More Vincentian schools seeking out Penn Relays

It is track and field season in St Vincent and the Grenadines and we can expect a flurry of fierce competitions amongst student athletes in their own schools and between schools.
Many students look forward to participating in the exciting competition offered at the level of the Inter Primary Schools Athletics Championships (IPSAC) and the Inter Secondary Schools Athletics Championships (ISSAC).
While schools certainly look forward to great things from their students many often forget the extensive work that is involved in getting the athletes adequately prepared for success.
Some students have been engaged in pre-season training at an extensive level. Some athletes would have found themselves splaying football and netball in the first term of the current school year and would therefore have a certain fitness level.
As the schools prepare for the annual IPSAC and ISSAC some are focusing on getting teams ready to represent at a relatively competitive level, at the annual Penn Relays.
Penn Relays
It has now been five consecutive years that the Thomas Saunders Secondary School prised open the door to this country’s schools’ participation in the annual Penn Relays in the USA.
The Penn Relays is the oldest track relay competition in the world.
On 12 May 1893 the head of the University of Pennsylvania Track Committee, Frank Ellis, experimented with the inclusion of a mile relay (each of the four athletes running a quarter mile) at the end of the university’s annual track competition. The idea was to stimulate greater interest and excitement in the competition. He invited Princeton University to send a relay team to ass further excitement.
At the time of initiating the experiment, Ellis and his University colleagues as well as the leadership of the institution had absolutely no idea of the likely results. It was the first time that a relay of any sort was being added to the competition.
In the 1893 experiment Princeton upstaged the Penn team. However, the following year, the table turned with the home team emerging victorious.
In 1895, the University of Pennsylvania took the decision to sponsor a Relay Meet and used the opportunity of the dedication of the Franklin Field on 21 April 1895. The response was amazing at the time with Cornell, Columbia, Lafayette, Lehigh, Rutgers, Swarthmore, College of the City of New York and New York University among the colleges, and Central High School of Philadelphia, Central Manual Training of Philadelphia, Haverford School, Cheltenham Military Academy, Germantown Academy, William Penn Charter, Episcopal Academy and DeLancey School among the high schools and prep schools (Penn. Release 2007) competing in nine relay events – four for high schools and prep schools, four for colleges, and the college championship. All relays were held at 4×440 yards (Penn. Release 2007), with two teams in each event.
The success of the inaugural event of 1895 led to what is today the oldest track relay event in the world, the Penn Relay Carnival, held over a three-day period. It became an international event in 1914 when Oxford University of the UK participated. Women’s events were only added in 1978.
TSSS in ground-breaking achievement
Coach Godfrey ‘Fuzzy’ Harry must be credited with the historic move to have the first Vincentian school participate in the annual Penn Relays. He led his school, the Thomas Saunders Secondary School (TSSS), to the mega-event in 2011.
The first team, pioneers as it were comprised, Brandon Parris, Kamol Bess, Kion Robertson and Najae Israel in the 4×400 in a winning time of 3. 28; 4×100 – Ronique Dowers, Reynaldo Charles, Najae Israel and Kion Robertson.
At the time Harry was heavily criticised in many circles for having engaged in a wasteful financial undertaking. He did not relent in his quest to create history and in so doing, place St Vincent and the Grenadines in a very special place in global sporting history.
Only the quadrennial Summer Olympics and the biennial Athletics World (Outdoor) Championships attract larger audiences than the Penn Relays and this country’s first venture in 2011 created a very important legacy for the school and the country.
While in 2011 TSSS only sent a men’s relay team to contest the 4 x 400m relay, the following year saw the inclusion of a female team. This female team comprised Rosannia Stephens, Maranda Spencer, Kerina Hooper, Shafiqua Maloney and Nicky-Ann Stephens. The team contested both the 4 x 100m and the 4 x 400m relays.
Competing in the small schools’ category TSSS has been very successful in its participation in the Penn Relays. Since 2011 the school has not missed the event.
In 2016, the team, for the first time, was assisted with the provision of a booklet on its athletes for distribution amongst coaches always present at the sporting spectacle, scouting for new athletic talent to add to their respective college track teams.
Participation in the Penn Relays is an expensive undertaking and so involves very serious planning. TSSS has however created a rather robust approach to fundraising aimed at ensuring the teams’ participation annually. It has not been easy but the school’s participation in the Penn Relays annually has become something of a tradition.
Criticisms of the TSSS’ participation in the Penn Relays annually has not ceased, especially when the team may not have done as well at home as expected. However, Harry has persevered and so too the leadership of the institution, led by principal, John Renton.
