ONE OF Team Ireland’s most promising medal hopes for the 2016 Rio Olympics next month is an American born, former Irish dancer with Mexican parents and with proud family roots in Derry.
Tori Peña’s story is certainly an intriguing one as she qualifies for the Ireland team through her maternal grandmother, who hails from Derry.
Indeed, as you might have suspected from her surname, Peña, 28, is a rather unusual competitor to pull on the green jersey.
After graduating from University she applied for Dual Citizenship and registered with Finn Valley Athletic Club in Co. Donegal.
“My grandmother Angela met her husband Bill when he was stationed in Derry in the Navy,” Tori explains, adding that after marrying, they had their first child in Ireland and then moved to California, where Tori’s mother was born, and the family eventually settled there.
The Rio Games will be Tori’s second Olympics having represented Ireland in London 2012 - an experience she describes as ‘devastating’. And she’s hoping to make up for that display in Brazil next month.
“It was amazing and something I was proud to be involved in – I even celebrated my 25th birthday while I was in the Olympic Village – but my performance there was devastating, and hard to get over mentally.”
Tori “no heighted” – meaning she failed to get over the bar at any stage – and she admitted that she felt championship performances “have never really showcased the best of me.”
Now, a few years older and wiser, she points out that the pole vault is a discipline where you “fail” a lot, and that the important thing is to learn how to respond to it – and she’s hoping that Rio might be the moment she’s worked so many years for.
Tori cleared 4.35m at the first attempt in the European Championships in Amsterdam yesterday morning but failed to clear 4.45m, finishing outside the top 12 in the qualifying and missing out on a place in tomorrow’s final.
It was amazing and something I was proud to be involved in but my performance there (at London Olympics) was devastating, and hard to get over mentally.Tori Peña
Living and training in Phoenix, Arizona, for the last few years while keeping up a strict six-day-a-week training regime, her life goes beyond the track and the gym; it’s essentially an entire lifestyle that few outside it might understand. Diet, nutrition and sleep (she likes to get nine hours a night) are just as vital, while a lot of her friends are also in training for the pole vault and other sports.
“They can give me an extra burst of adrenalin, and we all support each other.”
Injuries are always a risk too, and pole vaulters often suffer from hip, back, shoulder and knee problems – though in the last year Tori has been working on another area of her performance.
“I’ve been working with a sports psychiatrist because there’s a doubt element associated with every sport that you have to overcome – the sense that “I can’t do this.” Then, sometimes you just need to quiet your mind, to be able to focus and not get too excited with the competition and the crowd. I wish I’d done it before, but better late than never!”
There are other considerations Tori has for the upcoming trip to South America.
“Rio is a lot more humid than Arizona, which is extremely hot but dry. There might be rain there too, something that Arizona doesn’t get a lot of, so I have to prepare mentally for that.”
There won’t be any last minute-panics about lucky rabbit’s feet or any other kind of charm though. Though she likes music – ‘Santigold’ is a favourite – she isn’t lost in her headphones all the time.
“We all listen to music when we train, but I really don’t have any superstitions or anything like that. On the circuit they do tease me about my routine before I jump – I blow on my hands, chalk them, swing my leg and other things – but I don’t notice that.”
That said, after jumps it can look like she’s writing religiously in a notebook, but in fact that’s the one thing she does do every day: keep up-to- date with her training journal noting every statistic and observation. “It’s a ritual for me. People walk past and say ‘Dear Diary…’” she said.
The poles themselves can be trouble too. They’re the very definition of bulky luggage, and airlines often mislay them.
“Oh poles, I’ve had my fair share of troubles,” she admits. “Most recently, I travelled to a meet in Doha, Qatar – but the poles arrived an hour after my competition finished! I borrowed some, but it didn’t go well for me.”
Tori’s trips between the USA and Europe have become even more enjoyable over the last few years too. She still has friends in Derry though her grandmother and great-aunt now live in the USA, but she also has what she calls another family in Dublin – those of Aoife MacNeill, a former Irish sprinter turned weightlifter who she found she had many things in common besides sports; she stays with them in Dundrum, and says proudly that she feels she has two families.
Her first ever trip to Ireland was when she competed in the World Irish Dancing Championships in Killarney, Co. Kerry, in 2003, an experience that, looking back, she feels helped her transition into the high-pressure world of pole vaulting.
“I competed for eight years in Irish dancing, but then I found pole vaulting . . .” she trails off, laughing.
Tori is about to turn 29, meaning this might be her last Olympics. She’s adamant however that she wants to keep athletics as “part of her life,” but may well try and put her degree in International Development Studies to use. There’s a long way to go before that though, and Irish fans on both sides of the Atlantic can keep up with her progress on her Instagram feed @ToriPena