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Thumbs up for new US meet from athletes, coaches

Published:Wednesday | June 17, 2015 | 12:00 AMGordon Williams
Maurice Smith
Juliet Campbell

GEORGIA, United States:

Teething pains were everywhere at the first Atlanta All Heart Track Club Relays here last weekend. But they failed to bite into the enthusiasm of Jamaicans present for the birth of what's being touted as the "Penn Relays of the American South".

Competitors, coaches, fans and even organisers raised a myriad of concerns about the meet, ranging from time of year it was staged, to time of day, for events over two days of track and field, at Langston Hughes High School.

But, for the three high schools, Calabar, St Jago and Wolmer's Boys, and professional athletes who represented Jamaica, there were plenty positives.

"It has teething pains," Calabar coach Omar Hawes said, "but it's good. This is a platform going forward ... . The meet has potential."

The 90-degree temperatures rattled some of the most sun-tested Jamaicans. School representatives also lamented the date clash with examinations in Jamaica. Wolmer's Boys, for example, almost declined the invitation.

exam timing

"We weren't sure we were going to make it," explained coach Christopher Harley, "because of the exam timing."

Sparse crowds were blamed on inadequate promotion. For Jamaican schools, juggling entries to fit an unfamiliar United States (US) age-group system was also a problem. While Jamaica's athletes were allowed to compete in individual races and relays, some of the competition was lopsided. Other events begged for more entries.

"In some events, especially the sprints, the competition is good," said St Jago coach Keilando Goburn. "In the middle distances and field events, it's a bit easier."

The athletes, however, appreciated the opportunity.

"It wasn't as intense a competition as I expected, like in Jamaica," said St Jago's Kimone Shaw, who won the 100 metres for high-school girls, ages 15-16, and ran on her school's winning 4x100m team in the 17-18 group. "But it was a good feeling to come here ... I would definitely come back."

athletic prowess

Jamaicans showed off the island's athletic prowess. Javon Francis, who impressed with 44.96 seconds in the 400m open, enjoyed the experience.

"I really liked it here," Francis said. "The people have been good. They've treated us well."

It's what organisers, including former Jamaican stars Maurice Smith and Juliet Campbell, see as a major future attraction. While Campbell was adamant the meet is "not banked around Jamaicans," she acknowledged the island's reputation could prove a big draw.

"We would love to have them," she said.

Campbell's own year-one meet reviews, however, were mixed.

"For the first year, it worked out better than we anticipated," she said.

"We had a lot of hitches, which is to be expected. The scheduling is not what we're used to in Jamaica. Hopefully, next year it will be a little bit more competitive. It most definitely has the ability to be the 'Penns' of the South."

There are incentives to lure Jamaicans, some unavailable at Penns, a popular April meet in the US northeast. Organisers here paid for airfare, accommodation and meals for most of the three Jamaican school teams. They're eager to boost Jamaica's participation.

"We really want to accommodate 10 or more schools from Jamaica," said Smith. "This could manifest into something huge."

"The Caribbean potential is massive," said Campbell.

Jamaicans sense the opportunities. The meet offers overseas exposure and competition, especially for young athletes - classes 3 and 4 for example - who may not be ready for Penns. All Heart-featured races for athletes eight years old and under, through adults. It's also a testing ground ahead of national junior and senior trials.

"It's a good meet for them to come and see where they are," said St Jago's coach, Danny Hawthorne. "It's a good measuring stick."

Organisers promised retooling to improve the meet. It's likely to be moved to mid-May to counter exam clashes and heat. The venue could also be changed.

"This is the first time," said Smith. "Now we are better aware of the speed bumps. For next year we'll have a better understanding of the things to be done."