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RichardsRoss_Sanya-Doha15.jpgSanya Richards-Ross, photo by PhotoRun.net

 

SRR Bids Adieu To Penn


Franklin Field
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

After two days of wet and unseasonably cold weather which challenged the commitment of even the heartiest of track & field fans, the meteorological gods smiled on the City of Brotherly Love with dry conditions and warmer temperatures for the third and final day of the 122nd Penn Relay Carnival.

Fans from all nations - including the customary large and boisterous contingent from Jamaica - poured into Franklin Field to enjoy - indeed celebrate - the oldest and largest annual track & field gathering in the world. Saturday's full agenda included the 17th edition of USA vs. The World - a competition of nations embedded within the meet showcasing a battle of professionals from around the globe seeking to capture several important victories, earn some bragging rights, and perhaps even gain a psychological edge early in this Olympic year.

The robust and raucous crowd of 44,469 was joined by one other uninvited attendee: the unwelcomed specter of yet another potential relay exchange disaster which could once again spoil Team USA's relay efforts. In this Olympic year, could the USA actually execute crisp, clean exchanges, leaving the baton unbruised?

The women kicked off the competition with the 4x100m relay. The USA Red quartet of Tianna Bartoletta, Candyce McGrone, Kimberlyn Duncan, and Carmelita Jeter constituted a formidable team. But could they handle the Jamaican foursome anchored by Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce - one of the most decorated sprinters of all time? Aided by clean exchanges which gave her a slight margin over Fraser-Pryce, Jeter - who anchored Team USA's 4x1 world record-setting performance to capture Olympic gold in London - looked invincible storming down the homestretch, more than holding her own against Fraser-Pryce, and crossing the line first in 42.62. Jamaica [42.90] finished second and Trinidad Tobago [43.43] got up for third. The USA Blue squad of Dezerea Bryant, Kaitlyn Whitney, Miki Barber, and Cambria Jones finished 4th with a solid clocking of 43.71. The United States was off to a good start.

Then it was the men's turn. In recent years, the U.S. men have made some progress in molding a stabilized foursome in the short sprint relay which would cultivate good chemistry and work together in an ego-free environment to polish the crisp stick passes which, when combined with their undeniable speed, could make the U.S. men a realistic challenger to the Bolt-anchored Jamaican quartet at the Rio Olympics later this summer. Mike Rodgers, Justin Gatlin, and Tyson Gay - the USA's first three sprinters on the Red team - have been part of the relay program and regulars on USA's 4x1 teams here for several years.

The initial attempt to start the race was marred by a block slippage that nearly caused leadoff runner Mike Rodgers to stumble. It may have been an omen. With no red cards in sight, the race was called back for a re-start - with a volunteer backstopping Rodger's block to prevent further slippage. With a clean start, the leadoff veteran raced the curve and cleanly passed the baton to Gatlin. The 34 year old former Olympic gold medalist ran a furious second leg, but made only modest gains on Julian Foote, his Jamaican competitor on his outside. A crisp exchange between experienced pros Gatlin and Gay pushed the USA ahead of their Caribbean rivals as Gay tore past the Wall of Fame. But then an all-too-familiar scene unfolded. In the heat of the moment, Isaiah Young - the newbie anchor in an otherwise-seasoned lineup - took off too early which resulted in an awkward, stuttered exchange. The Jamaican fans roared and the Americans groaned as Jamaican anchor Oshane Bailey powered away for an uncontested victory in 38.70. The USA Blue Team - essentially the American B squad of Sean McLean, Wallace Spearmon, Calesio Newman, and Remontay McClain - got up for 4th in 39.02, while bedraggled and disheartened USA Red shuffled home and was eventually DQ'd on a lane violation.

Back on the track with the crowd still abuzz after the baton bungle by the USA men, the American women had to refocus for the task at hand: the women's 4x200m relay. The US team of McGrone, Whitney, Duncan, and Jones was all business. With clean exchanges, the USA women got it done, crossing first in 1:31.17, to edge Jamaica [1:31.34]. "I was a little worried because this is just the beginning of the season," Duncan confided after the win. "But my team gave me motivation. The execution of the passes was good. It's a new track since they redid it. You know, we got on it last minute, but I think we did an awesome job setting it up."

