The first time I came to Penn in April 2008, I didn’t tour campus or attend an information session. Instead, I made a pilgrimage to the Penn Relays.
After getting off the train at 30th Street Station with a printout map and a backpack full of clothes, I nervously wandered the maze of streets with Franklin Field in my sights.
As I turned the corner onto Walnut Street, a blast of jerked chicken, goat curry and plantains hit me. I immediately recognized the sea of stands from the pictures my track coach had shown me.
At the time, I was only a sophomore in high school, but I had been running for more than six years. This was my chance to see track and field in its purest form.
When I entered Northern Valley Demarest High School the year before, I could have never imagined the quasi-mythical air surrounding the meet. The Relays were a hallowed race, reserved for only the best.
Each day before practice I would “knock-the-yock” — a grainy wooden plaque with four runners being presented the winners’ olive wreath, a trophy from the Penn Relays. That plaque was a trophy commemorating the pinnacle of my school’s athletic excellence — the 1960 4x400-meter relay team that won the Relays’ coveted High School Championship of America.
The Relays were the perfect place for my coach, Mike Theuerkauf. A New Jersey state champion in the shot put and scholarship athlete at the University of Virginia, he always told me his biggest disappointment was finishing second at Penn Relays.
And here I was, in the shadow of Franklin Field — at the mecca of high school and college track and field — on a gorgeous spring day.
I waited behind swarms of athletics aficionados to try and steal a glimpse of the supernatural 400-meter world champion Jeremy Wariner.
With my head on a swivel I tried to count the number of high schools I recognized, the different state championships T-shirts and even the rare college track suit from Florida State, Georgia or Tennessee.
Once inside the stadium, I sat down with my plate of fried plantains, listening for the sound of the gun. As the morning cool gave way to the afternoon warmth I revelled in thrills of come-from-behind wins, the devastating fall and the occasional record-breaking performance that sent the Jamaicans into a frenzy.
Looking back on that day, I found that my experience as a track athlete was exemplified by the highs and lows of the relays — which were more than just wins or losses but rather about competing.
Now, three years later, I am set to attend all three days of the athletic event for the first time. And I am praying they are just as good as I remember.
SUSHAAN MODI is a freshman international studies and business major from Demarest, N.J. He is Assistant Sports Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. His email address is dpsports@theDP.com.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.