For many Penn track and field athletes, the Penn Relays, the world’s oldest and largest track and field meet, serves as not just the highlight of their season, but of their careers wearing red and blue.
The Relays are back for its 126th running after a COVID-19 hiatus. With it, Penn track and field’s freshmen, sophomores, and juniors will compete at the historic event for the first time. Across the three days of competition, the Quakers are entered in 35 different events, ranging from sprints to the throwing field.
According to track and field coach Steve Dolan, who has been serving as the director of the Penn Relays, the team has “missed hosting and missed competing in it." Pressure has been anticipated but largely subdued with the excitement around such a monumental home-hosted occasion.
“What I’ve found in my 10 years at Penn is that the team really rises to the occasion, because it’s our home track, we have a huge alumni following, and their families and friends are here to see them,” Dolan said. “If anything, I think the team tends to compete at even a higher level at the Penn Relays than anywhere else, just because of the natural adrenaline of being at home.”
Dolan also makes sure that he and his coaching staff emphasize the importance of enjoying the spectacle of the event, especially for first-timers like sophomore jumper Addie Renner.
“I have been told that it’s basically like a big track party,” Renner said. “But I’ve just been told that it’s insane. Lots of people, lots of fun, so I’m just excited for that, excited to see family and friends that are coming from all over.”
This will also be freshman sprinter Caia Gelli's first time in the Penn Relays, as she will compete in arguably the most highly anticipated event for the Quakers: the College Women’s 4x400-meter Championship of America.
“[There’s] not so much pressure-wise, because I think our coaches actually want us to have fun at this meet,” Gelli said. “But I’m really excited, actually, because I’ve never been. I never went in high school, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about the atmosphere, and it should be really competitive, too.”
Gelli will be competing alongside the likes of senior sprinter and hurdler Skyla Wilson, who broke Penn’s 100-meter hurdles record this past weekend at the Virginia Challenge, and sophomore sprinter Isabella Whittaker, who holds the program records in both the outdoor 200m and 400m dash.
Though Gelli placed first in the 200m dash at Widener over the weekend, she did not compete with the 4x400 team that won first at the Virginia Challenge. Gelli thus enters a relay team that has been pondering its lineup for a while, and has been rotating names throughout the season.
“Last week, I wasn’t in it, but the girls ran a really good 4x400,” Gelli said. “We’ve been thinking about it since indoor, that we have a pretty solid 4x400, so I know we’re all really excited.”
Sophomore sprinter Dimitri Nicholson is also coming into the Penn Relays after a brief stint away from his specialty event, returning from an injury that sidelined him for the past several weeks.
“This is going to be my first meet in a while. So for me, it’s all excitement,” Nicholson said. “But I feel like you need to be a little bit nervous. So it’s a little scary, but I just can’t wait to see everybody in the stands.”
Nicholson hopes to contribute to a Penn program record in the 4x100, and potentially even medal in the 4x200. He sees the Penn Relays serving as not just a historic meet, but an opportunity to return to high-level competition.
While much of Penn's team consists of freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, there are also many seniors who competed in the Penn Relays in 2019, and are now passing along wisdom about the event to their younger counterparts.
Among those seniors is distance runner James Lee, who competed at the Penn Relays in the 4x800 three years ago, when he was just a freshman.
“The first one, I was kind of shocked how big it was,” Lee said. “I remember the 4x was right before some pro relay, and I was shocked at how loud everyone was cheering just as I was warming up in the infield. It was exciting.”
Though that excitement can become overwhelming, Lee is assured that the energy of the crowd can fuel the team to translate its efforts into results.
This time around, Lee feels more confident and in better shape heading in than he was when he was a freshman. He hopes to be part of a winning squad that secures a program, or even a collegiate, record.
“I’m running the 4xMile, and it’s obviously more competitive this year than it probably ever has been, but our goal is to just get out in the front, finish as high as possible, and ideally snag a school record, and potentially also go for the collegiate American record,” Lee said. “If we can be the first full American team to finish, we might be able to get that record.”
Other highly anticipated events for Penn include the College Men’s Javelin Throw Championship, which senior thrower Marc Minichello, who owns the second-longest javelin throw in school history and has placed first at three of his last four meets, is seeded first in. Senior thrower Mayyi Mahama will also be competing in the College Women’s Hammer Throw Championship, and like Minichello, she stands tall in the Penn record books, with the longest indoor weight throw and outdoor hammer throw in program history.