IT was the first week of June and the business end of summer was fast approaching. Tori Pena cast a weather eye over the coming months, the World Championships looming large in the distance. The career-best she’d achieved at a meet in San Diego a year previously guaranteed her the B standard qualification mark, but that bothered her now. Would it be enough to book her a plane ticket to Moscow? Could she afford to take the chance?
For sure, the B standard had been good to her in the past when she was a raw recruit to the Irish athletics scene, the bracing novelty of a pole vaulter with serious championship ambitions. It had brought her to the European Championships in Barcelona in 2010 and to the Worlds in South Korea a year later, harsh, eye-opening experiences that gave her a glimpse of life in the big league and sharpened her appetite for more.
Just recently she turned 26, though. A seasoned campaigner now. Not in need of soft landings anymore and not inclined to seek them. “I’ve been to Europeans and Worlds on B standards before and it was the right decision at the time,” she says in her soft Californian tones. “But now I’d only want to go with an A standard. I wouldn’t have felt good about myself. The way I was thinking, the B standard wasn’t an option this time.”
So that week she fetched up in Chula Vista, a pristine US Olympic training centre a few hours’ drive south from her home in Huntingdon Beach, and nailed it. Jumped 4.60 and took doubt and anxiety from the equation. That jump placed her 15th on the seasonal performance table and, she figures, puts her right “on the bubble” for a place in the final when the women pole vaulters take centre stage at the Luzhniki Stadium this afternoon.
Right now, the bubble doesn’t seem such a bad place to be. She thinks back a year to the bracing morning she spent in the cauldron of the London Olympic arena.
“A really depressing experience,” she sighs wistfully. She arrived in London off the back of a season that offered shards of hope only to see those hopes ruthlessly shattered. Three times they set the bar at 4.10. “A height I’d normally clear in my sleep,” she says. Three times she failed. Crushed and humiliated.
“It was heart-breaking,” she recalls now. “Even if I’d only jumped 4.30, I’d have been depressed. I was in total shock. But I’ve gone over that event in my head more often than I should have. Saying should I have changed this, should I have changed that. At the end of the day, I didn’t get it done. I was probably thinking too hard and trying too hard. Making things more complicated than they needed to me. Letting the moment get to me a little bit.”
This life, though. Nobody ever fooled her into thinking it would to be easy. There’s getting to grips with the three or more hours you have to spend in the bear pit of competition, the sheer mental strain it takes to stay focused and survive among the best generation of female pole vaulters the world has ever known.
Every year, she likes to think, she takes a small step forward. Learns how to be that bit more ruthless to cut it at the top. After London, she went through the customary grieving process. Sulked for a while. Then chilled on the beach at home and regrouped. If the idea of quitting and going back to follow a road less travelled struck her, it wasn’t for much more than a nano-second. A sense of unfinished business would drive her now. She knew she had so much more to give.
And she’s smiling again now. In hindsight, she concedes, the bubbly 15-year-old she used to be might have thought twice about choosing such a tough, relatively danger-filled discipline. In a way, pole vaulting chose her, though. Her brother, three years older, was the first member of the family to dabble. One day, fatefully, Brendan decided to show his younger sister the ropes.
It wasn’t love at first sight, she says. She wasn’t intoxicated by the science of it or seduced by the adrenaline rush of leaping higher than any other athletes. If anything, the initial stages seemed dull and perfunctory, merely grasping technical details like grip and take-off angles.
But pretty quickly she showed an abnormal aptitude for the sport and those around her weren’t slow to take notice.
And then the gradual dawning of how good she could be. At High School, she jumped four metres and became a shoo-in for a scholarship. At college, she struggled for a time before shining in her senior year, finishing third at the NCAA Championships, confronted at the end of her studies with a critical dilemma. If she wished to pursue an athletic career, she figured she’d need to look beyond her own national shore.
She makes no bones about this. The notion of competing for Ireland had first struck her in High School and now it made even greater sense. Her Derry roots, through her mother Cathy, were as deeply ingrained in the family as her father’s Mexican heritage. “He always said we’re Americans of Irish and Mexican extraction,” she says. “I grew up with a deep awareness of both my cultures.”
Four years earlier, she’d spent a week in Killarney competing for her Californian Irish dancing school in the eight-hand World Championships, finishing somewhere in the low 20s, she thinks. She’d always loved dancing but could take or leave the ceremonial aspect of it, the costumes and the make-up that went with it. Competing was the thing. What gave her the real and genuine buzz.
And she wanted more of it now. So she looked up the Irish athletics’ website and sent an email to any address she could find, detailing her achievements and her ambitions, a process that led her to Patsy McGonagle and a connection with Finn Valley that endures to this day.
She arranged her passport in time for the 2010 European Championships and, that summer, she arrived in Dublin for the national championships wondering what kind of reception she’d receive.
“I wasn’t sure what people would think of me. They could think, ‘What is this American girl doing coming over here?’ I was aware of that and a little bit worried. My thoughts were there wasn’t anybody currently meeting the standard to make the team. So I wasn’t coming in taking anybody’s spot from them.
“It wasn’t like there were three people already qualified and I was coming in as a fourth. So I didn’t think anybody could really be that upset about that.”
So three years on now, she’s thankful for the opportunities Ireland has given her and for the €20,000 Sports Council grant she receives. She knows this is, to some degree, a conditional blessing, though, that people expect some payback and she understands the sentiment. Still, she can’t imagine anybody would put more pressure on her than she already puts on herself.
“I know I haven’t done well in past championships,” she says. “But I feel I can do well in Moscow. At the level I’m at, just getting to the final is the tough part.
“I’d love to be at a stage where I can come in, open at 4.50 and say, okay, just jump two bars and you’re in the final. Because once you’re in the final, it’s anybody’s game. You can just go out and perform. Where I still kind of have to have my best day just to get through.”
No fear, though. She remembers days she’d look around the warm-up area and see the likes of Svetlana Feofanova and feel smaller in their presence. But the Russian legend had her own nightmare at London last summer. It can happen to anyone. So she’ll need another 4.60 just to stay alive for Tuesday’s final. Why not? “I just need to go out and have the best day that I can,” she says. “It’s all I can do. Go out and compete and see what I’m capable of.”
She believes she can do it. The day she stops believing, she thinks, is the day she’ll stop trying.