As the male sprinters took their final stride outs on the Penn oval, 48,920 Franklin Field fans in attendance considered the perennial question that still lingers: Will the Americans be able to get the stick around unbruised? The USA's world-leading time of 38.18 set earlier this spring at the Florida Relays suggests they will, thank you very much. But it would be up to the quartet of Mike Rodgers, Justin Gatlin, Isiah Young, and Ryan Bailey - USA's Red team - to provide the definitive answer. They would compete against an international field comprised of squads from Canada, China, Guyana, Hong Kong, a USA Blue team featuring Joe Morris, Justin Walker, Maurice Mitchell, and Sean McLean, and a Jamaican foursome that would be missing its two Olympic individual medal-winning sprinters. Running out of Penn's Lane 5, Mike Rodgers got the USA team off to a good start. At the first exchange, last year's #2 world-ranked 100 meter athlete made a clean pass to last year's #1 world-ranked sprinter - Justin Gatlin. Perhaps a harbinger of the season to come, Gatlin displayed eye-popping acceleration as he roared down the backstretch to give USA Red a clear margin. Gatlin's speed proved hard to manage as he ran up on his teammate Isiah Young forcing a stuttered USA Red team second pass that lacked championship crispness. Notwithstanding the bobble, Young ran a solid curve to give USA Red anchor Ryan Bailey a 4 meter lead on the Bolt-less and Blake-less quartet for Jamaica. The US Olympian didn't crack as he powered down the homestretch while the Jamaican section exhorted veteran anchor Asafa Powell to recapture some of his prior glory. Crossing the line first in 38.68 - #4 on the world leader board - Bailey thrust his baton hand into the air to signify an American win. Jamaica finished second in 38.88 just nipping USA Blue which finished third in 38.92. USA 1. The World 0. "I feel great coming off the 4 x 1," declared Gatlin in the post-race press conference. "This is the first year Team USA focused on building the team and its synergy with stick exchanges and everything. I'm comfortable with my team and I think when we go to the world relays and world championships we will represent."
Could the U.S. female sprinters - squaring off with sprint foursomes from Canada, China, Nigeria, and, of course, Jamaica - build on the momentum from the U.S. men's victory? Leading off for the USA, Jessica Young got a good start. But a clumsy first pass to Candice McGrone sealed the Americans' doom. While McGrone regrouped to run a solid backstretch, she was losing ground to the flying Jamaicans. When Schillonie Calvert - Jamaica's third sprinter - ran a monster curve to extend the Caribbean lead, the race was all but over. USA's 17 year old sprint phenom Kaylin Whitney's desperate anchor leg was too little, too late as Jamaica roared across the finish line in 43.70. USA rallied for second in 43.79 while Nigeria grabbed third in 44.22. Afterward, the young USA anchor reflected on her first competition wearing the USA singlet. "Marshevet (third leg Hooker) was coming in and she was coming hot, so I knew I had to take it out fast," explained Whitney. "As soon as she hit the mark, I went. I kept the pace up, and as soon as she called 'stick', I threw down the hand. She pushed my hand and it was time to go. I felt like I was at the World finals." With the USA/World tussle knotted at 1, all knew a spirited competition over the final 4 events would follow.
The US women sprinters' opportunity for redemption came quickly as the next global throw down event was the women's 4 x 200 relay. Facing teams from Nigeria and Jamaica and a makeshift Caribbean All Star squad, the US women got out quickly on a spritely opening leg by Leslie Cole. A powerful second leg by Tawanna Meadows extended the Americans' lead. On the third carry, the Jamaicans started to move as Calvert - coming off her scintillating curve run in the 4 x 1 - closed the gap. With the surging Caribbean All Stars also joining the mix, it was a three team race over the final furlong. Jamaica anchor Natasha Morrison forged a 3 meter lead for the islanders as the three leaders tore around the curve. As they headed into the homestretch, USA anchor Porscha Lucas began her drive. With a furious rush, the former Texas A&M sprint star appeared to catch Morrison right at the line. After a few breathless moments, the scoreboard revealed that Lucas had indeed nipped her Jamaican counterpart - by .007 seconds. "We had an iffy hand off, so once I got the baton I was like 'we gotta go' and kept running past the finish line," offered Lucas at the press conference. And the finish? "Honestly, I didn't even know who won. I was so overwhelmed." The Americans' winning time of 1:31.97 was a short-lived world leader - with UTech [1:30.80] eclipsing the USA mark here just 30 minutes later in winning the collegiate women's 4 x 200. USA 2. The World 1.
