Meet Derry’s Mexican pole vaulter from LA...

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Right around the time you read this article, Tori Peña will - hopefully - be competing in the pole vault competition at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Paris, France. With any luck she’ll be returning to Huntington Beach, California with more than just a few stories, and will be able to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day as Irish pole vaulter number one.

As you might have noticed by her last name, Tori, 23, is something rather unusual – a Mexican-Irish athlete – but she does have some very strong connections to Ireland, and after graduating from UCLA last year she applied for Dual Citizenship through her maternal grandmother Angela Coyle (nee McCoy), who is from Derry.

Angela met her future husband and naval officer Bill when he was stationed here, and after marrying they had their first child in Ireland and then moved to California, where Tori’s mother was born. There were more Atlantic trips and three more children before they settled permanently in the US.

More than that, Peña is a former Irish dancer, and her first ever trip to Ireland was when she competed in the World Irish Dancing Championships in Killarney, County Kerry, in 2003.

Taking a break from her six day-a-week practice regime she said: “I’m feeling really great. I’ve never done this much prep for an indoor season before, but this will also be my first European Indoor Championships, and I’m feeling real confident,” she said.

“I’ve really had some of the pivotal moments in my life happen in Ireland. My first visit was really the highlight of my Irish Dancing days; to participate on such a high level on competition at such a young age I think has really proven helpful as I moved into pole vaulting. I competed for eight years and really thought that I would always be dancing, but then I found pole vaulting and my dancing days were over. I really don’t dance at all anymore. Well, only when coerced after I tell people I used to dance, she joked.” That first visit to Ireland was quickly followed by another:

“Later that summer I was turning 16 and we went again with a good portion of my extended family, and this time we stayed closer to where my grandmother and great-aunt grew up. It was such a magical place to be, surrounded by friends and family. My grandma had told us countless stories of her childhood and growing up in Derry, and it was so great to actually be there and experience it with her.”  

The change from dance floor to track came about because Brendan, one of her two brothers, pole vaulted in High School and thought that it would appeal to Tori as well:

“I did track all through junior high and loved it, and my brother thought I would take to pole vaulting as well. Luckily, I had great coach in High School, and he played a huge role in my early success.”

Injuries are a worry for every athlete, but pole vaulters have a special problem – the poles:

“They’re made of carbon fiber, and I take six or seven to a meet. They don’t break often, but they can get spiked – get caught or nicked by the spikes on other competitor’s shoes – and since you put so much weight on them, they can get fractured and split.”

Like tennis rackets, the poles come in different strengths – soft and hard. If you “blew through that pole” it was too soft, but if it’s too hard you get “rejected” and you don’t land on the pit or on the runway:

“I landed on an official once! He was okay, though. The biggest nightmare can be the airlines – the poles are all 14 feet long – and it can sometimes be really difficult to get the airlines to take them.”

After excelling in High School and Junior Year, UCLA came calling and recruited Tori on a scholarship. She continued to hit the heights here (as well as earn her degree in International Development Studies) and after graduation and gaining her Irish citizenship she registered with Finn Valley Athletic Club in County Donegal.

She competed in her first Irish Outdoor Nationals competition soon after, and the trip to the centre of Irish athletics – Morton Stadium in Santry, north of Dublin – turned out better than anyone could have imagined:

“On my last trip to Ireland I had the amazing experience of winning the Championships and setting the national record. My grandma and aunt were even there in the stands to cheer me on. They always come to my local meets too.”

That Irish outdoor record of 13 feet seven inches is still undefeated, and her latest trip to Ireland was just two weeks ago, when she competed in the Irish Indoor Nationals. Tori is the current Irish Indoor record holder too – she cleared 14” 1’ just days before she left for the competition – it seems she could be her own biggest rival. She will be will be flying to Dublin, though the event itself takes place at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast, a city Tori has never visited and was keen to explore.

When she does take a break, Tori still loves to hang out around UCLA, on the west side of Los Angeles. She graduated last year, but still continues to train with her coach there.

“There really isn’t a more beautiful view of the campus than where we train on the track, but Santa Monica or Venice is always a big draw: I’m always itching to get to the beach when the weather is nice. There is always something to do in LA, whether it’s the farmers market, yoga or a hike.”

As for the future, that’s certainly focused on training – and hopefully more competitions overseas:

“This summer the World Championships will be in Korea and I’ll be competing all season towards qualifying for them. Then there is obviously the Olympics in London in 2012. I know I have what it takes to be there, I just need to stay focused on training and stay healthy, and the improvements will come. I feel honored to be able to represent such a wonderful country, and I hope to represent them proudly by competing in more championships in the future.”

Keep a look out for Tori’s results this month and throughout the year on www.toripena.com and she asks people to consider making a donation too. “Poles, travel and training are expensive,” she said.

Toris is a real hope for medal success in Irish athletics over the next few years, regardless of whether her name has a fada or a tilde!