Late to the Game: What’s the Deal With the Texas Relays?

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Assistant editor Chris O’Connell isn’t from Texas; he’s from New Jersey. That’s OK though—he’s here now. But without growing up in a place that cherishes college sports the way many parts of the South—and especially Texas—do, Chris has taken it upon himself to learn more about all aspects of college athletics in a series we like to call Late to the Game.

A couple weeks ago, I was interviewing three-time NCAA shot put champion Ryan Crouser for the next issue of the Alcalde. I asked Crouser, an Oregon native from a long line of track and field athletes, if his family got down to Texas often to see him compete.

“[My dad] is coming down in a few weeks for Texas Relays,” Crouser said.

The Texas Relays? That week after SXSW when the traffic gets better for two days and then reverts back to motorist hell? Isn’t that for high school athletes and their friends to come to my city to do annoying, youthful things like have loud fun?

Growing up in the northeast, I’d heard of the Penn Relays, which are a big deal for high school athletes. In New Jersey, they’d cross over into—shudder—Pennsylvania to run and jump and do everything else this high school baseball player wouldn’t dare to do. Regardless, the Penn Relays were a focal point for all the fast kids at my high school. So the knowledge junkie in me needed to know what this Congress Avenue-clogging circus was all about.

Crouser seemed busy throwing a 16-pound metal orb very far distances, so I turned to my very best friend: the Internet.

With some cursory research, I was able to find out that the Texas Relays trail only the Penn Relays in number of spectators and athletes—approximately 50,000 and 5,000, respectively, according to Wikipedia—in all U.S. track meets. This year marks the 88th Texas Relays. It is an annual event, with the exception of 1932-34, when the Texas Relays were canceled because of the Great Depression.

And here I am being informal. It’s officially the 88th Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays, named so after the exalted Texas track coach, who coached the team for a whopping 41 years, from 1920-61.

Whew. History lesson over. Onto the present. Why is this event such a big deal, and since it is such a big deal, why didn’t I know about it? I asked Shawn Nestor in UT Athletics to make sense of it for me.

“It’s the first home meet of the year from an outdoor track and field perspective for high schools,” Nestor says. “Right now we’ve got about 7,000 athletes here—a combo of high school, college, and professional.” Even the great Wikipedia underestimated the Texas Relays.

In an Olympic year, like 2016, Nestor says, that number is usually even larger. Most athletes are high school students—almost 4,500 this year—though USA Track & Field is sending a couple relay groups, and professionals have come from as far away as Brazil and Japan in years past.

The best UT athletes—Crouser included—participate at the Texas Relays as well. Another major draw this year is junior Kaitlin Petrillose, the 2014 NCAA Indoor pole vaulting champion.

“Pole vault is a big one this year—a group from Britain [is coming],” Nestor says. “It should be a pretty big one.” Ole Miss pole vaulter Sam Kendricks is also slated to make an appearance this year. Two years ago, he set the Mike A. Myers Stadium record, and last year, he won the SEC, NCAA, and USA championships in the event. He’s … very good.

In all, athletes from 34 states and nine countries are in town for the Texas Relays this weekend, a far cry from my original estimation that it was actually infinity Texas high school students. Despite the inordinate amount of festivals in Austin, especially this time of year, there’s a very good reason for the Texas Relays.

“For our track coaches, its a big recruiting weekend,” Nestor says.

Ah, there it is. So the top track and field athletes in the state and beyond descend on Austin each year to compete in the region’s largest event of its kind, when the city’s two weeks of winter are a faded memory but the eight-month oppressive heat blanket hasn’t yet emerged? Sounds like a pretty plush deal for Texas Track and Field.

“They’re right in front of us,” Nestor says.

Now can we create some sort of analog for football recruiting?

Illustration by Melissa Reese

 

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