By Tim Fulton
Top two photos by Tim Fulton
Other photos by Don Rich and Tim O'Dowd
When you’re a New York track and field fan the buzz about The Penn Relays always starts in March. Coaches remind each other to get their entries in and try to find out if their relays and athletes are going to make the cut.
But this year was different. Once the word got out that Usain Bolt was going to be at Penn, it all changed.
The Relays are simply the best track meet you can go to in this country. The track fans that trek to The University of Pennslyvania the last weekend of April every year are among the most passionate and most informed. But what separates Penn from the rest, besides the sheer size of the event, is the Jamaicans. Their passion and crowd participation make this meet the most enjoyable for me.
So with Usain Bolt ready to race this year in front of what is essentially a home crowd everyone knew this could be special.
Once the meet started Thursday and Friday it already seemed different. More fans were buying their Saturday passes in advance as they anticipated a sell out. More scalpers were on hand, ready to make a few extra bucks.
Saturday at Penn is the loudest I have ever heard a track and field stadium. The U shaped Franklin Field’s acoustics are something to behold. No matter if you are watching the race in the stadium or out grabbing some lunch, if a Jamaican is running down the backstretch, you can hear the signature “wooo-wooo” a long ways away.
So there I was on Saturday, crouching down by the long jump pits and trying to capture the best picture I could of the high school boys who were leaping into the sand, when I heard a sound that I have never heard at a track meet. It sounded like a cross between the screams of teenage girls for their favorite pop star and the sound a crowd makes after Don Mattingly is introduced at Old Timers Day. I knew instantly what was going on.
Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, had just stepped onto the infield. The crowd exploded; the meet stopped; and everyone just went nuts. At that moment he was much closer to a rock and roll star than any track athlete I have ever seen.
Bolt did his few strides and drills on the infield, waved to the crowd, and went about his business. It was just a taste.
About an hour later it was race time. Once again he emerged from the shadows of Franklin Field to a raucous celebration. Once again the meet was halted. When he stepped on the track for some strides, he again waved to the crowd. He did the “Lighting Bolt”, his signature pose. There was no doubt that these were his people.
The race went by quickly, as all of his races do. The Jamaican’s won the 4x100m he anchored in 37.90, a new meet record. Bolt did a full victory lap, did the ESPN interview, accepted the award for first place, and made this day one to remember.
My team I coach doesn’t always stay for the meet on Saturday. It’s only the 4x400m that races that day – the 4x800m and 4x100m had raced the day before. But I knew once I heard about Bolt that there was no way they would have ever forgiven me if I didn’t let them stay.
Usain Bolt is the fastest man ever. Who knows how long he will wear that title, but years from now I will still be talking about how I saw him run.