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Future Olympians shine at 2013 Penn Relays

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Jamaicans from as far away as London, England – and all points in between – converged at the Franklin Field in Pennsylvania to reminisce, congregate and cheer their high school teams of choice, country and region.

But mostly they were drawn to the 119th annual Penn Relays to indulge their passion for track and field and also provide support against some formidable teams from the United States and other parts of the world.

Dave Johnson, director of Relays, said officials received 1,070 entries and expected 50 foreign teams to participate. The Penn Relays, which began in 1895, hosts high-school athletes and Jamaica’s entrance began in 1964 when several Jamaican high school teams traveled from the tiny island nation to match their skills against athletes from professional teams, colleges and universities here.

This year good weather and several Olympians attracted record numbers, which peaked past the entire population of Grenada’s 110,000.

An estimated crowd of 111,284 attended.

Jamaica’s black, green and gold colors were dominant. Emblazoned on flags, T-shirts, bandanas and numerous visible paraphernalia, the banner proved indistinguishable from all the others. Chants between American supporters and their Jamaican counterparts during the US vs. the World relays stole the spotlight.

Perhaps, the annual highlight, the fierce rivalry generated by the US vs. the World relays has seen the likes of Usain Bolt, Michael Johnson, Veronica Campbell Brown and Allyson Felix. Last year, Team USA swept the world relays for the first time in history, and a stellar international contingent sought to topple them this year. More than 15 countries competed, with relays contested in the 4×100, 4×400, women’s 4×800m and men’s distance medley relays.

U.S. Olympic silver relay medalists Justin Gatlin, Trell Kimmons, Ryan Bailey, Doc Patton and Jeff Demps beat the Jamaican team of Nesta Carter of the 2012 Olympic gold medal relay, along with Jason Young, Kimari Roach, Dexter Lee and Rasheed Dwyer in the Men’s 4×100-m

This time, Jamaica settled for second (3:01.15), Bahamas for third (3:02.23) and the second home entry, USA Blue, ran fourth (3:02.64.)

But Jamaican women were unrivalled in the 4×100-m.

Jamaica’s female champs anchored by two-time Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce proved no match for the USA’s team. When the gun signaled the start for Anniesha McLaughlin, Sherone Simpson and Kerron Stewart there was no looking back or stopping until the finish.

The Jamaican team of Simpson, Stewart, McLaughlin and Fraser-Pryce ran 42.42 seconds, the second fastest in the world this year. Three of the women -- with the exception of McLaughlin, ran in the London Olympics last summer, as the Jamaicans beat the USA Blue and USA Red. The women’s sprint relay team was the only winners of the four Jamaican squads that competed. The men’s 4x400m team, behind a brilliant anchor leg from Errol Nolan was edged out by USA and had to settle for second place.

The women had previously won in 2002 with the team of Tanya Lawrence, Merlene Frazer, Beverly McDonald and Juliet Campbell, and were awarded the 2004 victory after the USA team that included sprinter Marion Jones who was disqualified.

Yesterday, Simpson gave the team a decent start, handing over to Stewart, who ran fiercely to hold off Allyson Felix. She handed the baton in front to McLaughlin. Fraser-Pryce, who was beaten in her previous appearance was determined to win. She held off the meteoric Jeneba Tarmoh who anchored the USA Red team.

Afterwards Fraser-Pryce told reporters she knew the USA, even without Carmelita Jeter, who sat out the meet, would be strong.

“I knew they were strong, the world record holders and favorites, but we had no fear, we came in here relaxed and everyone was in good shape.”

“When I got the baton in front there was no way I was going to allow her to catch me.”

The USA won three other “USA Vs. The World” events - the men’s 4x100, the women’s 4x400 and the women’s 4x800.

In the women’s 4x400, a close finish placed the USA Red’s 3:22.66 to Great Britain 3:22.68 and Jamaica’s 3:24.11.

Perhaps the most spectacular home team win came in the women’s 4x800.

