Of the many Penn Relays traditions, the one that typically flies under the radar involves over 2,000 young runners.
Elementary school children have been running at the Relays since the early 1950s. The tradition continued this year on Tuesday night when over 1,600 youngsters from 100 Philadelphia Archdiocesan schools took to the track. Top qualifiers move on to the finals on Friday, when they will be joined by finalists from other elementary and middle schools from across the Philadelphia region.
For some, competing at Franklin Field is more than just a great opportunity — it can inspire athletes to pursue track and field beyond elementary school.
Maurice Broadwater has been running at the Penn Relays since he was a sixth grader at Amy Northwest Middle School in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. For him, the experience of running in the Relays sparked an interest in track that endures to this day.
“It kept me motivated,” he said about his first Relays experience. “I would see older people run, and they looked like they were loving it all … It was just a huge impact on me.”
Now a junior at the Paul Robeson High School for Human Services in West Philadelphia, Broadwater said he always looks forward to the Relays. His favorite part?
“It’s the fans, the crowd,” he said. “It’s just a huge rush.”
Running in middle school also helped prepare him for his high-school events. He even had some advice for his teammates, given the large turnout at Franklin Field every year.
“The only thing I could say to my teammates was ‘don’t look up,’” he said.
This year, Broadwater will be running for his high school in the 4x400 on Saturday morning.
The grade school events, meanwhile, would not be possible without the help of the many volunteers who give their time to make sure the races run smoothly.
Joe Nihill, who is in charge of the elementary school portion, has worked at the Relays for 25 years.
“It’s a labor of love,” Nihill said. “I wouldn’t be putting my time in and wasting my time if it wasn’t such a well-run event, and it’s really a pleasure to be a small part of it.”
An employee of the School District of Philadelphia, Nihill is dedicating his entire week-long spring break to working for the Relays. In the end, though, he feels rewarded.
“These kids have a smile from ear to ear — it’s not about winning,” he said. “They just enjoy coming down here and participating.”
The coaches should not be forgotten either. George O’Connell, chairman of the Philadelphia Archdiocese Catholic Youth Organization for track and field, also doubles as a coach for Immaculate Conception School in Jenkintown, Pa.
Although only 16 of his runners participated on Tuesday night, he brought his whole team of 40 kids down for the affair.
“They get very, very excited just for the opportunity to be down at Franklin Field in front of all those people,” O’Connell said.
With runners as young as fourth grade participating, Nihill said it is “one of the youngest sanctioned events in the country” and, according to O’Connell, it is “the largest grade-school event in the country.”
Winners of the elementary races will receive the same award plaques given to high-school, college and professional champions.
And the Relays will provide thousands of children with a memory that may last a lifetime.
“Because there are very few experiences that they have at that age that are similar to it, because so much of this is individual performance — you are running your own leg all by yourself — it is an incredible experience for these kids and probably something they will never forget,” O’Connell said.
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