Pina thrilled to make Cape Verde history

  • Blazing a trail: Latroya Pina, who has been training at the National Sports Centre with her Howard University team-mates this week, will compete for Cape Verde at the Olympic Games in Toyko next summer

(Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Latroya Pina thought it was a scam when she received a Facebook message from someone claiming to be an athletic official for Cape Verde asking whether she would be interested in swimming for the African island nation.

At first, it seemed slightly far-fetched for the 22-year-old, who has been training in Bermuda at the National Sports Centre’s aquatics facility with her Howard University team-mates this week.

After all, Pina was born in Rhode Island before moving to Seekonk, Massachusetts, when she was 13 years old and has never even visited the archipelago of ten volcanic islands situated off the northwest coast of Africa.

Next summer, though, Pina, along with her brother Troy, will become the first swimmers to represent Cape Verde at the Olympic Games after the nation was granted a pair of wild cards for Toyko.

“When Cape Verde first contacted us through Facebook [in December 2017] we thought it was a joke,” Pina says. “I don’t use Facebook a lot and I thought it was a random person making things up.

“When I realised it was for real, I was straight on board. I later found out that my mum’s cousin is best friends with the director the Olympic committee. Plus, my mum tends to post a lot about our swimming!”

After initial contact with Pina, the Cape Verde National Swimming Association discovered that her brother Troy, 19, and sister Jayla, 14, were also gifted swimmers.

Their mother Maria Alfama quickly arranged the siblings’ paperwork to become dual citizens, with the trio now making up 75 per cent of the country’s fledgeling swim team.

“My main goal for Toyko is just to go out and swim with a bang,” says Pina, a senior at Howard University in Washington D.C. “My sister is coming up behind me; she’s tracking me down! I just want to give it my all.”

Cape Verde, which has competed at every Olympics since Atlanta in 1996, sent just five athletes to the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. But with Pina and her brother now on board, that number is likely to swell ever-so slightly for Toyko.

“I’m super excited to represent Cape Verde,” says Pina, who hopes to compete in the 50 metres freestyle. “The country doesn’t actually have a swim facility, although they are currently building one. Once that’s complete, we’re hoping to implement more of a swim programme and get the kids learning the strokes.

“It’s going to be a slow process, but we’ll look to go from there.”

Although she is yet to visit Cape Verde, Pina says she feels a strong connection to the country. She was raised on its cuisine and music, a melting pot of Portuguese and West African influences, while her mother still speaks the native creole.

“I grew up on the culture,” Pina says. “My mom still has relatives in Cape Verde and my grandparents visit there at least once a year. We still have a house there. I used to joke around with my brother and sister and say, ‘Maybe one day we’ll swim in the Olympics for Cape Verde. Now it’s coming true, it feels like a dream.”

Pina experienced her first taste of international action at the Fina World Swimming Championships in Hangzhou, China, last month, where she performed the 100 individual medley and 100 breaststroke.

Aside from setting a pair of personal best times, Pina had the opportunity to pick the brains of her idol Jamaican Alia Atkinson, a three-times Olympian, who has become somewhat of an icon for aspiring black swimmers.

“Seeing black people swim is a big deal,” says Pina, referring to the misconception that black people cannot become world-class swimmers.

“Alia was a great help to me when I was in China, talking to me about my stroke and how I can improve. I actually first met her when I was a freshman in high school. She’s amazing to watch and is definitely someone I look up to.”

Pina, who has ambitions to attend medical school, will take a “gap year” and return to Massachusetts to train for Toyko once she graduates from Howard, which has a strong alumni network in Bermuda.

She described the university — the only historically black school to be represented in collegiate swimming — as being a perfect fit for her and says it has more than met her academic and athletic requirements.

“I love it here,” she says. “It’s been a great choice for me, both school-wise and swimming. I’m pushed every day and that’s all I can ask for right now.”

As for her weeklong trip to Bermuda, where Howard joined swimmers from New Jersey institutions Stevens Institute of Technology, William and Paterson University and Ramapo College in training at the NSC, Pina says: “I love it here; I’ve been able to explore it a little bit. The water is so blue. We don’t have that so much in Massachusetts!”