By Steve Ritchie / TrackTown USA
EUGENE, Ore. – Historic Hayward Field has hosted many memorable track and field meets over the years, but it is safe to say the venerable stadium has never seen anything quite like Friday evening’s inaugural TrackTown Summer Series meet.
Combining a fun atmosphere with a quality, pre-Olympic tune-up for the 23 athletes headed to Rio, the meet featured a coed 4×400-meter relay with the team title on the line, pockets of fans on the field getting close-up views of the throwing and jumping events, athletes interviewed before races, professional athletes competing for significant prize money and an entertaining team battle.
Televised nationally by ESPN, the TrackTown USA production offered an exciting preview of what is to come. The TrackTown Summer Series plans to expand to three mid-summer meets in 2017 and five in 2018, giving elite North American athletes an opportunity for high-level competition without going to Europe.
Four professional teams representing Portland, San Francisco, New York City and Philadelphia waged a spirited back-and-forth battle throughout the warm evening before a crowd of 3,045. Team supremacy – and a $36,000 bonus check to the winners – came down to the last event: a coed 4x400m relay with hundreds of fans lining the outside of the track and each team’s athletes cheering their relays on with gusto.
First-time Olympian and former Oregon sprinter Phyllis Francis propelled Team Philadelphia to the relay win with her 50.63-second anchor leg, but San Francisco held onto third place in the race and claimed the team victory with 179 points. New York was the runner-up with 173.5, followed closely by Portland with 166 and Philadelphia with 155.5.
Judging by their statements and enthusiastic support for their teammates, the athletes loved the team format and the strong fields in each event.
Canadian 800-meter record-holder Melissa Bishop (San Francisco) won a very competitive 800, holding off Brenda Martinez (Philadelphia) and Shannon Rowbury (San Francisco) by inches to win in 1:59.74, as all three women dipped under two minutes.
Bishop was ecstatic to be able to race at Hayward Field before she travels next week to Brazil.
“It lessens the travel,” she said. “The fatigue is less. We have really high-quality North American athletes so it is really great it can happen on North American soil.
“This was a really strong field, so I was totally aware (Martinez and Rowbury) were there. I could hear them breathing down my neck.”
Canby (OR) High School grad McKayla Fricker, who was fourth in the 800 in 2:01.86, also competed for the winning San Francisco team. Fricker said the team competition aspect made it exciting for her.
“I loved it,” Fricker said. “It was so much fun. Thinking back to college and high school and having a team to cheer for and celebrate with is so fun, so I was really excited for this meet. Yelling ‘Go San Francisco’ is really, really fun. . . I just loved the concept of it.”
Ashley Higginson of Team New York left Hayward Field three weeks ago in tears after finishing ninth in the women’s 3000 meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials. She returned for Friday’s meet, and said she was very happy to experience the atmosphere and team camaraderie, in what could be, she said, the last steeple race of her career.
“It’s been so fun (tonight) after something so nerve-wracking as the Trials,” Higginson said, “I think it’s really wonderful to be with competitors in a different experience as teammates. It’s just good for the sport in our country going forward to have something so new.”
Higginson finished second in the steeple in 9:42.52, just behind NY teammate Stephanie Garcia who won in 9:39.81. Higginson enjoyed being able to warm up together with Garcia at this meet.
“A competitor turned teammate is always fun,” Higginson said. “Normally we’re warming up circling the graveyard in opposite directions, fake smiling and snarling at each other.”
A highlight of the meet for many fans was the exhibition 110-meter hurdle race between University of Oregon sophomore Devon Allen and UO alum Johnathan Cabral. In need of a last-minute tune-up for Rio, the training partners were a late addition to the meet, so they ran in their own head-to-head match race immediately following the eight-man hurdle final.
U.S. Olympic Trials champ Allen grabbed the lead early and held off a strong challenge from Cabral to win by .21 seconds in 13.15. Jamaican Olympian Andrew Riley won the other hurdle race in 13.35, just edging Jarret Eaton.
Both men’s and women’s 1,500 meter races featured thrilling finishes that were nearly as tight as the sprint finishes, with just a little over a second separating the top six runners in both races.
Building off her Trials 800m win, Team Portland’s Kate Grace needed every bit of her closing speed to take the win over Katie Mackey of Team New York. Grace’s time was 4:09.92 with Mackey just .05 back.
The strong field of men’s 1,500 runners showed they were serious early, following pacer Edward Kemboi to a 56-second first lap, and kept the pace honest throughout. Team San Francisco’s Colby Alexander used his strong kick to run down leader Ben Blankenship (Philadelphia) and the hard-charging David Torrence (guest athlete) in the home stretch, taking the surprise victory in a very quick 3:34.88 and giving his team the lead going into the coed 4x400m relay finale.
The action on the infield was just as compelling as the track races. Will Claye (Portland) and Omar Craddock (San Francisco) waged an engaging battle in the triple jump, celebrating with the youngsters on the field after their best jumps. Claye came out on top, his jump of 57 feet, 5 ¾ inches edging Craddock’s best of 57-2.
In the women’s long jump, Brittney Reese (New York) continued her tradition of strong Hayward Field performances, winning in 22-8 ½, while 2012 Olympic silver medalist Erik Kynard gave San Francisco another victory with his 7-6 high jump.
The four-mile road race kicked off the meet as Sam Chelanga (NY) and Jessica Tebo (NY) successfully dealt with the heat – temperatures were in the mid-90s during the race – along with challenges from Chris Derrick and Jordan Hasay, respectively. Chelanga won in 18:23.60 and Tebo in 19:49.70.
Chelanga said the conditions were trying, but he was happy to be the very first event winner in the Summer Series.
“The whole point of the meet was to come and have fun,” he said. “I felt like it was worth it. Hopefully, this series can trigger something that gets people interested in track and field and road racing. I would love for this to take off.”
PREVIOUS PRESS RELEASES ON THE TRACKTOWN SUMMER SERIES:
- Athletes battle for prize money, team titles at TrackTown Summer Series
- U.S. Olympians excited to return to Hayward Field for TrackTown Summer Series
- Historic Athlete Draft Kicks Off TrackTown Summer Series
- Beynon Sports to sponsor TrackTown Summer Series
- Historic Athlete Draft to Kick off TrackTown Summer Series
- TrackTown Summer Series offers unique opportunity & big payday
- ESPN to televise TrackTown Summer Series in 2016