Crossing The Penn Relays Off My Personal Bucket List

Penn RelaysBy David Coulson

Executive Editor

College Sports Journal

 

PHILADELPHIA, PA. — For many sports fans, the only time they pay attention to track and field is every four years, during the Summer Olympics.

 

If you live in the Philly area, like I do, that arc may be reduced to a yearly occurrence as you can’t help but be influenced by the Penn Relays at historic Franklin Field.

 

One of the local newscasts, ABC’s Channel 6 Action News, even interrupted their Philadelphia Eagles NFL draft coverage on Thursday night to report that a Villanova women’s team had won an event at the historic competition.

 

For a city that likes to snub its nose at college sports, it was a truly remarkable event.

 

 

I am one of those folks, however, who simply can’t ignore track and field.

 

It resides as deep in my blood as those immunity cells, meant to protect me from the spores that cause Valley Fever — one of the hazards left over from growing up in the agricultural rich San Joaquin Valley of California.

 

Every spring, my community of Fresno hosted the West Coast Relays. Some of the greatest track and field athletes of the world came to Ratcliffe Stadium for an event that bore the slogan “Where World Records Are Broken.”

 

It had been true since the meet’s inception in 1927. Only one other venue, Bislett Stadion in Oslo, Norway — a stadium I got to see during a 1990 Christmas vacation to that beautiful country — had witnessed as many record-breaking performances as Ratcliffe Stadium.

 

Of course, many of those top performers didn’t have to go very far to compete in the West Coast Relays, so it was an easy thing to develop a quick track IQ, growing up in the raisin capital of the world.

 

Charlie Craig, a close friend of my sister Jerri, used to stop by our house when I was a kid. Craig went on to become the top triple jumper in the U.S. during the 1960s and my family grieved along with Charlie when a leg injury prevented him from making the U.S. Olympic team for the 1968 Mexico City games.

 

Lee Evans, who epitomized the quarter-mile, spent some time attending Central High School in Fresno. The longtime 400-meter world-record holder and 1968 Olympic Gold Medalist still had cousins at the school when I attended and graduated from there a few years later.

 

A few miles down the road in Lemoore, CA., the brilliant Tommie Smith was not only formulating the political views and moral qualities that would make him a 1960s cultural icon, he was also honing the skills that would bring him the world record and the gold medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Games.

 

I watched live on a black and white television from my living room when Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos took the awards stand and courageously lifted their black-gloved fists, while bowing their heads during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.

 

Years later, my first full-time job in journalism took me to Smith’s hometown as the sports editor of the now-defunct Lemoore Advance newspaper.

 

It wasn’t long after that when I met Smith, then a coach for Santa Monica City College, in the stands at the West Coast Relays. Never had I encountered a more articulate, or sensitive athlete.

 

Smith and I had a chance to collaborate several more times over the years and each occasion was a moment to be treasured for this awestruck writer.

 

Covering the West Coast Relays as an adult gave me the opportunity to meet Houston McTear, who had equaled the world record in the 100-meter dash as a Florida school boy and who flashed a smile that is still burned in my memory banks.

 

On the opposite side of the fence was then-University of Tennessee track and field star and future Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Lofton, a surly long jumper who wasn’t happy with his performance that day and gave me the shortest interview of my career — one question, no answer.

 

Of course, the West Coast Relays themselves were run for years by one of the greatest track and field athletes of all time, Cornelius “Dutch” Warmerdam, who had grown up in Kings County, CA., not too far from Smith would one day learn his skills.

 

Warmerdam was the Sergei Bubka of his time, becoming the greatest pole vaulter of his era.

 

Using a bamboo pole, Warmerdam became the first vaulter to clear 15 feet in 1940 and his personal best of 15-7-3/4 stood as a world record from 1942 until 1957, when vaulters had switched to aluminum poles.

 

Unfortunately, World War II prevented Warmerdam from ever competing in the Summer Olympics.

 

Instead, Warmerdam became one of the country’s best track and field coaches at Fresno State and personally developed the West Coast Relays into the showcase it became as its meet director.

 

Invited to Warmerdam’s home after he had retired, this one-time James E. Sullivan Award winner took me out to his garage, fished one of his bamboo poles out of the rafters and placed it in my hands.

 

I might as well had been holding the Holy Grail. I strained to just hang on to this heavy, inflexible apparatus and gained a larger appreciation for what Warmerdam had accomplished.

 

Track and field has dogged me wherever I’ve gone.

 

When I moved to the Los Angeles Times in the early 1990s, I met a precocious, 16-year-old sprinter named Marion Jones.

 

Following her exploits as a trackster and a women’s basketball player at Thousand Oaks High School, I was amazed the Jordanesque moves I saw her perform in the gym and was struck by the poise Jones displayed, whether she was on the track, or entertaining the throngs of media surrounding her.

 

I watched Jones at one of her final high school meets in 1993, the Southern California regionals, where she broke the state prep record for the long jump — an event she hadn’t compete in until that season and one that she seldom even practiced.

 

“The long jump is my hobby,” said Jones, with a sly smile.

 

When I relocated to Boone, N.C., I met a remarkable, young lady named Melissa Morrison, a 100-meter hurdle specialist, who was trying to make her first Olympic team in 1996 for the Games in Atlanta.

 

We met one hot, August afternoon at her alma mater, Appalachian State University, for a photo shoot at Kidd Brewer Stadium. While I was concentrating on shooting this graceful, young athlete, future NFL All-Pro linebacker Dexter Coakley was nearby on baby-sitting duty with my then-infant daughter, Charlotte.

 

Morrison hit a hurdle while leading late in the race at the Olympic trials later that summer and narrowly missed making the team, but she recovered to become a world champion in 2003 and we watched her win two bronze medals at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics.

 

When Morrison won her first bronze medal in Sydney, Australia, my now-five-year-old daughter watched in glee. Charlotte began sprinting around our mountain cabin, leaping over ever obstacle she could find saying: “I’m Melissa Morrison, I’m Melissa Morrison.”

 

When Morrison returned to Appalachian State that fall for a football game where she was honored, I was able to share that story with the personable track star. Morrison broke into raucous laughter.

 

In recent years, I have become friends with Bill Reeves, the only man on the planet to serve as the head track and field referee for two Olympics — in 1984 in Los Angeles and 1996 in Atlanta.

 

Like me, Reeves spends part of each summer vacationing at a home in the Boone, N.C. area. A native of the Bustleton area in greater Philly, Reeves has also served as the head referee of the Penn Relays for many years.

 

Over dinner, one night sometime back, Reeves said “If you are going to attend the Penn Relays for the first time, go in an Olympic year.”

 

So taking his advice, I will be in the press box on Friday and Saturday for this year’s Penn Relays.

 

I can cross another sporting event off my personal bucket list and get a transfusion for my track and field addiction.

 

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