By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Thousands of athletes and fans will descend on Philadelphia Thursday for one of sports’ most prestigious events. It’s not the NFL Draft. It’s the 123rd Penn Relays.

The high school girls’ events lead the way with dozens of heats of four-by-400’s and proud parents in the stands. Krissy Woods of Penn Athletics says some will go on to run in college and beyond.

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“It’s such a cultural and family event,” Woods said. “A lot of people use this as a family reunion, especially our Caribbean fans, which is really great. We have people who come back year to year.”

But for students from Quebec’s French-speaking LaVal College, this is their first time to the meet they’ve heard so much about. Coach Simon Louiseize says they’re in awe walking onto Franklin Field.

“They were surprised by the size of the stadium,” Louiseize said. “It’s the biggest stadium they’ve done a competition in.”

“I heard about it, never done it,” said LaVal’s Peter Malingansaka, who was competing in the decathlon, one of the preliminary events held on Wednesday. “So we move forward to join and get pumped up for this event and competition, so it’s kind of great.”

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The stadium was mostly empty for the preliminary events, but by Saturday, most of the 55,000 seats will be full.

“It’s the oldest and largest track meet in the world,” Woods said, “so there’s a ton of history here and we’re just really excited to keep the tradition going.”

For some, the Penn Relays can be life-changing. Every university in the country looks at the results for recruiting purposes.

“A lot of coaches have said this and they’ve echoed it over the past weeks, if you can make it at Penn, you can make it anywhere,” Woods said.

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The races start at 10 a.m. Thursday and continue through Saturday.