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Jamaican flavor

Yohan Blake showcases speed, talent at Penn Relays

Posted: Tuesday May 1, 2007 1:13PM; Updated: Wednesday May 2, 2007 12:15PM
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There was a  large Jamaican contingent at the Penn Relays to cheer on their countrymen, including phenom Yohan Blake.
There was a large Jamaican contingent at the Penn Relays to cheer on their countrymen, including phenom Yohan Blake.
Heinz Kluetmeier/SI

PHILADELPHIA -- Standing barefoot on the asphalt after his race, 17-year-old Yohan Blake, a junior sprinter from St. Jago (Spanish Town, Jamaica), was simmering down last Saturday. After burning up the track with a 45.40 personal split in the anchor leg of the 4x400 meter relay team, Blake was left to critique his performance in the 113th running of the Penn Relays.

"To run in front of a crowd with so many Jamaicans in the stands was a thrill," said Blake, who despite his team's second-place finish was named the meet's outstanding athlete for relay events in front of 46,363 fans at Penn's Franklin Field. "But we know that we are capable of doing better and that the expectations are for us to deliver faster times."

Though Blake was upset by St. Jago's second-place finish (3:10.43) behind Long Beach (Calif.) Poly (3:09.89), the phenom was mature enough to collect his thoughts before slipping out of his bright yellow and green uniform. With a camera from a Jamaican television station awaiting his reaction before he could put down his black spikes, he detailed the fine line between disappointment and a learning experience. "We're not satisfied, but to run against competition that draws the best out of us is something that we desire," said Blake, whose earlier performance in the 4x100 meter relay helped St. Jago to the Penn Relays first-ever sub-40 of 39.96, breaking the previous mark of 40.13 set last year by Jamaican rival Camperdown (Kingston).

Having run last year as a sophomore, Blake entered last Saturday's meet as a veteran of the Penn Relays, an event typically reserved for Jamaican seniors seeking American college scholarships and opportunities. Just three weeks ago in the Carifta Games in the Turks and Caicos Islands, Blake set a new junior national record in the 100 meters with a 10.11, leaving many to start mentioning his name with current 100-meter world record holder of 9.77 and fellow Jamaican Asafa Powell. "Yohan is very humble and continues to work hard," says his coach, Danny Hawthorne. "To jump into the world stage at this point would be the wrong move. He is taking steps incrementally. He is not in Asafa's league yet."

Jamaicans flocked to the City of Brotherly Love for the races, transforming the Relays into a Jamaican Jamfest, replete with beef patties on sale at concession stands and Air Jamaica signs lining the infield. The marquee event, which was nationally televised, was billed as the United States versus the world, featuring American Olympians Allyson Felix, Shawn Crawford and Lauryn Williams. And while the American professionals ran Jamaica off the track in both the men's and women's races, it was the high school 4x400 meter relay that elicited the crowd's attention. "When the Jamaicans are in the stands, they are whooping and getting crazy waiting for someone to get caught from behind," said Felix, the 2004 Athens Olympic 200 meter silver medalist. "It gets so loud you don't know where you are on the 400. Most of all, you don't want to hear the whoop."

Craning their necks, waving their flags and creating a buzz before the 5:30 p.m. start, the island nation's contingent believed Blake would run off with another win. Instead it was Bryshon Nellum, Long Beach Poly's USC-bound star, who refused to relinquish the lead down the backstretch. "That was the craziest crowd I have ever run in front of," said Nellum, who made his own statement with an identical 45.40 anchor leg. "I really didn't even know how close he was because of the crowd."

Left to pick up his warmup clothes and exit through the stands with rain drops starting to fall, Blake said, "We intend on winning when we step on the track, but we will go home and practice harder."

He will get that chance on American soil again when he returns to the United States for the Reebok Grand Prix in New York City on June 2.