After last week's tragic events on their campus, members of the Virginia Tech women's track team are using their athletic talents as a temporary escape. Yesterday, at overcast Franklin Field, the historic Penn Relays were their sanctuary.
Never mind that the Hokies, despite admirable efforts in the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays, fell short of qualifying for the championship round.
It was good to compete, good to experience the camaraderie of athletes from around the globe, good to be far removed - for another weekend, at least - from the site of last week's massacre.
Thirty-three were killed, including the deranged shooter.
Everyone on the numb Blacksburg, Va., campus needed an outlet, needed to channel their heartbreak in a positive fashion.
Enter track and field.
This weekend, it's the Penn Relays. Last weekend, it was the Atlantic Coast Conference championships at the University of Maryland.
The campus shootings happened April 16. The next morning, coach Dave Cianelli and his men's and women's track teams had to decide whether to compete in the ACC championships.
The vote was unanimous. All wanted to go. All wanted to show the student body's resilience.
And the women's team made a statement, capturing a championship that, the athletes swear, was the result of the inspiration they felt from their fallen friends.
"Any push we got was because those 32 people were there with us," freshman Queen Harrison said after competing yesterday.
"We were really, really motivated and wanted to represent the victims and the families that were mourning," Virginia Tech junior Sherlenia Green said after running the anchor leg in a 4x100 qualifying heat that went a crisp 45.85 seconds at Penn.
Since the tragedy, Green said, she can feel people's love.
"I feel like everyone is cheering us on," she said. "A lot of people say they're praying for us. Yesterday, someone came up to us at Chili's and bought us dinner."
"We want the sympathy," said Tech freshman Kristi Castlin, a standout sprinter and hurdler, "but we want the respect more. . . . We want to show we can persevere."
Two days after the shootings, Virginia Tech boarded a bus for a five-hour drive to College Park, Md., to compete in the ACC championships. "It was very somber, and there wasn't much talking or chatter," Cianelli said. "I would find myself breaking down as I sat there, thinking of everything that had unfolded."
Three days later, his Hokies were champions, and "the emotions were just as strong the other way," Cianelli said. "They weren't going to let this event [the shootings] define us or our university or our program, and this was one small way to show we are going to be stronger for it."
At the ACC championships, teams wore VT ribbons in memory of the victims, and the Hokies seemed to run with an extra bounce, seemed to pack more power in the field competition. They set six school records.
"Their kids ran so fast compared to where they had been," said Randy Bungard, a 1987 Virginia Tech graduate who coaches at rival Virginia. "It seemed like it was a rallying point."
Almost all of Tech's athletes had personal bests in the ACC championships, including Castlin, who won the 100 hurdles in a wind-aided 12.82, a best-in-the-nation clocking this year. Her best entering the meet: 13.34.
"Every performance surprised me," Cianelli said. "It was amazing. There was just no way to know how ready they would be, and to see how we came together was phenomenal. . . . They were three of the most special days of my life."
"In reality," he said, "we were just happy to be alive, and we wanted to prove to ourselves that we could come back from a terrible event. That was our motivation. The team felt responsible for representing the families that lost kids and lost family members."
As he watched the Penn Relays unfold yesterday, Cianelli sat in the ancient bleachers wearing a Virginia Tech cap with a black ribbon attached. He talked about one of his men's pole-vaulters, who used to tutor a student killed in the shootings; he talked about one of his men's middle-distance runners, Kevin Kadak, who was about to open a classroom door in Norris Hall when he heard gunshots coming from the room and made a U-turn and raced for his car.
"If he had been in the classroom a few minutes earlier, he wouldn't be here," the coach said.
Tech athletes had "32" written on different parts of their bodies at yesterday's Relays.
"Those 32 people will always be in our prayers," Harrison, a freshman from upstate New York, said after anchoring Tech's 4x400 team, which finished in 3 minutes, 42.94 seconds. She was on her way to a class next to Norris Hall when the shootings took place. "They'll be with us the rest of the season - the rest of our lives, really."
Because of the heightened competition, Tech's men's team didn't make the trip to Penn; the Hokies brought only the top female performers, and they seemed to be in their element.
"Going back to school and having to deal with it was so sad," Castlin said. "It's nice to get away."