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Olympian Devon Allen attended Penn Relays for the first time this year. Credit: Jesse Zhang

For the first time in three years, Franklin Field was graced by some of the world’s shining stars of track and field.

The 126th edition of the Penn Relays took place from April 28 to April 30. Day three of the world-renowned competition featured eight Olympic Development events in the afternoon that had the crowd on notice. Despite Allyson Felix’s sudden dropout from the competition, the crowd was still treated to the talents of numerous other notable track and field stars, including two-time Olympic gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin.

The 400-meter hurdles world record holder made her grand return to the Penn Relays for the first time since her senior year in high school as part of the Union Catholic Vikings. In 2017, she anchored in the high school 4x400 for a time of 50.78 seconds, setting the Penn Relays record for the event.

In her grand return as a professional — and her first race since the Tokyo Olympics — she lined up for the women’s 100-meter hurdles to the roar of the crowd — not a single person was sitting down as she lined up. And for good reason, too. If they had sat, they would have missed McLaughlin run a 12.75-seconds time in the event — another Penn Relays record.

“It’s a great way to start, especially compared to the last year, and I know that there’s a lot of improvements to be made, so I’m happy with the result,” McLaughlin said. 

She added that she used the competition as a way to gauge her progress as she gears up for the full heights of this year's track season.

The race also served as a full-circle moment for the 22-year-old, who raced alongside the pros rather than in the high school division.

“I remember watching amazing pros right here when I was in high school and just looking at that warm up and aspiring to be there one day, so being able to now be in that position and come back and inspire the next generation,” McLaughlin said. “I think me coming back now as a pro, I’m learning to enjoy it a little bit more.”

McLaughlin wasn’t the only member of her 4x400 Olympic team present.

Athing Mu also came to Philadelphia for her official Penn Relays debut to compete in the 600 meters race. She won the event with a time of 1:22.74 after pulling ahead over Jamaica’s Natoya Goule in the last 100 meters of the event. It was also Mu’s PR for the event.

“I [knew it was] gonna be competitive throughout the whole race, and I didn’t want to go out and make my move too early,” Mu said. “I just wanted to stay steady and move up gradually, and then when I had enough to go to the finish line, just take it from there.”

Mu also competed against Ajeé Wilson, who finished in sixth – falling just 0.73 seconds off a third-place finish. In Tokyo, Mu had ran a 1:55.21 800m race, breaking a record previously held by Wilson.

Also landing on the podium for that loaded 600m event was Penn’s very own Nia Akins.

Akins graduated from Penn in 2020 from the School of Nursing and has since raced on the professional level in Seattle while further pursuing her nursing career. With the Quakers, she had etched her name in the record books in a bevy of ways: eight Penn all-time best marks, four-time Ivy League Heptagonal champion, and five-time indoor first team All-Ivy.

“I’m so happy to be here,” Akins said. “[Being in the pros] feels very different, but it still feels like home at the same time, so it’s really nice to be back. It was really nice to come around and see all my old teammates. It’s surreal.”

While the atmosphere and energy of Franklin Field isn’t new to Akins, it was new to Devon Allen.

The track and field star made his debut at the Penn Relays, where he notched first place with a time of 13.11 seconds in the men’s 110m hurdles. The time marks a meet record and world record so far this year. Allen had also competed in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro and 2020 Tokyo Olympics; he had finished in fourth in Tokyo for the event by less than a second. He also finished in the race 0.11 seconds ahead of his friend and former Olympic gold medalist Omar McLeod, who represented Jamaica.

Allen’s debut at Penn Relays was also significant because of its location. Early in April, Allen signed to the Philadelphia Eagles as a wide receiver, and prior to Penn Relays, had been participating in the team's OTAs.

“This is kind of like my coming out party to Philadelphia,” Allen said. “I went to the Sixers game on Monday — the playoff game — and I saw firsthand the swings of the fans. So if I can get in their good graces to start, that’ll be good for my career for sure.” 

With so many professional athletes coming to Penn this weekend, it begs the question of why these athletes travel all the way to Philadelphia to compete at Penn Relays. The answer lies in the unique atmosphere the Penn Relays provide as the world's oldest and largest track and field meet.

“Not everywhere in the U.S. you can have such a big crowd when you race,” Goule said. “This is the biggest crowd apart from Nationals at Eugene. This is the biggest crowd here in the U.S. … These [people are] cheering you on, even if they don’t know you.”

McLaughlin shared similar high opinions of the Penn Relays environment. When asked where she’d rank Penn Relays compared to other track meets on a scale of 1 to 10, she gave it an eight.

“I think it’s just this is an environment you really can’t get anywhere else especially. There’s not a lot of events like this in the U.S., so being able to have people that could come locally, and watch this. It’s just a really great time to bring the whole community together,” McLaughlin said. “It’s definitely a super high-energy meet and I just really feel like you can’t get something like this anywhere else.”