The buzz over the photo finish in women's 4 x 2 had not died down as the men took the track for their 4 x 200m relay. Pitted against Nigeria, Jamaica, and Guyana, the Americans led off with Joe Morris who delivered a strong leg to give USA the lead. Maurice Mitchell - on the second leg - extended the American advantage. Running third, Ameer Webb - out front and sailing - kept the lead for the U.S. although Jamaica's Jason Livermore cut into the home country's advantage. All eyes were on veteran long sprinter Wallace Spearmon to bring home the win. The 2005 world championship 200m silver medalist knew what to do. Powering around the curve, the seasoned sprinter ran hard through the tape to capture the win - and also ring up a finishing time of 1:20.64, placing the US #2 on the world leader board. "I definitely love coming here and being a part of Team USA and taking on the world," said Spearmon to the media. With his lingering injury woes now resolved, Spearmon revealed his rededication to the sport. "I'm definitely more focused than I've ever been." With only the two long relays remaining, the USA had increased its lead over The World, 3-1.
The final USA vs The World women's event was the 4 x 400 relay. Leading off for the Americans, Brianna Nelson struggled, completing her circuit in 54.7 and handing off to Shapri Romero in 4th place as Australia had the first lap lead. On the second carry, Romero [50.8] moved the USA into third on the backstretch and caught Australia just before the second exchange to slide USA into second behind Jamaica. On the USA third leg, Jemail Hayes [52.0] closed on Jamaica, but American anchor Dee Dee Trotter was still down 10 meters at the final exchange. The reigning Olympic 400m bronze medalist gave a spirited chase after Jamaica's anchor Stephanie Ann McPherson. While the multiple time Olympic medalist ripped off a 50.95 anchor leg, she couldn't put a dent in the Jamaican lead as McPherson sailed on to victory, stopping the clock at a world-leading 3:26.58, bettering the American quartet by 1.84 seconds while Australia hung on for third in 3:32.31. "I wish I had been able to make up the gap," Trotter lamented afterward. "I think our team ran a really solid race. We didn't come up with the victory, but we can definitely walk away proud."
The men's 4 x 400 relay would close the show on the 2015 edition of "USA vs. The World." With Jamaica, The Bahamas, Botswana, Canada, Nigeria, and two teams from Brazil in the field, could The World win the long relay to salvage a tie? Or would the USA post a win for a clear cut 4-2 victory? Bryshon Nellum opened with a magnificent 45.7 lead off leg to give the US a meaningful first lap lead as the former USC NCAA 400 meter champion handed off to Brycen Spratling. The former Pitt star - who ran an all-time world best indoor 500m of 1:00.06 this past winter - was unable to hold off the Bahamas which took the lead after two legs. A 45.11 leg by Clayton Parros brought Team USA essentially even with the Bahamian team as the final exchange was being performed. In a move which proved decisive, USA anchor Patrick Feeney made an instinctive surge that allowed him to cut in and secure the pole the moment he grabbed the baton. It may have been the difference. The heady move by the former Notre Dame quarter miler forced the Bahamian anchor Ramon Miller to attempt two thwarted passing moves on the final lap curves. The capacity crowd was roaring as the two anchors - racing stride for stride - spun onto the homestretch. Feeney - representing his country for the first time - somehow found another gear that seemed to surprise even him. Energized, the young sprinter lifted down the final straightway for a world-leading 3:00.86 win, with the Bahamian finisher 1.87 seconds behind. Jamaica finished third in 3:03.02. Feeney - who clocked 44.84 on his winning anchor leg - was animated in the post-race press conference. "I got out ahead of the Bahama anchor to try and hold him off. I felt him right on me the entire way," he explained. "But luckily I was able to keep going all the way through the line and lead my team to victory."
The USA "conquered" The World today - in Philadelphia, in April, and in the absence of pivotal athletes for several of the countries. How will the Americans fare later this summer at the World Championships? Widely varying speculation will be pervasive as we move into the heart of the outdoor season - both domestically and abroad. The real answer - the only one that counts - will come to us via Beijing in late August.
Dave Hunter, who ran his marathon P.R. of 2:31:40 on the highly revered Boston Marathon course back in the Paleozoic era, is a track and field announcer, broadcaster, and journalist. To find out more about Dave, please visit www.trackandfieldhunter.com.