For thousands of years, droves of Muslims have made the arduous Hajj, their religious pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah, in commemoration of the trials of Abraham and his family. Every year since Jesus’ death, thousands of Jews and Christians have traveled to Jerusalem, the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity, to worship and view religious relics such as the holy Western Wall. And every year since 1895, thousands of track athletes and devout fans from around the country and the world have headed to Philadelphia, the Mecca of the track world and birthplace of the modern relay event, to compete in the most sacred and revered of all track meets — the Penn Relays.
In its inaugural running on April 21, 1895, 72 athletes from four high schools and four colleges competed in nine relays and a college championship event in front of 5,000 eager onlookers from Philadelphia and neighboring New York and Boston. Since then, the event has grown to become the largest and longest-running uninterrupted track meet in the country. This year’s 108th running will feature more than 23,000 prep, collegiate, independent, professional, and senior athletes and an estimated 110,000 spectators.
Events at the Relays feature some of the best track and field athletes in the world, and victories transcend the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field and place the performer among elite, world-class company. In the past 107 years, Relays alums have medaled in every single Olympic Games except for the 1980 Moscow games, which the United States boycotted. Most recently, at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, 22 former Relays participants won gold medals either individually or as members of a relay team.
“At some point in life,” said event director Dave Johnson, “you’ll be able to say [of an Olympic athlete], oh, I saw him before he was an Olympic star at the Relays.”
Since 1896, Cornell has participated in this enormous event, and this year, the Red will head to the city of brotherly love again to test its best against the best in the world.
“This is a special meet, and we come here wanting to do the best we can,” said women’s head coach Lou Duesing. “This is some of the best competition in the world, and we want to appreciate where we are and take advantage of it.”
Men’s head coach Nathan Taylor also voiced respect for the tough competition his team will face, but added that he has confidence in his athletes to deliver their best performances.
“This is a high-pressure meet,” he said, “but I think this is a good chance for our distance medley relay, long distance guys, and pole vaulters to gain some confidence.”
In the collegiate division of the Relays last year, Cornell’s men and women performed admirably. The women’s 4x400m relay team captured first place and the 4x200m relay took fifth in the collegiate Heptagonal division. Additionally, the women’s distance medley relay placed ninth in the Championship of America division, and the 4x100m relay earned a fifth place medal in the collegiate division. Individually, sophomore Jessica Brown also tied for sixth place in the high jump, clearing 5-3.
Highlights for the men included senior Dan Dombroski’s seventh place finish in the 10,000m run championship, junior Travis Offner’s fourth place medal in the pole vault, and senior Scott Benowicz’s seventh place finish in the javelin throw championship.
This year, each Cornell team will bring roughly 20 athletes to the meet, which for many athletes, is a second, third, or last chance to improve on previous performances and hone their skills.
“Several years ago, I think many of our athletes were awestruck by the level of competition because we weren’t as good then,” said Taylor, “but now that the team is better, many guys think they have a chance to be in the top 10 or even six.”
Both teams ought to have added confidence heading into competition this time around. During the winter season and recently this spring, the men’s and women’s teams have captured both indoor Heps titles and brought home medals from prestigious regional and national meets such as the ECACs, IC4As, and Sea Ray relays.
“My expectation going into the meet this year,” said Duesing, “is for our athletes to appreciate the opportunity to compete and give the very best effort they can — they’ve done that all year long.”
Hoping that their best efforts will yield top finishes are, most notably, the women’s relay teams and hurdlers, and the men’s pole vaulters, distance medley relay team, long distance runners, and javelin throwers.
“I’m really hoping that our relays, which made it through to the ECAC championship races last year and won against several Heps schools, will get out there and run good races,” said Duesing.
The women’s relays, the 4×400 in particular, have several of the top seeds going into this weekend’s competition and hope to continue the winning streak they have built throughout the year.
Speaking about the men’s prospects, Taylor said, “We have some great pole vaulters, a good distance medley team, and some good distance runners, who I hope can get back on top this weekend.”
He also added, “Scott Benowicz is one of the top javelin throwers in the country, and he’ll be competing in the Championship of America bracket, where he’ll go against the top six guys in the country, but I think he can do really well.”
Currently, Benowicz has the sixth best javelin mark in the country this spring, but other Cornell men also have national recognition. Senior Derek Kingrey beat out national competition to claim first in the discuss at the Sea Ray relays two weeks ago, junior Travis Offner has the best triple jump in the Ivy League, and senior Geoff Van Fleet and sophomore Oliver Tassinari have the first and second best 1500m times in the Ivies, respectively.
Though coaches and athletes for both teams are optimistic about their chances to perform well against their competitors and return to Ithaca with medals, they know that the Relays are not the primary focus this spring.
“This is a great chance to harden ourselves against great competition,” said Duesing, “but this meet is a means to an end, to the rest of the season.”
Similarly, Taylor commented, “This is a chance for our guys to hone their skills and build confidence, which gives us a better chance to perform well in the Heps and NCAA regionals coming up.”
Archived article by Everett Hullverson