The Penn Relays highlight six USA vs. The World relays - the men’s and women’s 4x100-meter and 4x400, plus a distance medley relay for men and a 4x800 for women. The gold-medal men’s 4x400 relay team from the Bahamas competed.

A pair of Olympic individual gold winners - Kirani James of Grenada (400 meters) and Felix Sanchez of the Dominican Republic (400 hurdles) competed for the Caribbean all-stars in the same race.

They were forced to settle for sixth. Sanchez struggled at 46.9; James held the fastest speed at 44.1.

Twenty-four athletes who have competed at the Penn Relays won Olympic gold medals last year.

From a field of international runners representing the home team, Kenya, Ethiopia, Great Britain, Bahamas, Canada, Germany, Nigeria and Trinidad and Tobago the black, green and gold team proved formidable.

Jamaica’s Gleneve Grange threw 178 feet one inch to break the previous discus record by more than 10 feet. She established a new junior record and earned her new personal best and distinguished herself at the 119th Penn Relays Carnival as winner of the title of High School Girls Athlete for Individual Events.

All-boys Jamaican, Calabar High School’s Jevon Francis was named the Penn Relays High School Boy Athlete for Relay Events when he clocked 44.9 seconds to anchor to secure his team’s win of the Championships of Americas 4x400m relays at Franklin Field.

Francis was the seventh Jamaican to win the award since 1990 and the first since 2010 when a fellow national -- Julian Forte -- took home the award.

The island’s flag waved alongside the USA’s throughout the three-day meet. Last year when the island celebrated 50 years of independence Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller hand delivered the banner to relay organizers who had declared that Jamaica’s national flag would officially be designated to fly “into perpetuity” as the only foreign flag. At this year’s Penn Relay Carnival in Philadelphia from April 25-27 Jamaica’s national colors seemed to dominate in the stands. Not only because of the recognition of Jamaica’s celebration of 50 years of independence last year, but the contributions made to the track and field festival for nearly five decades by Jamaican athletes.

The Penn Relays receive worldwide attention with the 14th annual “USA vs. the World” competition, renewing the passionate rivalry between the United States and Jamaica and, this year, involving athletes who won gold medals in the 2012 London Olympics.

However, the Drake Relays, also held on the same weekend in Des Moines, Iowa, strive to get noticed on the other side of the county.

A local supermarket there reportedly contributes almost $500,000 in prize money for events featuring Olympic medalists from last year.

The 13 Drake events over the weekend include six on the track worth $50,000 each; seven in the field for $25,000 each. Two of the competitions, the men’s 110-meter hurdles and the women’s pole vault, included the gold, silver, and bronze medalists from London.

Drake reported 20 Olympians who competed in London from more than a dozen countries.

“I think this is terrific for track in general, and they’re putting the money mostly into the elite athletes,” Penn’s Johnson, said.

“I think it dovetails very well for what we do. They are getting a different group of athletes than what we draw here. It gives almost all the major professional athletes a good weekend of competition, either at Penn or at Drake. So I think it’s terrific,” he added.

The sporting events kicked off the outdoor track season for USA Track and Field, a four-meet run that concludes with the national championships in June in Des Moines.

The nationals will determine who will compete for Team USA in the world championships later in the summer in Moscow.

Johnson said he is intrigued enough by the prize money being offered by Drake to see if the Penn Relay Carnival “could step up to the plate and do something similar.” But he added that putting on races for prize money would be “a tough ‘if’ to get past.”

In addition to acquiring sponsorships to fund the money pool, a concern would be finding the time to conduct the races given that the Penn Relays are jam-packed with more than 300 events over three days and that nearly all the work involved to conduct the carnival is done by volunteers who pay their way to Philadelphia.

“We run our officials ragged over three days,” he said. “One of the reasons for not going to Sunday is to give people a full day to fly home, get their feet back on the ground, get some sleep, and go to work Monday. There’s also the expense of running this on a Sunday. The costs for personnel would be staggering.”

When the Penn Games ended Texas A&M totaled eight wins and claimed 12 victories over the course of the three-day festival.

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