SUMMER 2017 / VOL. 17 ISSUE 1

Vaulter Tori Peña Sets Her Sights Higher and Higher 

By James Bartlett
As Ireland’s number one pole vaulter and record holder, Tori Peña is quite the topic of conversation in the country’s sports-mad country.

As you might have suspected from her last name, Peña, 28, is a rather unusual competitor to pull on the green. She’s a Mexican-Irish athlete who, after graduating from UCLA applied for dual citizenship through her maternal grandmother, who is from Derry, Northern Ireland, and registered with Finn Valley Athletic Club in County Donegal. At the San Diego Triton Invitational on April 27, 2012 she set an outdoor Irish record of 4.52 metres (14 ft 10 in). This competitive energy started early. Peña was a noted Irish dancer and competed at the World Championships for Irish dancing at the age of 15. 

"My grandmother Angela met her future husband Bill when he was stationed in Derry in the Navy," Peña explains, adding that after marrying they had their first child in Ireland and then moved to California, where Peña’s mother was born, and the family eventually settled there. 

Tori Peña
Photo courtesy of Wikepedia

She competed in the 2012 Olympics in London. "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." 

Peña "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." 

During the 2016 games in Rio, she failed to make the finals which was another major career disappointment. Now, 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.

Living and training in Phoenix, 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 recently Peña 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!"

Though she likes music – Santigold is a favorite – 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 laughs.

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 traveled 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."

Peña’s trips between the States 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 States, but she also has what she calls another family in Dublin – those of Aoife MacNeill, a former Irish sprinter-turned-weight lifter 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 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.

Peña was a noted Irish dancer and competed at the World Championships for Irish dancing at the age of 15. is 29, something that means she’s "getting up there" and that that might have been 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, working perhaps in public health or the non-profit arena. "I’d like to take up rock-climbing and yoga too," she adds.

After her retirement following the Olympics, there’s a long way to go before that fun stuff though, and Irish fans on both sides of the Atlantic can keep up with her activities on Instagram @ToriPena.


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