A ‘Lone Hurdler’ Becomes a Part of a Family Affair at the Penn Relays

Sally Willig vividly recalls the intensity of her first experience competing at the Penn Relays, back in 1980.

“I was a freshman in college and they put me in the last position on our 4x400-meter relay team, not because I was the fastest runner but because I was the slowest,” Willig says. “It was the most terrifying thing; we had a good team and I can still remember that race. We were in the lead, and then I was passed on the backstretch.”

Fortunately for Willig, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1988 and is now a lecturer in the Penn’s Master of Environmental Studies program, she had more impressive experiences follow, including a unique championship race in which she had the track to herself.

And this week, three-and-a-half decades after first stepping on the Franklin Field track at Penn, she will be watching three of her children give their all in the same meet.

Her older daughter, Anna, a junior at Great Valley High School, will run in the 4x800-meter relay Thursday. Her youngest, Amy, an 8th grader at Great Valley Middle School, will be running in the 4x100-meter relay Friday. And her oldest, Ned, a junior at Brown University, will be competing in the 4x800-meter relay on Saturday. Her other son, Matt, a freshman at Haverford College, is also a runner but won’t be competing at the Relays this year.

“Even before the kids starting competing, it’s been a tradition for our family to go down and watch the Penn Relays,” Willig says. “It’s a chance for us to get together with friends and just enjoy the races.”

Willig, née Andersen, grew up in Wilmington, Del., and ran at Brandywine High School, but her team never came to the Relays. She got her first taste as an undergraduate at Princeton University, coached by Peter Farrell, whom she calls her “greatest supporter.” Despite being passed in the last leg of that 4x400 race, her team’s time from that day still stands as the fifth fastest for Princeton’s women’s team.

Willig ran both the 4x400- and the 400-meter hurdles at the Penn Relays every year she was at Princeton. The hurdles turned out to be her best event. In it, runners take a lap of the track, clearing 10 30-inch obstacles in their path. It’s considered among the most challenging track events, somewhere between a sprint and middle distance, and requires enormous strength and endurance. At her best, Willig ran it in just over 58 seconds.

In the fall of 1983, she arrived at Penn as a geology graduate student, and kept running, training with the Penn women’s track team. Her speed was good enough to qualify her to run in the Olympic Trials in June of 1984. And she also continued to compete in the Penn Relays as an open runner in the Olympic Development race from 1984 to 1986. The last race was perhaps the most memorable.  

That year, four women entered the event. But when it came time to line up, Willig was the only competitor there. She ran the race alone, cheered on by thousands.

Even The New York Times covered the spectacle, deeming her “the lone hurdler.”

It went by in a flash, and, though she was seconds off her best time, she enjoyed it all.

“That feeling of being way down low on the track and all the fans in the stadium above you cheering — there’s nothing like it,” Willig says.

Willig now teaches and serves as an academic advisor for the MES program in the College of Liberal and Professional Studies and also teaches field ecology courses in the School of Design’s landscape architecture department. Along the way, she married a runner, Hugh Willig, who competed for Penn in the middle distance events in the early 1980s and logged several races at the Penn Relays as well.

So it’s not surprising that all four of their children picked up running, even though Willig says she and her husband didn’t explicitly encourage it.

“They did soccer and swimming also, but in the end running is just what they’ve naturally gravitated to,” Willig says.

With a little help from good genes, Ned, Matt, Anna and Amy have since all found success, winning races and setting records throughout their running careers. And as three of them experience the excitement at Franklin Field this week, Willig, a “lone hurdler” no more, will be there cheering them on.

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