A conference or national championships will not be on the line, but many UH athletes are competing in the biggest meet of their young careers starting today.
The Cougars — and more than 20,000 other athletes — will converge upon Franklin Field today to compete in the 117th annual Penn Relays in Philadelphia.
For head coach Leroy Burrell, it is not only a return to his hometown, but a reminder of his previous accomplishments at the historic meet.
“Getting to go back to my hometown is always pretty special, getting the opportunity to take a team to Franklin Field is equally special,” he said. “We’ve worked to get our athletes to understand that competing at this meet is a stepping stone or a prelude to bigger and better things. If you can be successful at Franklin Field, you can pretty much get it done anywhere.
“There are always some logistical and warm-up challenges, and it’s a very high-pressure situation. But there’s a whole lot of reward to compete well. We always tell our kids you have to go through the gauntlet on qualifying day to get to run in front of 50,000 people on Saturday.”
Reliving past successes
When talking about Burrell’s success as an athlete, Penn Relays cannot go without mention. He has participated at the meet as a high school, collegiate and professional athlete. Now Burrell returns to Penn Relays as a coach in an advising role.
As a junior at UH in 1990, Burrell set the meet record in the 100-meter dash with a split of 10.10 seconds, which still stands today. In 2010, he was inducted to the Penn Relays Wall of Fame.
“You never forget the first time you get to go there,” Burrell said. “I went and competed as an eighth grader. It was a blur more than a memory; everything moved so fast. It was almost a little bit too big to take then.”
The same year he broke the 100-meter record, Burrell had another proud competitive moment at Penn Relays when he delivered on a bold prophecy.
“We had a really good 4×100-meter relay team,” Burrell said. “We went into the meet as the fourth or fifth seed. I distinctly remember it was a rainy and cold day. TCU had a team with three Jamaicans and a guy from Texas.
“I told my guys if they put me within striking distance of their anchor, Raymond Stewart, an Olympic medalist, that I would catch him and that we would win. That’s exactly what happened, and the plaque is still hanging in my office.”
Burrell has experienced glory as an athlete at the highest level — he is a former world record holder and once owned the title of the fastest man in the world.
“For a kid from Philly to go there and compete is special,” he said. “But to go in high school, college and then to come back as an Olympian is pretty neat.
“I’ve won seven Penn Relays watches, and I’ve given them out to many members of my family — but I still have one. I keep it in my jewelry box at home to symbolize my growth and where I came from.”
The Cougars will begin the Penn Relays at 9 a.m. today in hopes of qualifying for the finals Saturday.