April 19, 2020 –
This would have been the week of the Penn Relays. Instead, the current environment forces us look back to last April. The Memorable Moment installment # 3 is the University of Pennsylvania winning the Women’s Distance Medley Relay on Thursday, April 25th, 2019 earning the first Championship of America Wheel.
The race had been won by Villanova the previous year, their 16th overall, 2nd consecutive, and 6 of the last 7 races. For the Wildcats the race and the meet has had a home team feel to it. Just ask the Southwest corner. Penn had been improving, and now it was their time to shine.
The Quakers won the race with a strategy of getting a large lead in the first leg of the race as Nia Akins ran out ahead in the 1200 meters segment with a time of 3:22.73. The Quakes would increase the lead after the 400 and maintained first place in 800 meters segment to let the race be decided by having the other schools try to chase down the Red and Blue in the 1600 meters leg.
The Red and Blue finished first with a Penn Relays and school record time of 10:59.44. Notre Dame placed second (11;02.67) and Villanova staged a comeback to finish 3rd with a time of 11:05.67. Temple was in the race and the Owls covered the distance in 11:30.7 for an 11th place finish.
Akins pulled away to a large lead. She handed the baton to Uche Nwogwugwu who turned in a program record setting time of 52.22 in the 400 meters segment to increase the lead. Melissa Tanaka ran a 2:07.22 800 passing the stick to Maddie Vilalba to finish the race. Villanova got strong runs from Rachel MacArthur and Nicole Hutchinson to cut into the lead, but it was too much to overcome.
Vilalba crossed the finish line in 4:37.30 holding off Jessica Harris of Notre Dame (4:28.77) who ran the fastest anchor split. Hutchinson turned in a time of 4:34.09.
Penn would celebrate.
Let’s look back at the story that day.
PHILADELPHIA, PA. 4/25/2019 – The University of Pennsylvania women’s team won its first Penn Relays Championship Wheel and the initial one for an Ivy League school taking the Women’s Distance Medley Relay at Franklin Field. The time of 10:59.44 was a Penn Relays record for the school and the league.
“I couldn’t be prouder of what we accomplished,” said Penn Coach Steve Dolan. “Sometimes you think it is possible, but you have to capture the moment and do it. To have those four run to the best of their ability, they’ll remember this for life.”
The winning team was made up of Nia Akins who started with a 3:22.73 split in the 1200 meter segment. Uche Nwogwugwu followed with a program record 52.22 time in the 400 meter leg. Melissa Tanaka ran the 800 meters in 2:07.20. Anchor runner Maddie Villalba finished the race running the 1600 meters in a time of 4:37.30. The Quakers led the race in the opening leg by Akins who opened up a large lead that the other teams could not overcome.
“This was an all-star group for us with some of the best runners in Penn history assembled at one time,” Dolan said.
Coming into the race it looked like up to four teams would battle it out for the title. Villanova was the defending champion, and won this event 16 times including the past two years, and now six of the past eight relay carnivals. Indiana, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame could also contend. Penn had a chance coming in, and it was the Quakers who got it done.
“It was a combination of nerves and excitement, excitement to go for it,” Dolan said.
Akins took a big lead in the final of her three laps giving the Red and Blue a lot of real estate. Villanova faded to the back of the pack after the first 1200 meters. Akins ran away from Indiana and Columbia when she passed the baton to Nwogwugwu. After 800 meters of the race she felt it was time to go.
“With a lap to go I knew I had enough energy left to take over and hopefully hang on a long as possible,” said Akins.
“I thought there was a good chance we would have a lead,” said Dolan. “We talked about everyone running their race. It was fantastic to watch three runners with an open track in front of them.”
Nwogwugwu set her personal best in the 400 and increased the Penn lead. Indiana was in front of the chase pack.
The gap closed a bit in the third run. Villanova began to get back toward the front as Rachel McArthur ran a time of 2:06.42 getting into fourth place. It was the second best time of turned in by the 800 meter runners. They chased Tanaka after 600 meters, but she was able to open up the lead again.
It came down to the 1600 leg. Maddie Villalba had a large lead. She maintained it through the first two laps. Jessica Harris of Notre Dame started to make up ground as she ran a time of 4:28.77, the best split of the segment. Nicole Hutchinson turned in a time of 4:34.09. Villalba heard her coach say ‘stay in the moment’ and she did. The only thing that mattered was the feeling that Villalba had crossing the line first, something she could not fully put into words.
“It was a strange feeling because winning a race like that is something I never known,” said Villalba.
Notre Dame took second place running a time of 11:02.67. Villanova got third place covering the distance in 11:05.67. Caroline Acorta (3:31.61), Amari Onque-Shabazz (53.57) ran for Villanova along with McArthur and Hutchinson.
Temple finished in 11th place running the distance in 11:30.70. The Owls who competed were Helene Holm Gottlieb (3:28.19), Mallorie Smith (54.79), McKenzie Gelvin (2:14.98), and Millie Howard (4:52.76).
It is a special time and place for Villalba who is from Central Bucks West and Nwogwugwu from North Penn. Both are local runners who know the history of the Penn Relays and what it means.
“When I run in the Penn Relays something special happens to me,” Nwogwugwu said. “I run my season-best every time I run here. It is exciting to do it at home.”
And they won it with two California runners as teammates.
For the Red and Blue the new challenge is to find a place to store the Wheel which signifies their first women’s Championship of America.
“We’ll have to figure that out,” said Dolan. “We’ve never won one before.”