By Carmen Glover
In much the same way that religious believers celebrate certain events every year, dedicated track fans make the trip annually to the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field during the last full week of April. Those making the trip venture out to cheer on their favorite athletes at the Penn Relays, also called the Penn Relays Carnival, from Thursday through Saturday. This year, the event gets underway on Thursday, April 24 and runs through Saturday, April 26.
The Penn Relays competition is a celebration of track and field stamina and dominance. The event is the most enduring and comprehensive track and field competition in the United States and this year there is a palpable air of excitement in the Caribbean community as several milestones are being celebrated at the high energy athletic event.
First, the Penn Relays Carnival has steadily attracted fans and sponsors since its inception on April 21, 1895 so the numbers are expected to be huge for the 120th celebration of the event. Also, Jamaica, which often dominates the event with spectacular performances from its athletes, is celebrating 50 years since its track stars have participated victoriously at the event. Additionally, Team Jamaica Bickle (TBJ), is marking 20 years of providing nourishment to Caribbean athletes at the event.
“Every year when January comes around I make plans to go to the Penn Relays but this year I procrastinated and waited too long and I regret that,” said Sharon Hazle, a Jamaica-born nurse supervisor residing in Queens, New York. “I just love going to Penn for the sense of excitement and achievement for the Jamaican athletes. American athletes just have to sit back and watch Jamaica beat them and when I see the crowds and the flags from each country I just get excited. There’s nothing like it.”
It is no secret that Jamaican track stars tend to dominate the Penn Relays, trouncing the American athletes with a fierce, indomitable spirit. It is almost as if it is their birthright to arrive at the Penn Relays each year, participate in the races, rack up medals and leave other teams in the dust while being surrounded by a sea of adoring fans proudly waving their vibrant black, green and gold Jamaican flags with cheerful abandon.
But athletes from other Caribbean nations have made their mark at the Penn Relays as well and they are determined to represent their countries, institutions and families with confidence and laser-like focus. One such athlete is 16-year-old Kayla Hunt, a junior at Benedictine Academy in Elizabeth, New Jersey, whose family hails from Barbados. Hunt has enjoyed success at the Penn Relays in the past, winning in spectacular fashion. For her, early exposure to the meet as well as an outstanding family lineage in track and field exploits have made a strong impact on her athletic career.
“I used to go to the Penn Relays every year when I was little. When I was 13 I went to a track camp,” she said, explaining how her interest was piqued in the sport. “My dad ran track and field at Penn Relays and I have an uncle and cousin who ran track.”
Hunt, who typically competes in events during the winter and spring, said she enjoys the camaraderie that her involvement in track and field brings.
“My experience with track and field has been wonderful. All of my teammates are my friends and they are like family to me,” she stated. “It makes you want to be a part of the team.”
Hunt explained that her sister “likes track and will make her own decisions,” about whether to pursue the sport in a serious way. But while Hunt is pleased with her past performances at the Penn Relays and other track meets, she is shrewd and single-minded as she considers her future, which, for her, will not include track and field when she enrolls in college.
“I’ve known people who have done track in college and their grades dropped,” she said, describing the “sacrifice that is necessary” to pursue both a quality college education while devoting time to track and field simultaneously. “I want to major in biology and African-American Studies because I’ve always liked science and I’ve been interested in African-American Studies,” she said, while making it clear that her career goals are still being fleshed out.
She intends to continue enjoying her athletic career in high school but she will have no difficulty closing that chapter once she gets to college. Her coach, Angelo Clark, admitted to being perplexed about Hunt’s philosophy regarding the matter.
“I’ve been coaching Kayla for three years. She takes instructions well, does her best and executes,” he said, describing Hunt’s successful performance in multiple events including the 100, 200 and 400-meter dash as well as the 55 and 100-meter high hurdles. According to Clark, a high school student is only allowed to run four times in any track meet. Clark said that Hunt has grown “in all of the events,” and he describes Kayla and her sister, Sandra, as “academic girls who run.”
“Kayla can be a full scholarship student in college but ironically, she doesn’t want to go to college to run track,” he said in awe. “She’s scholarship material and this year we have the addition of her sister, Sandra. They are great athletes who come from strong genes.”
As far as Hunt is concerned, however, a burning desire for track and field, born out of true love for the sport, is integral to pursuing the activity long-term and she firmly advises athletes to make sure they are guided by those feelings.
“You should make sure that you really love track and that you will put in the extra time. Don’t just do it for the scholarship,” she said about navigating the steps to deciding whether it is feasible to pursue both. In her case, the decision is clear: no track in college. As she gears up to make another appearance at the Penn Relays, Hunt is determined to put her best effort forward while enjoying the festivities at her own pace.
Meanwhile, Caribbean track and field fans who journey to view the three-day event will clutch their flags, wear clothing that showcase their teams and revel in the excitement and competitive air while being prepared to snap pictures of any international track stars who make an appearance.
In 2010, the relays had a “USA vs. the World” event which saw American stars competing against Jamaica’s track phenomenon Usain Bolt and Shelly Ann Fraser Pryce, which led to an attendance bonanza of 54,310 for a single day and 117,346 over the three-day period. Although it is not clear if any powerhouse athlete will participate in the competition this year, athletes will offer fans an electric showcase of track and field excellence, highlighting a sport that thrills and excites while keeping fans on the edge of their seats.–OnPointPress.net.
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