With the Olympics just months away, Irish-Mexican pole vaulter Tori Peña has secured her place on the Irish squad. She recently – again – broke the Irish Indoor record, jumping 4.45m at the recent Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nevada, and the Derry Journal caught up with her on the way to training.
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.
The Finn Valley Athletic Club athlete had some other big news too; she’s now based in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s a new chapter in her career, as she heads for the London Olympics this Summer.
“I felt I was searching for something last year – something that better fitted my personality and lifestyle – so I spoke to fellow competitors about their coach and their training in Phoenix and asked: how do I get involved?”
A long season – and a frustrating wait to clear 4.40m and qualify for the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, Korea – had taken their toll.
“I needed a change, needed some structure, and when I was accepted I was thrilled – but a little nervous.
It can be tough to adjust to a new training group (two female and one male), but though they’ve all jumped higher than me, they push me to do better and better.”
Though Tori’s results in Korea were disappointing, she enjoyed being there with the Irish team and having her first experience of a world-class international meet – and is hoping that it’s a springboard for 2012.
She first came to Phoenix in October last year, staying for five weeks, then came home for the holidays before make the permanent move in January and staying with a friend of a family friend.
With the outdoor season coming up, Phoenix has a sunny advantage too:
“It’s very hot! The average temperature is always in the 70s, and there are no worries about bad weather – even more so than in California.”
Her time in Phoenix began in the best way with her breaking that record on just her second meet of the season, and she’s already attempting the 4.50m barrier and beyond in training:
“It made me feel that my training was already paying off, and I knew things were going well.
“I feel the strongest I’ve ever been.”
Phoenix is a 5 ½ hour drive from California, and Tori went hom home to Huntington Beach to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with her family:
“My dad, brother and boyfriend came to the Reno meet – and we have family there too – and maybe we’ll go to O’Malley’s in Seal Beach.
“Then I have a short break before the outdoor season starts.”
Tori’s also started her own Irish family tradition:
“My cousin through my mother’s side – we have the same Irish grandmother (who is from Derry in the North of Ireland; Tori has dual citizenship) is called Chloe, and she started pole vaulting last year in High School.
She came with me to the Reno Pole Vault Summit for the first time; I’d been six or seven times already.”
Hopefully more records will have been broken by then, and maybe even in London:
“Our coach has suggested that we might go over a month before to get acclimatized.
The people in my group all compete for different countries – US, Canada and me for Ireland – and though we will be against each other in the Olympics, it’s going to be great to have friends around, and we enjoy the competition between ourselves every day anyway.”
Her blog (www.toripena.com) has fallen victim to computer problems (“I’ve got to get to the Mac store,”) but you can follow her results on www.athleticsireland.ie