Running to remember: Virginia Tech honors victims of massacre

Updated: April 26, 2007, 7:00 PM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- No matter where the Hokies go, the teary-eyed strangers are never far behind with prayers or a reassuring hand on a shoulder.

That is life these days for everyone at Virginia Tech after the massacre that left 32 students and professors dead, plus the gunman who killed them.

The women's track and field team has been on the road competing at in the conference championship and now this weekend at the Penn Relays.

With their team outfits on, even in public, it's been easy for others to offer concern and sympathy. Some random person even picked up the bill for their team dinner at a popular chain restaurant Wednesday night.

"You could see it in their eyes or hear in their voices they're very sympathetic," freshman Kristi Castlin said. "We want the sympathy, but we want the respect more. We want your cheering for everybody to get through it and just press forward."

They've gone forward on the road, spreading the message that Virginia Tech will get through the tragedy. It will just take time.

The Hokies didn't know the day after the massacre if they would still compete in last weekend's ACC outdoor championships. But they decided to travel to College Park, Md., and rallied from a second-place spot entering the final day to win the title.

"For them to be able to come together and perform at such a high level, basically days later, that was the thing that for me I'll never forget," said Dave Cianelli, director of track and field and cross country at Virginia Tech. "I think that helped me really toward healing, going from one of the worst days of my life on Monday to one of the happiest days of my life on Saturday."

The Hokies, though, couldn't carry over that success in the 400-meter relay in the 113th Penn Relays. They ran their heat race in 45.85 and did not qualify for Friday's final.

But they all said Thursday that they ran the race of the season at the ACCs in memory of their fallen classmates. They stayed focused, stayed positive and did what was needed to become champions.

"We were really, really motivated because of what happened," said junior Sherlenia Green. "We wanted to represent for the victims and the families that were mourning."

Cianelli was friends with one of the victims -- his neighbor and Virginia Tech French teacher Jocelyn Couture-Nowak. Couture-Nowak and some of her students were killed when Seung-Hui Cho burst into her morning class at Norris Hall and opened fire. Cianelli's daughter is good friends with one of Couture-Nowak's daughters.

"That was very difficult on everybody, just knowing someone," said Cianelli, in his sixth season as coach. "Even though we're a large state school, it's a fairly tight-knit student body."

In tribute, some of the Hokies pinned black ribbons on their uniform Thursday, and others had scribbled messages of support on their sneakers at the ACCs. Cianelli had a black "32" drawn on his right hand. When the women finished running on Thursday, Penn Relay staffers offered their prayers and well wishes.

Trainer Dan Preusser was stopped by people who noticed his "VT" hat.

"It's good to see that out of a tragedy, there's a sense of community no matter where you go," he said.

Cianelli said he hasn't had time to answer all the letters, cards and e-mails of support he's received, including messages from nearly 200 coaches from around the country.

"It's been tremendous," Cianelli said. "We've felt like they've all been with us and supporting us and want to see us do well."

On the first day of competition in the sport's oldest relay event, Tennessee won the featured race, taking the women's distance medley relay for the second time in four years. Rose-Anne Galligan, Latonya Loche, Leslie Treherne, and Sarah Bowman led the Vols to a winning time of 11 minutes, 9.16 seconds, edging Villanova in front of its home crowd.

"It's really the national championships for outdoors, let's be realistic," said coach J.J. Clark, whose father is Joe Clark, the bat-wielding principal from New Jersey portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the 1989 movie "Lean on Me."

The defending-champion Wildcats finished second in 11:10.19 and North Carolina was third in 11:12.44. Duke, which won the event two years ago, was fourth in 11:16.84.

No surprise that Bowman was the anchor. She knows a thing or two -- or three -- about winning at the Penn Relays. She was a three-time champ in the high school mile (2004-06) out of Warrenton, Va., and said she knew this race was over about as soon as she grabbed the baton.

Still, Wildcats anchor Frances Koons made it tough with a hard charge down the backstretch, passing Bowman with about 500 meters left in the race. Even with the crowd cheering for the Wildcats, Koons appeared to make her move too soon and was helpless as Bowman's big kick pushed her back into the lead with about 120 meters left on the 1,600-meter final leg.

"I knew she was coming because I could hear the whole Villanova cheers," Bowman said. "I kind of let her take over and then I just went in her stride. The pace really did not feel bad."

Koons ran the anchor in 4:37 while Bowman finished in 4:41.4. The difference came in the third leg (800 meters) when Treherne ran a 2:08.9 to a 2:12.3 for Villanova's Arusha McKenzie.

"To come here as a team and win the relay is just an amazing feeling," Bowman said.

Clark, who competed in the relays for Villanova and qualified for the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials, had no problem denying his former school its 10th DMR title. No other program has more than three wins in the event.

"It felt fine because we won," Clark said, laughing.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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