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It’s always sunny in Philadelphia when Franklin Field roars with a crowd of nearly 40,000.
On Saturday afternoon, 16-year-old Sophia Gorriaran spiked up beside Athing Mu, defending 800-meter Olympic gold medalist, and Ajee’ Wilson, world indoor champion, to race 600 meters at the Penn Relays. After a two year hiatus, Franklin Field was packed with track and field fans.
This was Gorriaran’s 2022 outdoor season opener—and her first time ever racing in historic Franklin Field. Her first time ever racing an outdoor 600, for that matter.
Gorriaran is only a teenager, but she remains composed against this kind of concentrated intensity. She competed as the youngest female to race in the U.S. Olympic Trials last summer; she raced against pros at the Millrose Games earlier this year. Still, Gorriaran says, “I’ve never run in front of a crowd this big, ever.”
Gorriaran has been preparing for this race. Over the past few months, after going up to Penn a few times to watch her sister play lacrosse for the Quakers, Gorriaran would workout with Wilson at a Philly track. “I’m challenged a lot more. I’m pushed a lot more,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to talk with her and run with her. I practice with her and Charlene [Lipsey] and sometimes a few high schoolers, or some of the pro men who run the 800 meters.” That was when Wilson’s coach, Derek Thompson, suggested that Gorriaran try to run in the Olympic Development 600 meters.
On Saturday, when the gun goes off, the crowd responds nearly as quickly as the field. “I heard my dad after the first 100,” Gorriaran says. After the turn, Mu went shoulder to shoulder with Wilson as they made the break. “I heard some of my sister’s [lacrosse] teammates on the second turn. Then after that, I didn’t really hear anyone.”
At the 200-meter mark, Gorriaran is in last place, but somewhere between 200 and 600, dressed in red from head to toe, with curly hair freely blowing in the wind, Gorriaran blitzed from eighth to fourth place in 57.98, which was the third-fastest split in the field. “I didn’t want to make a move too early,” she says. “I ran 27 low I think and then I just tried to kick for the last 200 and see what I had left in the end.” That turned out to be a lot.
“I was making sure I didn’t go out too too fast but got out fast enough. I think I did it pretty well,” Gorriaran says. She’s not afraid to sit and surge, wielding appropriate tactics when she needs to. “It was fun catching people. I went faster knowing I was catching people. The crowd was cheering and stuff which was super cool and inspired me to go faster too.”
Mu put on a show for the stadium with an electric finish, winning the race in 1:22.74, which is the fastest time in the world this year and the fourth-fastest time ever run. Jamaica’s Natoya Goule came in second (1:24.09) and Nia Akins placed third (1:25.14). It was Gorriaran who came across the line next, pulling ahead of Stanford alum Olivia Baker and Wilson to destroy the outdoor high school record, set in 2019 by Caitlin Collier from Bolles School in Florida. Collier ran 1:29.13. Gorriaran ran 1:25.22.
Trenton-native Mu had her friends and family from New Jersey in the stands. Jamaican Goule had her home team cheering in Franklin Field, too. And Gorriaran had a unique group of supporters: her mother, father and sister Natasha, the freshman lacrosse player at Penn—plus the entire Penn Women’s lacrosse team.
“I met the team in the fall and have hung out with them a few times. They’re all super nice and always supporting me, too,” Gorriaran says. All that support created a connection to the crowd during the race in a way Gorriaran hadn’t felt before. After her race, Gorriaran’s family flooded the infield. “[My dad] was super happy. He came over and hugged me. And my mom and sister were really really happy.” To celebrate after, the Gorriaran family took some of her sister’s lacrosse teammates out to dinner nearby.
Gathering some of the most world-class middle distance runners to race a 600 was unconventional. Throwing an unattached high school girl who plays lacrosse as much as she runs into the mix (and having her beat a world champion) was unconventional. And her support team was even more unconventional. But convention doesn’t typically break records, even at such a historic meet.
Gorriaran has etched herself in the world ranking record books and finds her name beneath women like the two-time Olympic Gold medalist Caster Semenya, who currently holds the world record of 1:21.77. The top six finishers in the race all earned the top six times on this year’s world rankings. She’s a part of a living legacy of women. Whether she’s playing on a lacrosse field, or racing in front of 40,000 spectators, Gorriaran meets the moment she’s in.
“I want to break 2 minutes next,” she says. “That’s one of my big goals I want. This was my first race of the season and gives me a lot of confidence when I run the 800 this year.”