It has been a little more than five years since six girls from Eleanor Roosevelt High School raced into Penn Relays history at Franklin Field. Short enough for Tameka Jameson to gasp “Oh my gosh,” when reminded how many years it has been and long enough for then Raider coach Desmond Dunham to chuckle and ask if it has really been that long.
But for how long — or short — of a time it has been since a team of six high school girls walked away with two Penn Relays championships in a matter of five hours — something that has never been matched in 118 years of Penn Relays competition — it remains one of the most talked about achievements in high school track.
It’s still Marika Walker’s favorite thing to bring up in conversation. It’s the reason the Jameson twins — Tameka and Takecia — were known as “the Jameson twins from the Penn Relays” to competitors and future teammates at the University of Miami despite having never met them. It’s why Tasha Stanley is recognized at collegiate meets not for earning the 2007 Maryland Gatorade Track and Field Athlete of the Year, but rather because she is “Tasha Stanley from the Penn Relays.”
“Even the coaches [at Mississippi State] bring it up,” said Dominique Lockhart, who popped off in the victorious 3,200-relay. “A lot of the time when girls are on recruiting visits [the coaches] will say ‘Oh, this is Dominique. She was on the Penn Relays team that won twice.’”
That team, comprised of one sophomore (Doris Anyanwu), two juniors (Lockhart and Stanley) and three seniors (Tameka, Takecia, and Walker), made record books look like rough copies, showed a Caribbean nation that it’s not the only one with some speed, and set a benchmark for all high school’s to strive for, whether it be realistically attainable or not.
“It really stands high,” Stanley said. “Just doing something that hasn’t been accomplished in 100-plus years. Every year there’s a Gatorade Athlete of the Year and there’s multiple track All-Americans every year but being able to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in over 100 years — it leaves me speechless.”
It almost doesn’t seem fair, looking back at the Roosevelt Six that took home two “Big Pennies,” as the 2-foot circular, 30-pound plaques that are given to the winners of the Championships of America have been nicknamed. Their post-high school accolades read something like a Monday Night Football lineup: Tasha Stanley, North Carolina; Doris Anyanwu, Penn State; Dominique Lockhart, Mississippi State; Tameka Jameson, Miami; Takecia Jameson, Miami; Marika Walker, North Carolina State.
Of the six, four have earned collegiate All-America honors with Anyanwu leading the way as a reigning three-timer entering her senior year as a Nittany Lion. The Jameson’s, who graduated from the Hurricane program in May, both earned All-America status with their ACC title in the 1,600-relay in 2010, but injuries and an unexpected pregnancy for Tameka largely inhibited their collegiate careers. Stanley, arguably the most talented of the bunch, has taken multiple ACC crowns back to North Carolina and narrowly missed a trip to London as a member of a wildly fast Jamaican team.
“I’ll go back and look at the times from the Penn Relays and we were like five seconds faster,” said Anyanwu, who is on pace to graduate with a bachelor’s in Communication Sciences and Disorders next May. “I’m just like ‘Wow, we’re old school.’ We’re like those parents who say ‘Oh, I walked to school five miles uphill both ways.”
The Penn Relays isn’t just a routine weekend high school meet. It’s the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Masters, the Stanley Cup. For Eleanor Roosevelt in 2007, it was the only meet that mattered.
“We really didn’t train for states,” Anyanwu said. “We trained for the Penn Relays.”
Physically, the two races that would etch Eleanor Roosevelt into Penn immortality didn’t begin until April 27, 2007. Mentally, they began in 2006 after Jamaican powerhouses Holmwood Tech and Edwin Allen smoked the Raiders in the finals of the 3,200-relay despite Roosevelt flying for the third fastest time in the country, keeping the “Big Penny” overseas where the vast majority of them find their home.
The overwhelming Caribbean dominance remained uninterrupted once more in the 1,600-relay as Holmwood Tech charged for another victory, sending the Americans home reeling and, once again, penniless.
So for a year the Raider contingent wallowed in their losses, ignoring that they were in the midst of a 7-year run of indoor state titles and three consecutive Maryland cross country crowns. All they wanted was the Jamaicans.
“We came in there knowing what was on the line, knowing we could possibly make history,” said Walker, who graduated from the Wolfpack as an undergrad in 2011 with a degree in textiles engineering and is currently enrolled in a two-year grad school program at N.C. State. “We knew what we were capable of.”
