Justin Gatlin has seen a lot at the Penn Relays since attending his first carnival for Tennessee in 2001. And 17 years after making his Franklin Field debut, he still feels the same electricity.
"This is a tradition for me," the 36-year-old Gatlin said Friday, one day before joining his teammates for the annual USA vs. The World relays. "You've got to think of Penn Relays as an all-star event. It's a time you get to see every athlete and teams from around the world being able to compete against each other, not under strict pressure but just having fun together.
"Then their countrymen are here to cheer them on in the stadium. So it's a fun time to be here and all these young athletes who have great futures ahead of them, they're out there stretching their legs and getting ready.
"It seems like always a dream coming back here, seeing the same faces in the crowd, the crowd getting hyped in the backstretch, getting ready to run, heart beating fast, hearing Jamaica cheering and then hearing USA cheering. There's so much love here and so much competition, you can't help but want to come back every year."
Gatlin, a former Olympian and a 10-time winner at USA vs. The World, was joined at Friday's press conference by U.S. teammates Raevyn Rogers, Michael Cherry and Aaliyah Brown. Rogers, who now makes her home in Philadelphia, was part of two 2017 Oregon relay teams that set carnival records, and later won gold on the USA's 4×400 team at the 2018 World Indoor Championships.
"I've learned that Philadelphia's weather is very unpredictable," said Rogers, who grew up in Houston. "But I'm enjoying just learning about the culture. I'm an art major. The art here is amazing and I see the beauty as far as the arts and the tradition and the architecture. … I sound like an art nerd. But just coming here, I'm really excited to embark on a new journey and be able to spread my name along the East Coast."
Cherry, a two-time silver medalist in world competition, has fond memories of the Penn Relays from his days as a high school athlete at Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va.
"Five years ago, I was trying to find ways to sneak on the infield to see the pros," Cherry said. "Now it's my turn to be the pros and they're looking at me the same way I used to look at them. Being on the same team with them is amazing. This is a great experience for me."
Four different teams posted the fastest times in qualifying heats for Saturday's Championship of America relay finals.
Looking for its first men's 4×100 relay title since 1989, Houston led qualifiers in 40.07 seconds anchored by Cameron Burrell, son of head coach Leroy Burrell. However, the Cougars were disqualified from their heat in the men's 4×200, and MICO of Jamaica was credited with the best time, 1:23.45.
Oklahoma led the field in the women's 4×200 heats in 1:35.17 and Auburn's men clocked 3:07.72 to show the way in the 4×400.
Burrell came back after running in both the 4×100 and 4×200 and clocked 10.45 in the individual 100, tied for best qualifying time with Auburn's Raheem Chambers.
In what is believed to be a Penn Relays first, Gabriele Cunningham, a junior from North Carolina State, recorded the fastest times in qualifying for both the 100-meter dash and the 100-meter hurdles.