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virtual-penn-relays-2020

Although the Penn Relays were virtual this year, the unique energy of the event still shone through the screen.

Credit: Chase Sutton

Although the in-person Penn Relays may have been canceled, its spirit was alive and well on Friday during the first-ever virtual edition of the annual competition.

Penn Athletics and Gen.G united to deliver a unique twist on the classic Relays experience, as gaming teams of all ages raced on a customized Minecraft replica of Franklin Field.

The five-hour event had over 10,000 views on Twitch and was hosted by esports journalist Jeff Eisenband, with a number of guests joining him for interviews or to provide commentary.

The actual competition took place over four races, and the team with the lowest combined time across all the events crowned as the heat's winner. The heats were divided into four groups: coaches, Marines and fans, college, and high school, with the latter two further split into men's and mixed categories.

The four-person teams all played over computer remotely, as each competitor used their keyboard to control their player through the course as fast as possible. Participants faced a unique obstacle for each of the four relays; The first featured a series of hurdles, the second was an icy river, the third had lava that sent players back to the start if they fell, and the fourth featured steep cliffs and vines. 

Credit: Will DiGrande

The Franklin Field replica track.

Familiarity with Minecraft and youth proved the strongest contributors to success, as the seven fastest teams all came from the high school division. The overall fastest team, the "4H Mahwah's", finished in a total time of 2:22.84 over all four races.

But the event was much more than just the races. By arranging commentary and interviews with both Penn-affiliated guests and others in the track and field community, the team behind this year's Relays made sure it was one to remember.

Track and field legend and Carl Lewis, currently the coach at Houston, was the biggest name on the guest list. The former Olympian didn't mince words in sharing his love for the Relays and its impact on the community.

"It's like Mardi Gras for Philadelphia," he said. "And I think that's a really important thing because it creates a sense of pride for the city. It's the most special event for track and field in the United States."

Penn juniors Andrew Guo and Felix Cui, part of the team that brought Penn’s campus to Minecraft during the quarantine, were commentators during the first set of races along with Captain Michael Maggitti of the United States Marine Corps, the event's primary sponsor.

Other commentators included a Penn athlete trio — senior Liz Satter of women's basketball, junior David Ryslik of football, and junior Raven Sulaimon of volleyball — and Penn alumni Deep Kapur and Mahir Karim.

Various members of the Penn Athletics community also came on to speak with Eisenband, including Director of Athletics M. Grace Calhoun and track and field alumni Anna Peyton Malizia and Chris Hatler, who each won Penn Relays titles while with the Red and Blue.

Renata Coleman, a 30-year Penn Relays alumna and volunteer, also shared her unique perspective as someone who has seen both sides of the competition.

"Penn Relays to me is just everything," she said. "It's so much more than a meet. It's a feeling, it's an energy, it's the ultimate showcase of teamwork and sacrifice. It's community and camaraderie that goes well beyond what's happening on the track and in the field." 

Director of Strength and Conditioning Cory Walts and Associate Athletic Director for Sports Performance Andrea Wieland each hosted brief educational sessions designed to improve viewers' health and wellness during quarantine, demonstrating stretching and breathing techniques, respectively.

Other non-athletic campus activities, such as South Asian dance group PENNaach and video game club Penn Smash Bros., also introduced themselves via short presentations to viewers.

And for fans of the Relays' signature international flair, the highlight may have been Irwine Clare's chat with Eisenband. As the founder of Team Jamaica Bickle, a volunteer organization that has helped support Jamaican schools and athletes at the Relays for 25 years, Clare is no stranger to the event.

"[Jamaican athletes] see brands like GraceKennedy, they see our colors, they see the people coming out to support them," Clare said. "And for those of us in the diaspora, we're very proud of the fact that we are recognized as being game-changers in Philadelphia that weekend."

The Penn Relays may not have been the same without the typical three-day-long fanfare surrounding Franklin Field, but the energy lives on through this storm.

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