The Backbone Deca-Relay

Our collective has launched, and now it’s time to build the backbone.  What’s a backbone?  It’s the minimal amount of infrastructure needed to support the collective in achieving the goal.   Our backbone will have variable full and part-time staff from two organizations, PEF and GSK to start.  As part of the backbone, GSK PULSE volunteers are to serve in either 6 month or 12 month intervals, rotating 4 new volunteers per year, over the next 10 years.  As I completed my first month of work as a backbone member in the Philadelphia STEM Equity Collective,  many of you have asked, “What are you doing?” or ,”What is it like?”   Both seem like simple questions, but I find them tough to answer.   Still, I’ll give it a shot.

It feels like being in a relay race that will last 10 years.  I say that without ever having participated in a relay race.    My inspiration and imagery comes from Florence Griffith Joyner, aka Flo Jo, and her teammates from the 1980’s.   What made her and the USA Women’s Track and Field team so successful?  What were the key factors?   What makes a winning team?

I went back and read as many articles and watched as many videos on the Olympiad performance of Team USA, specifically the women’s 4x100m relay, between 1968 and 2016.  Out of those 13 trials, the team earned 7 Gold medals in the event.[1] Looking at all of those women;  Alice Brown, Tiana (Madison) Bartoletta, Allyson Felix; it was clear that they were all passionate about the sport and well-practiced.   The world watched for 40-some seconds as four women sprinted and passed a baton.   Meanwhile, how many hours were spent training for that 40-some seconds total?  One can easily surmise these women are not only world class sprinters, but they also spent some serious hours in the gym hitting the weights.  So when assembling our backbone or a relay team, all we need is a weight-trained, super fast group of women right?  Well, that’s only the start.

These women had passion.   The source of passion was variable to the individual as well as to the team.  For the 1984 team, the Gold medal was born out of a 1980 Olympic boycott where several athletes either lost their chance or had to wait 4 more years to test their training.  For Tianna Bartoletta in 2016, it was about overcoming adversity and her character development. [2] Although ‘going for gold’ appears as the obvious goal, it seems to me that success was born more out of the lifestyle these athletes lived by.  So far, I can tell our backbone team has the passion for social justice and has either witnessed or has been subject to social injustice much like the women in these relay races. 

Does it matter what role these passionate, super-fast, strong women play in the relay?  According to some, there are guidelines.  In first position of the relay race, it seems most recommend the 2nd fastest on the team – someone to give you a good start and set the tone for the trial.  It’s also a position where you only have to pass, not receive the baton, but you also have to start cold.  The other position that receives a lot of attention is the last leg where the fastest AND most experienced runner can take you to the finish line whether in front or behind after the 3rd turn.  Although each is an elite athlete on their own accord, these highly talented individuals act as a single unit, a team. [3]

So – a team of passionate, super-fast, strong women that have a clear role to play – is that all we need?  Enter The Transition.     The transition is arguably the most important, most practiced element of the relay race.  It consists of three parts:  the zone, the baton and the runner.

  • In the zone, runners 2, 3 and 4 are positioned with 20 meters to accelerate and accept the baton before sprinting off on their own for 10 seconds.  If you don’t make the pass in this zone: disqualified. 
  • Next we have the baton.  The baton exchanges opposite hands between racers – a strong right pass with the hand at the bottom of the baton will setup an outstretched left hand to receive at the top behind the lead runner.  If the baton is dropped:  disqualified.  In 2004, this was a dream ender for Team USA. [4] In 2016, an appeal citing another team was outside their lane contributing to the drop earned the right to a solo re-run to qualify for the finals where the team went on to win the Gold.  Imagine all the teams that had the potential to win gold, but instead see a DQ next to their name in the record books.
  • Finally, there is the runner herself.  Go get an item and pass it to someone near you now, maybe even a pet – or simply replay the last time someone handed something to you.  Were you sitting or standing still?  Did you face each other?  These women, running at world-record speed, always look forward.    They practice it, they feel it, they trust their teammate is going to place it in the position the next member likes to receive it.    In 2000, Team USA was poised to win the gold, however, runner 3 turned around to grab the baton and then grabbed the arm of runner 4 to pass the baton – both exchanges slowing the team down enough to go from Gold to Bronze.  [5]

Let’s circle back to Flo Jo, Tianna,  Alice and their teammates and my backbone team.  Are we world class athletes?  No, but we are not competing for gold.  We are competing for equity.  We have passion, and we have 100’s of years of experience combined.  And that’s where it begins in year 1.   We need to define our roles and build our team.  Then, we need to start practicing and practicing and practicing.  Instead of getting faster and stronger, we’ll be getting more efficient at back office tasks so we can eventually spend more time engaging the community and impacting our beneficiaries – the black, Latinx, and women students of Philadelphia as well as paving the way for future team members.   So far, I’ve worked on meeting agendas, action tracking, virtual meeting technology, decision making roles and responsibilities, virtual collaboration software selection and legal agreements.  Next up is the steering committee, the working teams and the measurement framework. 

It doesn’t sound like social justice, does it?  No, but we are in a 10 year race or if we are honest a race that has no end.  There will be no medal ceremony this year or next while I am on my PULSE assignment.  So what is my prize?  What am I training for?  The Transition.  Each task I do, each action I take – I think about the backbone team of 2021-2022.   Will they be able to keep their heads forward and keep the pace?  Or will we drop the baton?  Everything I do needs to be clearly documented and made simple, nimble and efficient.  It needs to stand the test of time or at least be leverageable as technology and our understanding of STEM equity in Philadelphia evolves.   The backbone team is the first leg passing that first baton with a cold start. Although there is no end to this race, we will succeed in laying the foundation for producing super STEM athletes to inspire the world.  This teams has passion and this is what we’ve been training to do collectively.



  hours  minutes  seconds


STEM Equity

Websites referenced:

  1. 4x100m relay women – Olympics,, Accessed 06 OCT 2020.
  2. Hollobaugh, Jeff, “T&FN Interview — Tianna Bartoletta”, Track&Field News, October 2018,
  3. Minvielle, Nicholas, “The U.S. 4×100 M Relay Debacle and It’s History: Part I”, Bleacher Report, January 16 2009,×100-m-relay-debacle-and-its-history-part-i
  4. maroong, “athens olympics women 4x100m relay”, YouTube, June 17 2006,
  5. Track&Field Fan, “Women’s 4×100 Relay Finals – 2000 Sydney Olympics Track & Field”, YouTube,


  1. Wow! Love the analogy, Kim! Super powerful! Sounds like this assignment is something you’ve been preparing for your whole career…you’ve certainly got the passion and all of your lean six sigma / change / leadership training has led you to this moment. I’m certain you will not drop the baton!! Looking forward to hearing more as your work continues!!

  2. What an incredible write up, with the research and sources to back it up! Thank you for taking the time to reflect and share, it is such an important part of the PULSE journey. I have no doubt that you have a Dream Team there alongside you, ‘passionate, super-fast, strong women’ to lead the way and setup the backbone for years to come or exactly 3,355 days according to your clock above :). Thank you for your commitment and for focusing on the all important Transition.

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