The return of the Penn Relays, directed by Steve Dolan

Dolan, the Frank Dolson Director of the Penn Relays, discusses the resumption of the world-famous meet after a two-year break, notable athletes who will be competing, new programming and features, and what makes the Relays so special.

The Penn Relays are back after a two-year hiatus caused by the coronavirus. The 126th running of the Carnival kicks off on Thursday, April 28, at Franklin Field and sprints through Saturday, April 30.

Steve Dolan, the James P. Tuppeny/Betty J. Costanza Director of Track & Field/Cross Country at Penn, is in his first year as the Frank Dolson Director of the Relays after taking over for longtime director Dave Johnson last October.

Penn Today chatted up Dolan about the return of the world-famous meet, its importance to the track and field community, notable athletes who will be competing, new programming and features, and what makes the Relays so special.

This is the first Penn Relays since 2019. How does it feel to be back?

As you can imagine, everybody is very excited. The last time we did the Penn Relays, we celebrated the 125th running of the Penn Relays, and we did that consecutively. To miss two years was really difficult for us because we love hosting it, and it’s such a great event for the sport at large. We’re excited to be back, and it’s actually been humbling and exciting to see the response of everybody. The athletes are coming back across all different classifications in big numbers and really quality fields. The fans are also excited to see us coming back. You can feel it; it’s tangible.

Athletes compete at the 2019 Penn Relays.

I’m sure there’s a lot of excitement among the track and field community at large about the return of the Relays.

It’s really a unique event. It’s officially known as the Penn Relay Carnival because I think it’s more than a track and field meet. You have the great competition in the field, but you also have the atmosphere, all the things that happen in and around the stadium, and the celebration of the sport. One of things that’s so unique about the meet is it brings all different age groups. You have kids from youth-level runners, to high school, to college, to pro, to masters. You have every event possible—field events and running—so it’s really the celebration of the sport at all levels. It’s also neat because it’s an international event. We get a fair share of international athletes, certainly a big contingent from the Caribbean, and Jamaica specifically. That brings a neat energy to the Relays that I think is really fun.

As a sports fan/fanatic, I did get the sense over the last two years that something was missing in the sports world without the Relays. What is the importance of the Relays to the overall track and field community?

One of the neat things is that cross-divisional part of it. The fact that youth and high school athletes can come and compete on a big stage like Franklin Field in front of a great crowd—you don’t see anything like this in the United States. They don’t get to compete in front of that kind of a crowd anywhere else, so that is very exciting for athletes. And also, the chance for them to watch other athletes. The younger athletes get to see the colleges compete and the pros compete, so it’s really neat. I think everybody really thrives in that experience of seeing all the athletes of different levels, and then the response of a great crowd. Our crowd is special too because our crowd is enthusiastic and super-knowledgeable. In any event, the crowd gets excited when it’s a good competition. It could be a youth race or a high school race or it could be the pros, if it’s a good competition, the crowd will really respond. That’s something we’re known for at the Penn Relays, and makes it really special for the athletes.

Penn Relays competitors include youth-level, high school, college, pro, and masters athletes.

This is your first year directing the Relays. Are there any new features or amenities?

The meet years ago started as a collegiate track and field meet so we want to make sure that we make this a great experience for the college programs. One thing that we’ve adjusted a little bit is, in terms of programming, the college women’s events are more in line now on Friday and Saturday with the college men’s events. The meet itself spans over three days, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, but now, the majority of the college men and women are both on Friday and Saturday. It makes it easier for college teams to travel that way with their combined programs, and also helps us highlight some of the great women’s events on Friday and Saturday alongside the men’s events. That was probably the most notable schedule adjustment.

We also added some new Olympic development events. On Friday night, we’re running a couple of elite-level races. We have an 800, a steeplechase, and a 4x1 mile. Those are elite middle-distance races on Friday night. Then on Saturday, we added some additional events. We’re going to run the men’s and women’s short hurdles, then we’re doing some off events, like the 300 and the 600. We actually have some Olympians and world-class runners coming to contest those events. I think the crowds are going to love seeing some of the stars of the sport in those Olympic development events that we’ve added on Friday night and on Saturday. We have Olympic-trials level or Olympian-level athletes in those events.

2020 alumnus Nia Akins will compete at this year’s Penn Relays.

Who are some of the notable athletes who will be competing at the Relays?

 Athing Mu, the Olympian champion in the 800, will be competing. We’re excited about that. She’s scheduled to compete on Saturday in the 600. We also have Ajeé Wilson, who actually trains in Philadelphia and just recently won the indoor world championship in the 800. I think she’s won something like 12 USA championships in that event, so she’s a big star.

One exciting one for local fans is Devon Allen, who is a two-time Olympian in the 110 hurdles. He’s scheduled to compete. He just signed a contract after track to join the Philadelphia Eagles.

[2020 alumna] Nia Akins is coming. She’ll run with a group called the Brooks Beasts. Nia is of course our school record holder, our Penn Relays champion, and an NCAA runner-up. We’re super excited to see Nia back at Franklin Field.

Am I correct that the documentary ‘The Carnival: 125 Years of the Penn Relays’ will be screened at the Relays at multiple times on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday?

Yes. It’s exciting. It talks about the history of the 125 years of the Penn Relays, and I think it does a really nice job of highlighting that history. The theme that comes through very strongly is the sport of track and field and the Penn Relays have always been very inclusive. That’s one of the things that’s such a great celebration of the event and of our sport, the inclusiveness.

You have been attending the Relays for 30 years as coach and parent. What do you enjoy about the meet?

I love all the events, but I like to watch the different age groups. Certainly, I’m a college coach, those are events that I focus my energy on from a coaching standpoint, but as a fan of the sport, I think it’s really neat to see all of the different age groups on the same stage. You’re going to see great high school races and masters races, and it’s really neat to see us share the same stage.