Could the men get back on track in the men's 4x2? The USA would find out with the foursome of Young - with a shot at redemption - and veterans Gatlin, Spearmon and Rodgers. In the moments before for the race, good-natured trash talking and finger-wagging between Spearman and Jamaica's Rasheed Dwyer underscored the vigorous rivalry that the sprinters from the USA and Jamaica share. What was anticipated to be yet another sprint battle between the Americans and their Caribbean nemesis was short-lived. First, the beneficent officials chose to ignore what appeared to all to be a flat-out, clear false start by Young. And shortly after the second start and 120 meters into the opening leg, Jamaica's leadoff runner Justin Livermore wrenched violently and fell awkwardly - the victim of a severe hamstring injury. Unthreatened by the other competitors and employing conservative exchanges, Team USA breezed away to an easy and drama-less victory in 1:20.94, leaving St. Kitts & Nevis [2nd in 1:23.31] and Nigeria [3rd in 1:24.09] in its wake.

Next up was the men's 4x400m relay. And an afternoon which had become dotted with unexpected developments would soon have a few more. Once the staggers smoothed out the field, USA Blue's second runner Brycen Spratling [45.0] emerged on the backstretch with a sizable lead over Brazil. A strong second leg by 3-time Olympic gold medalist Jeremy Wariner [44.5] pushed the USA Red into third. The order of the top three remained unchanged well into a spirited anchor leg. Up front and out of trouble, anchor James Harris [45.5] led USA Blue to a mildly surprising, unchallenged win in 3:02.32. And a heady stretch drive by 2016 world championship gold medalist Mike Berry [44.6] - which featured a clever inside pass right before the line - lifted USA Red [3:02.73] into second just ahead of surprising Brazil [3rd in 3:02.75]. At last, there was a jubilant moment for the men of the Red, White, and Blue. "It feels great running here. It's my first time running here at the Penn Relays post-collegiate. To have the American uniform on, it's a great honor and a blessing. To get the victory on top of this, it's priceless," gushed an invigorated James Harris afterward. "We knew that everybody was looking at us and seeing how we will finish. It's always our race to lose, we wanted to come out and sail above the competition. To go 1-2 with the other USA team [USA Red] is a blessing," the USA Blue anchor added. "My teammates came out and really left it out on the track. We were in the lead from the get-go and we stayed there. Both teams said that we wanted to go 1-2. They [USA Red] dropped back and they fought back for those meters and they got it done. I raced against most of them in college, and it felt great to come together to get a victory and go out and leave everything on the track."

The final event of USA vs. The World would be the women's 4x400m relay. For USA's Sanya Richards-Ross - who earlier in the week had announced on social media her year-end retirement - her anchor leg would be the venue for the reigning Olympic 400m champion, who competes for USA but embraces her Jamaican heritage, to say thanks and goodbye to an adoring Franklin Field audience. Natasha Hastings led off for Team USA and gave Dee Dee Trotter - in full glitter regalia - a 5 meter lead which the London Games 400m bronze medalist quickly stretched to 25 meters. A solid leg by former NCAA 400m champion Phyllis Francis pushed the lead out further and gave everyone what they wanted: a comfortable margin for Richards-Ross to thoroughly enjoy the applause and adoration that the full house was happy to rain down on her. Evoking a wave of cheers which followed her as she circled the track, the American 400m record holder drank it all in - racing unthreatened to seal the win which she topped off with one final smile and a wave to the Penn faithful. Afterward, one of the greatest long sprinters of all time demonstrated remarkable composure in what had to be an emotionally-charged moment for her. "This is my last season competing, and it's been great to reflect on how blessed I've been. My teammates gave me an amazing lead and it felt almost like I was running a victory lap. It's a little bit emotional, and I wanted to take in the moment warming up. It's been a blessing to compete with my teammates and to be a part of team USA. It's been amazing to see the impact that I, just a runner, have had," SRR reflected. "There have been a lot of girls coming up to me asking me not to retire, and I'm trying not to get emotional because every race will be my last one. The Penn Relays is special because even in college I was here running. I love my teammates and being out here doing what I love and being the best I can be. I love all of my fans for supporting me."

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.

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