Ireland's newest recruit vaults into action


ATHLETICS: "It's like Pen-ya," she says, all smiles already. "You say it like there's a 'y'. But everyone just calls me Tori."

I WAS in Santry on Thursday, at Morton Stadium, to meet some of the athletes competing at this weekend’s National Track and Field Championships. It was a warm, dry morning and the brand new track – the exact Mondo surface they’re putting down in London for the 2012 Olympics – looked splendidly fast.

Believe me, there is nothing like the smell of freshly-laid tartan to get the pulse racing. Oh, to be 10 years younger again, still willing and able . . .

Olive Loughnane was there, with that unattainably lean physique of the 20km race walker. She talked about her medal hopes at the European Championships in Barcelona, just over two weeks away. Her gold medal hopes.

“I could fall on my face,” she declared, “but I’m still going to say that. I’m putting everything into these championships. It won’t be from want or will or effort if things don’t go my way. I’m there to die. To kill, or be killed.”

Wow – there was no arguing with that. Loughnane is in action in Barcelona early on Wednesday, July 28th, and you might want to set the alarm for that one.

Brian Gregan was there too. Still only 20, Gregan has fast matured into a superbly conditioned 400-metre runner, and if this guy doesn’t some day rival David Gillick’s record I’ll be terribly disappointed. He’ll also be in Barcelona, but his first concern is defending his national title.

Gregan has been nursing a hamstring, although I still expect him to win. (Gillick, by the way, drops down to the 100 metres this weekend – which should be interesting as he takes on Paralympian and Ireland’s second fastest man, Jason Smyth.)

Meanwhile, over by the pole vault pit, a deeply tanned young athlete, beautifully fit, her dark brown hair blowing in the gentle breeze, was practising a series of runs. This, naturally, had attracted the photographers, so in the line of duty I went over to say hello.

Turns out it was Victoria Pena – our latest athletics recruit, who will almost certainly win the national pole vault title this weekend, and with that represent Ireland at the European Championships. If this is the first you’ve heard of her, you’re not alone; truth is I’d never heard of Victoria Pena until Thursday.

Pee-na? Penn-a? Pen-aa?

“No, it’s like Pen-ya,” she says, all smiles already. “You say it like there’s a ‘y’. There’s like a little squiggly mark over the ‘n’. So it’s like, P-e-n-y-a. But everyone just calls me Tori.”

She says this in an unmistakably west coast American accent, something straight out of The O.C. – which makes perfect sense given Pena was indeed born and raised in Orange County, California: Huntington Beach, to be exact, about an hour south of Los Angeles and famous for its surf, sand and impossibly healthy, attractive people.

Just like Santry really, only we don’t have the surf and sand. However, you don’t see too many women pole vaulters around here, so what’s a Huntington Beach girl doing in a concrete suburb like this?

“Well, my dad’s side is Mexican, although they were all born in California,” she says – and that explains her strikingly dark features. “And my grandma is from Derry. Angela Coyle. Although Coyle was her maiden name. She’s McCoy now.”

Her lightly-freckled face offers a definite hint of her Irish roots, but still doesn’t explain why Pena is in Dublin, on a cloudy summer’s day, about to compete in the pole vault, an event she has already impressively mastered.

Well, she was introduced to the event by her brother, in high school, and last month cleared 4.35 metres – above the 4.30 qualifying mark for Barcelona, and above the Irish record of 4.0 metres, which Zoe Brown, from Antrim, set last summer.

But Pena will only be eligible to claim that record once she’s eligible to compete for Ireland, and apparently she is now – which, for better or for worse, has been sorted with astonishing speed.

She has dual Irish-American citizenship, and has also signed up with Finn Valley Athletic Club, in Donegal – which through no great coincidence is also home to Irish team manager Patsy McGonagle. Crucially, she hasn’t yet competed for the US, despite making steady progress at UCLA – from which she’s just graduated with a degree, fittingly enough, in international development.

The only confusion really is whether Pena came looking to compete for Ireland, or was it the other way around? As long as she’s eligible, does it matter?

The issue of foreign-born athletes declaring for Ireland has always been a sensitive one, not just in athletics. The fear is some home-grown talent, who has come up through the system, will suffer as a result, miss out on the chance to represent their country of birth – while the foreign-born athlete gets to wear the green vest, then disappears as quickly as they arrived. Irish athletics has bit of a history here, without naming names, obviously, although the problem hasn’t always been the end result, but rather the lack of transparency in the process.

At 22, Pena is, evidently, perfectly entitled to wear the green vest, and has always been more than a little aware of her Irish roots. In 2003, she competed at the Irish Dancing World Championships in Killarney (I forgot to ask how she got on), and later that year visited her other Irish relatives around Derry, Buncrana and Inishowen. Her grandma and aunt May McGlynn will be in Santry this weekend to watch her compete.

Every sport, in every country, looks to maximise its potential, and if that means looking overseas then so be it, as long the eligibility is legit. Given Pena has both – the potential, and eligibility – there’s every reason to welcome her to Santry this weekend.

“I’m so excited, I can’t wait,” she says, again with her all-American smile. “I’m really proud to be here. It’s a really amazing opportunity for me.”

There was no arguing with that either.