Embracing Philly's Grit With deep ties to the Penn Relays, the indomitable women of the Juventus Track Club are helping keep the city at the center of the track and field universe

Story by Rich Sands @sands | Photos by Jonathan Pushnik

On the last weekend of April, Philadelphia becomes the center of the track and field universe. The Penn Relays brings thousands of athletes, coaches and fans to Franklin Field for an exciting carnival of running, jumping, throwing and cheering. But the Cradle of Liberty has also recently become a year-round focal point in the track world thanks to a powerful group of women and the dedicated coach who has nurtured them into superstars of the sport.

Over the last few years, Derek Thompson’s Juventus Track Club has morphed from a prominent age-group team into a stable of some of the best middle-distance runners in the country, if not the world. His star pupil since her high school days, Ajee’ Wilson, is an Olympian, world championships bronze medalist and the American record holder in the 800-meter run. Her success has led to a domino effect of top-level athletes joining Thompson’s squad, toughing out training in Philly year-round.

Not surprisingly, these athletes share a strong connection to the Penn Relays, where they have each produced dazzling performances that became indelible moments in the meet’s long history.

As a high school junior, Wilson used a blazing 2:03.4 split to lead a squad from Neptune, New Jersey, into the 4x800 Championship of America final, and she came back as a pro to run on on two winning teams in the USA vs. the World series. Raevyn Rogers helped the University of Oregon collect five college championships (including setting still-standing Carnival records in the 4x400 and sprint medley in 2017) and last year returned to anchor the United States to victory in the 800-meter medley in world record time.

Charlene Lipsey finished third in the high school girls mile, was a mainstay on many high-placing LSU quartets, and won the Olympic Development mile in convincing fashion last year. Kendra Chambers was a part of Texas’ championship-winning 4x400 team in 2011 and the triumphant U.S. 4x400 squad in 2018. The newest addition to the group, Déborah Rodríguez of Uruguay, is a Penn Relays neophyte who ran the 800 in the 2016 Olympics and won the bronze medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2015 Pan American Games.

And then there’s Angel Piccirillo. The Homer City, Pennsylvania, native won the high school girls mile as a sophomore and junior, finished second (behind the legendary Mary Cain) as a senior and then embarked on a historic career at Villanova. Between 2013 and 2017 Piccirillo helped the Wildcats win nine Championship of America “wheels,” making her the most decorated college woman in Penn Relays history.

Given this success, it’s no surprise that the group has thrived while working together.

Youth Movement

“When I started anyone could run with me,” says Thompson, a soccer player in his native Jamaica, who moved to the Philadelphia area in the 1970s. “You could come with one leg and crutches, it would make no difference.” Though he himself never ran track, Thompson was a fan thanks to his home country’s rich history in the sport. He came up with the name Juventus as an homage to the Italian soccer team and because the word means “youth” in Latin.

His reputation as a tough but caring coach who got the best out of his young charges brought him to the attention of Wilson when she was in high school. She began working with him and when she decided to turn pro instead of running collegiately it was a simple choice to continue the relationship. “One of his greatest qualities is that he’s constantly learning,” says Wilson, who graduated from Temple University in 2016. “He’s always gathering information. He has the memory bank of every stat ever. He’s constantly figuring out ways to make us better and more successful.” Under Thompson’s guidance Wilson has racked up nine USATF titles and set American records in the 800 both indoors (1:58.60) and outdoors (1:55.61).

Lipsey started training with Wilson in the fall of 2016 and had a breakout season in 2017. After years of hovering around 2 minutes flat for the 800, she became one of the world’s best in the event, lowering her personal best to 1:57.38, finishing second to Wilson at the U.S. nationals and making the world championship final in London. “The year that Charlene had when she went to the group really spoke volumes,” says Rogers, who turned pro after her junior year at Oregon, having already collected five NCAA titles in the 800, indoors and outdoors. “It really did show how invested Derek is in the group.” She stayed in Eugene to finish her degree, but moved to the Philadelphia area last summer and has been adjusting to Thompson’s demanding regimen and the dynamics of working with some of her biggest rivals. “I’m not used to having someone beating me in practice,” she says with a laugh. “I’m trying to get used to this pace. I’m trying to keep up. I’m coming from more of a 400 support system, and this is more of a 1000-meter support group. And so for a 400/800 runner to come and do work-outs like a 1000-meter runner, it’s a huge adjustment.”

