Penn’s women’s distance medley relay team achieved a dream trip around its home track Thursday at the Penn Relays, an historic victory that may have been unexpected, but was not surprising.
In the 42nd year of women competing at the carnival, the Quakers won their first ever Championship of America women’s relay, with Nia Akins, Uchechi Nwogwugwu, Melissa Tanaka and Maddie Villalba racing to a decisive victory over Notre Dame and Villanova in 10 minutes, 59.44 seconds.
Coach Steve Dolan called this foursome “an all-star group for us, some of the best runners in Penn history assembled at one time.” Nwogwugwu (400 meters) and Akins (800, 1,500) hold program records in their events, and Villalba owned the 1,500 record until Akins broke it last week.
“It’s an historic moment,” Dolan said. “What I’m so proud of is sometimes you think it’s possible but you actually have to capture the moment and do it, and to watch all four of them run to the best of their ability and put it together as a team was fantastic. I think they’ll remember this for life.”
That they will.
The result was especially thrilling for two veterans of the carnival – Villalba, a junior out of Central Bucks West High School, and Nwogwugwu, a sophomore from North Penn. Both got a chance to spend some time with their high schools before taking the track.
“I got to see my high school coaches ... that was really special,” Villalba said. “I guess this would be my sixth year running the relays. There’s definitely a connection to the field having trained on it but also racing in high school, I know what that feels like.”
Nwogwugwu echoed those sentiments, adding, “I know that coming in, it’s our home-field advantage. I knew my high school team was here, my parents are here. I really wanted to do something special with these beautiful, lovely ladies and I’m so proud of everything we’ve accomplished today.”
Akins, a junior who finished as runner-up at 800 meters in last month’s NCAA Indoor Championships, gave her team a 25-meter lead after the opening 1,200-meter leg, leaving the other teams struggling to catch up.
“I think with a lap to go, I knew that I had enough energy left where I would be able to take over and hopefully hang on for as long as possible,” she said. “I think as the lap kept going, building momentum all the way around and having people cheering me on, it didn’t seem like too tall of a task.”
Nwogwugwu added five meters to the advantage with a 52.22-second split for 400. Tanaka, a sophomore, was pressed on her 800 leg but still handed the stick to Villalba 20 meters in front.
Villalba never was seriously threatened on her 1,600-meter anchor leg, holding a 20-meter edge at the finish and collapsing on the track as her jubilant teammates rushed to hug her.
It was an unusual feeling for Villalba, who had nothing but open track in front of her as she navigated the final four laps.
“I just wanted to get to the finish line,” she said. “It’s a very strange feeling to run a mile in open space like that.”
Villanova, winner of six of the last seven women’s DMRs, found itself in 10th place after the opening leg and couldn’t make up the gap. Rachel McArthur and Nicole Hutchinson rallied the Wildcats on the last two legs to a third-place finish in 11:05.67. Notre Dame was runner-up for the second straight year, timed in 11:02.67.
“I am really proud of our girls for never giving up,” ‘Nova coach Gina Procaccio said. “They kept fighting right up until the end. Today’s race is over and now it’s on to tomorrow.”