Despite the taunts received at home and at times from critics in the Diaspora, Harry has been able to produce teams that have earned the right to participate in the annual competition by making the established standards.
Over the past several years TSSS has been participating in the Barbados Relay Fair where, more often than not the team makes the requisite standard for the Penn event. The school also seizes the opportunity to garner US visas to allow the members to travel to the US competition.
TSSS has always adopted the stance that its participation in the Penn Relays has opened doors for other Vincentian schools to utilise. Opportunities have always been there to participate but were never utilised before TSSS took up the challenge. Harry has always been encouraging other local schools to rise to the occasion and strive to participate in the Penn Relays.
Vincentians living in the vicinity of the Penn Relays have been particularly supportive of the participation by a Vincentian school and they too have been encouraging other educational institutions here to venture into the Penn Relays.
During the six years of participation in the Penn Relays TSSS has won we have four shields (3 males and 1 female). Male shields were won in 2011, 2012 and 2016 while the lone female shield was achieved in 2015.
The school is ranked in the top 100 in both the male and female divisions over the six years in both the 4x100m and 4x400m relays with over about 400 to 500 schools participating in the small schools category.
2017 Penn Relays
TSSS’s initiative in participating in the Penn Relays in 2011 has finally borne fruit. This year, the St Vincent Grammar School (SVGS) and the St Vincent Community College (SVCC) will attempt to join TSSS in participating in the annual Penn Relays.
Coach Rawlson Morgan has been preparing the team from SVGS while coach Michael Ollivierre has been working with the SVCC team.
All three educational institutions would be competing in different categories under Penn Relay Rules. This therefore avoids the critics levelling unfair criticisms by comparing them with each other in local competitions.
If the training is indeed going according to plans we should witness good performances from the respective teams in local competitions as well as in events around the region.
Harry has been quite open in responding to requests for information of the process involved in getting to the Penn Relays.
Ollivierre has been eager to get a Vincentian team under his charge to the Penn Relays since returning home and would relish the opportunity afforded him by Roxell John, head of the Physical Education and Sports Department at the SVCC. While residing in Jamaica some years ago he took teams from the St Elizabeth Technical School (STETHS) to the Penn Relays.
An article carried in the Jamaica Observer newspaper dated 6 May 2011, stated in part,
While guiding a four-member St Vincent team at the 40th LIME Carifta Games in Montego Bay recently, Ollivierre told the Observer he was on “special assignment back home in St Vincent and the Grenadines” after signing the agreement with the government and being sponsored by the Lotto in the eastern Caribbean state.
The former coach at St Elizabeth Technical (STETHS) said his role there is “to assist in the development, promotion and sustained development of track and field throughout the state”, adding that he has already started to work.
So far, he says, he has started a Primary School Championships and has also “initiated the Inter-Collegiate Championships and will continue… to implement a training programme for the junior athletes”.
Initially Ollivierre worked along with Harry (but only briefly) and later, sought to encourage the SVGS to participate in the Penn Relays. Some believe that this was behind the initiative to have Khasique Oliver transfer to the SVGS after having gained nine CXC passes while at the St Martin’s Secondary School. Another glitch in these plans may have been the insistence by the mother of Brandon Parris that having gained enough passes to attend the St Vincent Community College, he was not going to transfer to the SVGS as Oliver had done in the same year.
Three Vincentian schools attending this year’s Penn Relays could only be beneficial to St Vincent and the Grenadines.
A larger number of Vincent junior athletes would benefit from the exposure to one of the world’s track and field premier and historic event.
Our athletes would relish the opportunity to be exposed to an extremely large number of College track and field scouts at the Relays and scholarships at different institutions in the USA may well be in the offing.
This year would therefore mark the beginning of another important era in track and field athletics in St Vincent and the Grenadines. Once schools start attending the Penn Relays they would always wish to be there in the future and with improved performances. This would also mean that the institutions would have to engage themselves in scouting for talented athletes as early as the primary schools to ensure an appropriate and continuous flow of athletes are accessed to allow for strong teams to emerge for the annual Relay Carnival.
Our schools would also have to spend greater time on raising the necessary funds to make the trip to Pennsylvania a reality. This would mean that some of our schools may well begin organising their annual track and field competitions on weekends rather than week days, in the hope of attracting hundreds of former students to enrich the revenue generated at both the gate and concessions.
As it now stands not many schools seek to use their individual annual track and field competition as a revenue earner. The initiative of the Bethel High School to host on two successive occasions – 2015 and 2016 – its sports meet from the afternoon into the evening has proven a major success in terms of attendance and revenue generation and stands as a fine example that should stimulate those schools desirous of making the annual trip to the Penn Relays to revisit their respective annual meets.