About 29 hours before Usain Bolt commands the attention of thousands at Franklin Field, a few middle schoolers will be on the exact same stage.
And while just being in the same area code as Bolt is exciting enough, these youngsters will be just some of the approximately 750 middle and junior high students running for glory at Franklin Field.
The tradition of youth events is as old as the Penn Relays Carnival itself, as the competition was originally established in 1895 for high school and college students. In 1904, the event expanded to include middle school and junior high student-athletes.
Storied history or not, the opportunity to run in front of a large, enthusiastic crowd at Franklin Field is just as thrilling each year for the young runners.
“Imagine being in high school or younger,” said Penn Relays director Dave Johnson. “How many kids that age ever perform something in front of that many people? It’s just something you’ll never forget.”
One Penn track star who can attest to that is sophomore sprinter Brian Fulton. During his four years at nearby Malvern Prep, Fulton ran the 4x400 meter relays three times, winning the race his senior year as the team’s anchor. He also qualified for the Relays during his middle school and junior high days as a fresh-faced preteen.
“It was even a more novel experience when I did it then, because I wasn’t used to racing in front of that many people,” he said. “It was really an eye-opening experience.”
In doing so, Fulton also joined the ranks of a prominent alumni base at the Relays.
Comedian Bill Cosby raced at almost every level, from his middle-school days to his time at Temple. P. Diddy ran for his high school, Mount Saint Michael Academy (The Bronx, N.Y.), back when he was known as Sean Combs, and actor Luke Wilson of The Royal Tenenbaums and Legally Blonde also competed in the Relays during his high school days.
With Cosby planning to be in attendance for some of the middle school races, the youth events’ past and present will be represented. This year’s competition boasts a whopping 169 sub-college level events.
While the high school races feature teams from as far as Zimbabwe, the middle school and junior high events are a local affair, with teams from the Philadelphia, South Jersey and Delaware areas.
Johnson welcomes the great diversity and infusion of youth.
“It expands the breadth and scope of the Relays,” he said.
That scope extends to the sidelines as well. Penn Relays has been hosting an initiative for the last decade named School Days, in which local schools have the opportunity to go on field trips to the competition. Last year, the program teamed up with the Penn Museum, offering schools not only the opportunity to take in the action at the Relays but also to participate in a scavenger hunt around the University Museum.
And if Fulton’s experiences are any indication, Franklin Field’s youngest track stars — and fans — are in for a real treat.
“There’s absolutely nothing like it,” the sophomore said. “The yelling and the screaming and everything, it gives you such an adrenaline rush.”
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