there’s more to it than that.
“I think the participatory part of it is what makes it so big,” former Villanova runner and now Wildcats track coach Marcus O’Sullivan said. “You read about people that are in all different disciplines of life that might have grown up around Philadelphia and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I ran the Penn Relays.’ It’s just something that’s a tradition, and should be cherished because it is definitely one of a kind.”
It seems like everyone has run, jumped or thrown in the Penn Relays. How’s this for a partial list: Wilt Chamberlain, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Paul Robeson, George Steinbrenner, Bruce Dern, and Sen. Bernie Sanders?
Now we’ve come to the 125th running of the Penn Relay Carnival, where track legends such as Jesse Owens, Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis, and Usain Bolt have performed. More is coming this weekend with top high school and college teams, plus Saturday’s USA vs. the World races, thrilling the tens of thousands filling the ancient stadium.
Here’s some of what you’ll see:
Welcome back. Ten of the 16 Championship of America relay winners from last year are back in a bid to repeat. The Houston men’s team, winner of two events in 2018 and coached by former Penn Wood High star and world record holder Leroy Burrell, has its eye on the triple -- 4x100, 4x200, 4x400 -- against stiff competition from South Carolina, Western Kentucky, and UTech of Jamaica.
Happy 20th. The USA vs. the World competition celebrates its 20th running with six relays featuring some of the world’s top sprinters. We can’t wait to see the women’s 4x100 when a strong pair of U.S. teams will take on two units from Jamaica featuring Olympic gold medalists Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce (2008, 2012) and Elaine Thompson (2016).
A doozy of a DMR. Friday’s men’s distance medley relay will match up four of the top seven finishers at last month’s NCAA indoor championships -- Notre Dame (first), Georgetown (third), Indiana (fourth) and Wisconsin (seventh). And there’s defending carnival champion Villanova, which saw its qualifying DMR run for the NCAAs short-circuited because of an injury during the race. The anchor leg -- 'Nova’s Casey Comber, Wisconsin’s Olli Hoare, Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse -- could be epic.
Those Villanova women. The Wildcats are 15-3 in Championship of America races they’ve entered since 2012, and 6-for-6 in the last two years. They will go for titles this year in the distance medley and 4x1500, with Nichole Hutchinson likely to anchor both relays, but coach Gina Procaccio said an injury will prevent them from competing in the 4x800.
Holy Heisman. Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, a graduate of Salem (N.J.) High who finished ninth last season in the Heisman Trophy balloting, will compete for the Badgers in the 4x100. Taylor won back-to-back 100-meter titles in the New Jersey Meet of Champions at Salem. By the way, did you know the Heisman Trophy was named after John Heisman, who played three seasons at Penn from 1889 through 1891 on the offensive and defensive lines?
Here comes the home team. The Penn women have more than a decent chance of contending for a title in the distance medley and the 4x800. Nia Akins, who finished second in the NCAA indoor 800, will run with two other program record holders -- Uchechi Nwogwugwu (400) and Maddie Villalba (1,500) -- in the DMR and probably will anchor the 4x800.
Schedule shuffle. To showcase more championship relays during NBC Sports Network’s coverage Saturday from 12:30 to 3 p.m., the schedule has been rearranged. The 4x800 Championship of America relays are now set for 1 p.m. (men) and 1:15 p.m. (women). The 4x400 C of A finals, which usually wrap up the carnival, will be held in the 2 o’clock hour. The men’s 4-by-mile, normally an early afternoon event, has been pushed back to 4:10 p.m.
Stuff to know. Events on the track tend to run ahead of schedule, so beware.
The carnival village outside the stadium is a great place to mingle, dine, or perhaps see an athlete or two at the Nike tent.
Forget about driving in the area of Franklin Field. Public transportation is the way to go.