The Penn Relays Carnival at Franklin Field in Philadelphia is clearly the storied, the most prestigious and the most historic track and field event in United States history.
Other than competing in the Olympic Games, there is no bigger event, no more glorious of a venue than the Penn Relays. It’s the oldest and largest track meet in the country. It’s the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Stanley Cup finals all rolled into one magnificent five-day weekend.
More than 15,000 participants from high schools, colleges and organized track clubs convene in Philadelphia each year for the Penn Relays Carnival. Over 100,000 track enthusiasts annually attend the Relays.
Over the years, a sprinkling of Hudson County teams has enjoyed some success at Penn.
Decades ago, there were the champions from Snyder, from Lincoln and from Memorial that came home from Philly with a famed Penn Relays wooden sphere of excellence, but in recent times, the relay teams that go to Philly and come home with anything are extremely rare.
Most local teams send their athletes to Franklin Field just for the experience, not to actually go to the Penn Relays and win.
However, this year, there were two local relay teams that went to the Penn Relays and collected the coveted plaque, namely a boys’ 4×400-meter relay team from McNair Academic and a girls’ 4×400-meter relay team from North Bergen.
Imagine that. Hudson County had two Penn Relays champions in the same year. It’s almost too unfathomable to comprehend.
First, on Thursday, the North Bergen girls’ team took to the track at Franklin Field.
Head coach Elson Smajlaj (which is somehow pronounced like he was after the race-namely SMILEY) scouted the teams that were in the race against the Bruins, compared and contrasted times and thought that the Bruins had an outside shot.
“I had an idea after looking at all the times,” Smajlaj said. “I checked all the others’ times. But in all honesty, we had not run the 4-by-4 all year together and we were doing it with a different combination.”
But Smajlaj had the four runners practice together on Wednesday before heading to Philadelphia just to be sure.
“We had one final workout,” Smajlaj said. “That’s when I decided upon what four would run. I knew we would be in the top three.”
As it turned out, the Bruins were champions.
“It’s an amazing feeling,” Smajlaj said. “The girls have been watching their race over and over. Once Natalie Gomes got the baton, I knew we were going to win. It’s an amazing experience for a young coach. It’s something you only dream about.”
The Bruins had a tough start coming out of the blocks, but sophomore Shayla Morales held her own.
“I felt nervous starting the race,” Morales said. “I didn’t know how we were going to do.”
Junior Nohelia Olivas got the baton next.
“When I got the baton, we were in sixth place,” Olivas said. “I was just trying to get as many girls as I could. It was tough.”
Olivas then handed the baton to sophomore Kayori Hanna. The Bruins were now in fourth.
“When I was standing in line, I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m going to pass these kids,’” Hanna said. “We had a solid team. I knew we had a chance.”
Senior Gomes was the anchor. The Bruins were in second place when Gomes got the baton.
“From the start, I knew within the first four or five steps that I had a shot,” Gomes said. “We kept bobbing back and forth. Ever since I’ve been running, I dreamed of a moment like this. I said, ‘Let’s try to win this.’”
Sure enough, Gomes won it and the Bruins had their slice of Penn Relays history.
“At first, I couldn’t believe it,” Morales said. “We really won?”
“When we won, I didn’t know how I would feel,” Olivas said. “It’s like a dream come true.”
“I didn’t think I had a chance to be part of such an accomplishment,” Hanna said. “It’s something to remember forever.”
“What can you say?” Gomes said. “We won the Penn Relays. That says it all.”
A few days later, for good measure, the same quartet went to the Randolph Relays in New Jersey and won the gold medal there, the same girls in the same order.
“Something works there,” Smajlaj said. “I think we’re going to stick with it for a while.”
Two days later, it was McNair Academic’s turn.
Head coach Matt Hogan thought he had a competitive team.
“But I didn’t think we’d win,” said Hogan, who coached the McNair Academic girls’ team in 2007 featuring Hudson Reporter Co-Female Athlete of the Year Leslie Njoku that won a Penn Relays race. “It’s sort of a wild card going to Penn. You really don’t know how you’ll do in your heat. I knew we had a good team, but they hadn’t run together much.”
Sophomore Keishawn Jones plays football at Lincoln, but plays basketball and runs track at McNair where he attends. He’s able to play football at Lincoln because McNair doesn’t field a football team. He was the missing piece.
“I knew he was a good athlete,” Hogan said of Jones, who ran the third leg.
Senior Rai Brathwaite ran the first leg.
“We had a pep talk right before the race and our goal was to win it,” Brathwaite said.
But the Cougars were in 10th place out of 12 teams in the first few meters.
Senior Jose Espinal took the baton from Brathwaite.
“Winning wasn’t on my mind,” Espinal said. “At worst, I thought we had a chance for second.”
After Jones ran his leg, only seven teams were ahead of the Cougars. But the Cougars had their main man, their stud, junior Haig Rickerby, to run the anchor leg.
“When Keishawn was finishing up, I took a glance up and noticed that there was a bit of distance,” Rickerby said. “I wasn’t that confident. But as I started running, I started to feel better. I just started catching kids and kept going and going.”
“He’s the real deal,” Hogan said. “He’s been running real well, but he was electric on Saturday. I’ve watched the video three times and I still can’t believe it. He keeps getting better and better on it.”
“I started to think that we had this,” Brathwaite said. “I watched him pass runner after runner. I was standing near the finish line with other runners having a cup of water. I jumped up and down and knocked the water out of everyone else’s hands.”
Rickerby’s anchor leg is something to behold. It actually looks like he was shot out of a cannon, like he was running at top speed and the rest were just standing there. He blew by the six runners and caught the last one at the wire to win the race. His last 400 meters were run in 48.5 seconds.
“I’ve seen the race a few times on video,” Rickerby said. “I know what happened but I still can’t believe it. It was exciting. Of all the places to have a race like that, it would be Penn. It’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
“There was a good crowd watching and they all noticed him,” Hogan said. “You hear the PA system announcing his name. I knew we never won before there, but to have it happen like that? Needless to say, the coach was ecstatic. It’s one of the most exciting anchor legs I’ve ever seen. I’ve had other coaches watch that and say the same.”
The 3:29 that the Cougars ran set a new school record. McNair had been second at Penn twice prior, but never won.
“He ran by seven kids to win by seven-hundredths of a second,” Hogan said. “I know the other side. We got nipped at the finish line in 2005. This was pretty amazing.”
“Every time we walk into the gym, we see the girls’ plaque on the walls,” Rickerby said. “Now, it will be so exciting to see this one up there.”
“It was absolutely amazing,” Brathwaite said. “I got a chance to run with Haig. He’s bound to do great things. It was a perfect place and time. There’s always going to be a huge sense of pride. I’m proud of my team.”
“I went to the Penn Relays as a freshman and I never thought I’d win there,” Espinal said. “I’m glad I got the chance to be a part of it.”
And the two teams had a chance to be part of history at the Penn Relays Carnival.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.