Thompson, who retired from his job a mailman in 2017, now focuses solely on his elite runners. His charges praise him for striking the right balance between group and individual coaching. Which isn’t easy when many of your athletes compete against each other on a regular basis, often with national titles or Team USA berths on the line. “The toughest part about it is when they line up to race against each other,” he says. “I take them one at a time and I try to be as fair as possible and I give them instructions based on their strengths. But I don’t wish that on my worst enemy!”

The athletes know how to draw the line between friendship and competition, and the benefits of working together far outweigh any race-day rivalries. “Char was the first one to come join us, and that was the first time that I trained with a female, other than my sister, day in and day out,” Wilson says.

It was awesome to have her there as a friend. Before that I was just running with high school boys. It’s a different dynamic. What you get out of it is different. When we’re going into races together, I know what we’ve been through. It’s a confidence thing.”

Philly Tough

The Juventus women train in a variety or spots in the Philadelphia area, including the iconic Kelly Drive paths along the Schuylkill River, the trails at Wissahickon Valley Park and a quiet track at a local private high school. “That’s one of the things I do love about Philly, it’s a running city,” Wilson says. “You don’t have to drive very far to get what you need for training.”

And perhaps no spot is more important — or more dreaded by the athletes — than the Curtis Arboretum, site of the group’s fall base-building workouts. “If I was to pinpoint one thing that I do to makes the success of this group, it’s Curtis Park,” Thompson says. “We have a grass track that we map out that’s about 500 meters. You have inclines on it and I think it really helps the athletes tremendously.”

Piccirillo, a Big East champion and NCAA All-American in cross country, admits that the locale has earned its intimidating reputation. “I obviously came to the program with a bit more of a distance-oriented background than some of the other girls in the group. So in my head I thought, ‘fall training, this’ll be fun,’” she says. “And I went to train there the first time and I was like, ‘This is the worst thing that’s ever happened!’ The loop that we have there is so challenging and the way that we structure the workouts and the intensity is something that I hadn’t done at Villanova before.”

And then there are the complications of winter. While Texas-native Rogers hates the cold, and the group as a whole must get creative during snowstorms, Thompson thinks the local climate builds character along with physical benefits. “I don’t have any scientific proof,” he admits, “but training out there in the wintertime when the cold weather hits your lungs, that is just as good as any altitude,” a nod to the popular high-elevation spots many elite runners migrate to early in the year.

This weekend Texans' Rogers and Chambers will be shaking off the early spring to represent Team USA in the Xfinity presents USA vs. The World at the Penn Relays while Wilson will be jetting overseas to begin her Diamond League season, which kicks off in Doha on May.

The Power of Penn

Though the Juventus women have long seasons ahead of them, they always make sure the Penn Relays fit into their schedules. The associations with the meet are both inspiring and rejuvenating.

As a high schooler having that connection to professional athletes made it special,” Wilson says. “We’d race one day and then come back and be up in the nosebleed seats and watch our heroes compete and cheer our heads off for them. Just having that opportunity to run on the same stage as them was the highlight of our year.”
photos courtesy of the Penn Relays

Rogers concurs. “I grew up watching Penn Relays and USA vs. the World,“ she says. "So to continue running there and building my own legacy is surreal. And the rivalry between the Americans and Jamaicans is the best part.”

Penn also plays a pivotal role in Piccirillo’s life.

This meet has given me so much over the years, it’s given me a lot of confidence, racing experience and obviously some of the fondest memories I have from my running career in general.”

“Even last year when I was struggling adjusting to the [post-collegiate] training, I was like, I just need this meet to center me. The ups and downs of the seasons come and go, but I think that meet is somewhere that I love to compete at and I try to take advantage of it every chance I can.”

Thanks to the Penn Relays and its 125 year history, Philadelphia is a nexus for the track and field community. Now these inspiring women are helping bolster that storied reputation.

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