Last year the Athletics Club went on their long standing exchange trip with four historic Ivy League universities; Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Pennsylvania. Unbeknown to us, this exchange first involved Birmingham in 1962 and it has been going strong ever since.
This year’s trip started with all 54 of us meeting at Heathrow Airport all packed, dressed in university kit, excited and raring to get going. The exciting tour started off with a couple of nights exploring the sights and lights of New York, staying in a hostel just a few meters away from Central Park. This was an ideal place to base ourselves as it not only allowed us convenient access to a great training venue but also gave the athletes the opportunity to explore Central Park while doing so. After having a great few days exploring New York, including an ice hockey game in Brooklyn, the real reason for the tour began with a bus journey to our first stop of New Haven and Yale University.
On arriving at Yale we were immediately greeted outside of Yale’s unbelievable sports centre, which can only be described as looking like a cathedral! This welcome was brilliant and really set the tone for the hospitality that we came to appreciate at each university throughout the trip.
On the second morning at Yale we had a brilliant tour of the University by a couple of their athletes showing us what unbelievable facilities the University had and what life was like at an American Ivy League university. This also allowed the students to see what facilities were available to them during their stay, both athletic and academic. I was pleased to note that these were fully utilised by our team who not only trained hard but also worked hard on assignments and revision while here. The trip finished with the Yale invitational track and field meet, which led to athletes from Birmingham completing against those from Yale, Brown, MIT and New Haven universities. After some great competition and some notable victories by Birmingham students in the long distance races, a pizza party was thrown in our honour allowing both universities athletes to interact, swap athletic kit and enjoy themselves, creating lasting friendships in the process.
The night before the competition our club's Chair and I were invited to the Yale University Track and Field Association Alumni Annual Dinner in the remarkable Yale Club in New York City. This extraordinary dinner was punctuated with meeting and chatting with former members of the track and field club that visited Birmingham on this exchange trip in the early 90s and 00s. This was a truly special evening and something for which we were very thankful for being invited too.
We then moved on to Harvard and their historic campus to another friendly welcome at their indoor athletics facility. Unfortunately the weather was against us here, with snow storms being present for most of the time we were there. This limited what we could do but with Harvard’s great facilities we still managed to get some great training in. The rest of our time here consisted of snowy tours of their beautiful campus, trips to work in their libraries, meals in one of their dining halls which from the inside looks a lot like Hogwarts Great Hall as well as some time spent exploring Boston. This brought the second leg of our journey to an end and after saying goodbye we took the six-hour coach journey to the picturesque Cornell University.
Cornell is a beautiful university set on a hillside surrounded by forests, gorges and lakes in upper New York State. The weather here was again cold and snowy but the hospitality was anything but. From the coach we proceeded straight onto the indoor track and were greeted by old friends, coaches, athletes and lots and lots of pizza! The trip here consisted of a day trip to see the majestic Niagara Falls from both the American and Canadian sides followed by an athletics meet the next day. Unfortunately on the morning of the competition the weather was not on our side, with temperatures below zero and plenty of snow. The competition was therefore moved indoors and the name changed to the Cornell Cabin Fever Indoor Invitation Meet. It was a great athletics competition with our athletes competing hard, winning several events including a new race for our athletes in a distance medley relay, something that is frequently raced in the USA but never in the UK. During this event the teams bonded with kit swapping, team songs and chants followed by a social event which lasted into the early hours.
On the final morning before leaving, the whole of both athletic teams and coaching staffs had brunch together in one of the student dining halls followed by lots of emotional good byes before we undertook the three hour coach journey to Philadelphia.
On arrival in Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania we were greeted by the sight of the athletics stadium on Franklin Fields, which is the venue for the historic Penn relays competition, the largest athletics relay event in the world. This is where we met our hosts for the next few days and heard stories of previous trips. On the second morning we went on an open bus tour of the Quaker city of Philadelphia and a race up the rocky steps before everyone trained in the athletics stadium. Over the next few days we enjoyed the hospitality of our hosts, explored Philadelphia, swapped athletics kit and trained hard.
On the last evening we had a farewell formal dinner. This included some nice speeches and the exchanging of gifts before we all went for a last trip up to the top of the stadium stands for a beautiful view across Philadelphia at night. It was at this formal dinner where one of the students had to join in with the varsity Frisbee training session that was taking place on Franklin Field after losing a bet earlier in that evening. So, all suited and booted, the student went on to run 100 yards across the field, bellowing and shouting for the Penn Frisbee players to pass to him. The Penn Frisbee players found this hilarious. The next day we had come to the end of our trip so we sadly said our goodbyes before heading to the airport to go home and back to our own beds.
Throughout the entire tour the friendship and hospitality was unbelievable and all of the athletes have said that this trip has been one of the highlights of their lives so far. This trip has created lots of friendships, a better understanding of the differences between each other’s university systems and cultures, as well as having the added benefit of allowing a transfer of coaching knowledge between our great institutions. This trip has also helped to strengthen the bonds between our universities further in what is a very special athletics partnership, with all these universities keen for this great exchange to continue into the future.
Everyone here is already very excited and looking forward to hosting Cornell and Penn in 2018 to continue this great exchange, repay the hospitality that they offered us and host the first of many competitions on our new track.