On the morning of April 27, the 3,200-relay began with Lockhart — the defending state champion in the mile — who passed off the baton to Tameka Jameson — the No. 1 ranked 500-meter runner in the country — who then handed it off to Walker — the cross country state champion — who then gave the responsibility of the first Championship of America to Stanley — later named the Penn Relays MVP — and in a matter of 8 minutes, 51.19 seconds, Eleanor Roosevelt had done what they had waited for 365 days to do: win its first Big Penny with the Jamaicans lapping at its heels. That was the easy part.
With sprinting ability that verges on the freakish level, Jamaicans aren’t known for 800 runners — largely the reason Stanley opted to compete for Jamaica in the Olympic trials rather than her home country.
“You see Usain Bolt and he runs the 100 and the 200 and that’s about as far as Jamaicans go,” she said. Stanley’s father is Jamaican, her mother American, thereby granting her dual citizenship.
With the meet’s shorter and faster premier event — the 1,600-relay — still to come, the four Raiders who would run — Stanley, Anyanwu, and the Jameson twins — all remember knowing it would take a titanic effort to return Greenbelt with a second Big Penny.
“It was bigger than just us,” Anyanwu said. “Coach Dunham always told us ‘It’s not just Roosevelt, it’s not just your family. It’s bigger than that. This is the United States watching you.’”
The pressure at the Penn Relays is enough to swallow whole even the most talented of runners in a single relay leg, and Takecia Jameson was never good with nerves.
“Oh, I get very nervous,” she said with a laugh. The last thing an admittedly antsy athlete needs prior to the biggest performance of their career is a delay. That’s exactly what she got. Five hours of it to be exact.
As rain poured in from the Philadelphia sky, the Roosevelt Six found shelter in a “hideout spot” in a gym with the Jamaicans. Takecia took out her anxieties by doing flips on nearby gymnastics mats until Dunham could no longer stand watching his anchor risk a sprained ankle every few minutes. The Raiders tossed a foil wrapping from an old hot dog, created improvised games, listened to their iPods, anything to keep their thoughts from drifting towards the relay.
“We were going to handle business as long as we kept our mind off the race,” said Tameka, who is due to give birth to her daughter, Kameron, later this month. “In [those hours] that we were in the gym, we forgot we had a competition that day.”
For a reason unbeknownst to her, her twin sister, her coach, her teammates, Takecia said she runs her best times in the cold, damp, foggy conditions that were presented to her for her anchor leg in the 1,600-relay.
Before the race, “something came over my body,” she said. “I just started crying. Coach Dunham told me that ‘Nobody is going to remember second. Nobody is going to remember third. But people are going to remember the anchor.”
For the first 200 meters she remembers battling stride-for-stride with the Edwin Allen anchor. But then, just as had happened prior to the race, something “came over” her.
“I hit another gear,” she said. “It must have been adrenaline, it must have been excitement. To come across that line was one of the best feelings to this day. Nobody can take that away.”
The 2007 Eleanor Roosevelt team found unparalleled success on the Franklin Field track that may never be matched. But Dunham, who left Roosevelt in 2008 to coach at the University of Maryland and is now returning to a high school post at Woodrow Wilson in Washington, D.C., looks at the success not through the gleaming Big Penny, but through the six pieces of parchment each of his athletes have earned — or will within a year — as college students.
“Success goes beyond the track,” he said. “It’s about success in life and carrying themselves as young ladies and getting college degrees. Track is just a microcosm of life. That’s the thing I’m most proud of. They are all finishing with college degrees and college experience.”
The Jameson twins have designs on competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — after Tameka takes her maternity leave from the sport and after Takecia recovers from a string of knee injuries — as does Stanley, who will graduate from North Carolina in December as pre-med but is putting her medical career on hold.
Walker will continue her aspirations as a performance clothing designer (her dream job would be with Under Armour), Lockhart will soon be a grad student studying architecture — a major too demanding to coincide with a track career — and Anyanwu hopes one day to be treating trauma patients waking from comas.
No matter the path each of the Roosevelt Six may choose to travel, each will forever carry with them the unimpeachable legacy of “the Roosevelt girls from the Penn Relays.”
“I always said that would be a moment in my coaching career I’ll never forget,” Dunham said. “That day was a gift from God.”