How a Facebook Message and a Sister’s Deference Crafted Cape Verde’s First Olympic Swim Team

TroyandJaylaPina
Troy, left, and Jayla Pina Photo Courtesy: Pina Family

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How a Facebook Message and a Sister’s Deference Crafted the First Cape Verde Olympic Swim Team

When she saw the Facebook message ping, Latroya Pina viewed it with the requisite dose of Internet wariness.

Had Pina, then swimming for Howard University, ever thought of representing Cape Verde internationally?, the sender asked. Though born in Seekonk, Mass., Pina was eligible to represent the family of her mother’s birth. It was through her mom, Maria Alfama, that the people purporting to be Cape Verde swimming officials found Pina, via videos she’d posted to social media of the swimming exploits of Latroya, younger brother Troy Pina and younger sister Jayla Pina. The writer of the message, they said, could help pull the bureaucratic levers to make an international career happen.

“We were a little hesitant at first through everything,” Latroya told Swimming World last month. “But we still have family who live in Cape Verde who helped us out to make sure the people we were speaking to were who they said they were. Then we took off from there.”

Hardly a leap of faith, the family vetted the claims with relatives on the island nation off the coast of West Africa. When things checked out, Latroya and her siblings jumped in with both feet, formally connecting to a country whose culture they were steeped in growing up.

That affiliation has brought them around the world in Cape Verde colors. It’s also brought history, with a little twist.

The Pinas will represent Cape Verde in Tokyo as its first ever Olympic swimmers. But with the one-year delay in the Games, it’ll be Troy and Jayla, a rising high school senior, instead of Latroya occupying the country’s universality places. Troy will swim in the men’s 50 freestyle. Jayla, who turns 17 the day the Games open, will compete in the 100 breaststroke.

It was a decision that the family had a say over, one that they arrived at with relative ease. It’s the latest unique chapter in their international story, one Troy and Jayla will pen an indelible addition to in Tokyo.

“When my mom and my sister first approached me with it, I was very shocked but at the same time, I didn’t realize how big of a deal it was,” Jayla said. “The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been able to soak it in and be like wow this is a big thing and amazing, to be able to do these things for my country.”

A Swimming Family

Latroya Pina’s swimming journey started at age five at the East Providence Boys and Girls Club. She soon showed an aptitude for the sport, traveling up the club ranks to Gator Swim Club and Seekonk High, nestled near the Rhode Island border in Southeastern Massachusetts. Pina graduated in 2015 and was recruited to the team at Howard University.

With her outstanding natural ability and work ethic, it wasn’t the only sport in which she excelled: She ran track in high school for cross-training, then on a whim, joined the Howard lacrosse program when it needed players, growing into a starting defender for three years. The routine in college – in addition to the academic workload of being a biology major – was a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call for swim practice from 4-6, then lacrosse practice from 6-8, before the day started in earnest.

Latroya Pina-4

LaTroya Pina; Photo Courtesy: Howard Athletics

It didn’t dim her performances in the pool. She graduated in 2020 with top-10 times in five events, including fourth in the 100 breast and 400 individual medley. She also swam a leg on the school-record 800 free relay. She was an Academic All-MEAC selection in both swimming and lacrosse.

Pina remains at Howard, studying for her master’s degree before applying to medical school. The family she’s grown with at that historically Black university, in and out of the pool, is dear to her.

“The real reason why I wanted to go to Howard was to be more involved with my culture, because I grew up in a predominantly white area and I wanted to see a different side of things, getting the whole aspect as a whole,” she said. “I grew up in a white town and for college I went, pretty much to the exact opposite, and it’s cool to see the differences and the similarities between both. I will say that the swim team for us was great at Howard; we’re like a big family. I still hang out with all my swim team friends, that was the best choice that I made was coming to Howard and being on that team. The team is growing and excelling, and that makes me so happy and excited.”

The family back in Massachusetts followed her lead. Troy graduated high school in 2017, as a conference record-holder in four events and a state track champion. He attended St. Peter’s College in New Jersey, specialized in the sprints and became a senior captain. A 2021 graduate, the criminal justice major is a police officer in South Kingstown, R.I.

Jayla is destined to be the fastest of the bunch, the member of the Class of 2022 recently committing to the University of Pittsburgh.

It was with her family in mind that Latroya and Maria fielded the initial request from Cape Verde. If Latroya was worthy of swimming internationally, what about the others? They quickly came to see it as more than just a chance for Latroya, but a way for all three to swim on the global stage.

“It’s definitely been super fun being on the national team and being able to represent the county and get our name out there,” Latroya said. “I feel like a lot of people even today will be like, where is Cape Verde and having to explain where it is and how it’s a small island nation. It’s been the best.”

After wrangling their documentation and fulfilling the requisite embassy visits to obtain passports in 2017, the dream became a reality. In 2018, all three siblings traveled to Algeria for the 13th African Championships. Jayla even got to a final, aided by a pair of DQs, finishing eighth in the 200 breast.

“It was incredibly exciting for our first meet,” Latroya said. “It kind of got us into the flow of things, what to expect, how things are going to be. It was so much fun. We got to meet so many different people from different countries. It was great for us to be together because we’re a close, close family.”

A year later, the trio went to the World Championships in Gwanju, South Korea. Jayla swam the 50 and 100 breaststroke, her 38th-place finish in the shorter event the best of the family. Latroya swam the 50 and 100 free, while Troy was in the 50 free and 50 fly.

“It’s definitely way more fun when we’re all together,” Jayla said. “It’s definitely more motivating. When it’s just me, it’s more boring, which makes me not enjoy it as much. When we’re all together, we push each other way harder. It was awesome to be able to travel with my siblings.”

A New Plan for 2021

While the World Championships offer more latitude for entries, particularly by countries developing their programs, the IOC has a hard and fast limit on participation. Even before COVID-19, the Pinas knew the multi-sport extravaganza that is the Olympics would, barring a huge jump to an A cut, permit only two Cape Verdeans to swim via universality.

Any Olympic berth for Cape Verde is rare and treasured. The nine-island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean off equatorial Africa and former Portuguese overseas department made its Olympic debut in 1996. It has had only 19 Olympians since, mainly in track and field/marathon, with its largest delegation a five-person contingent in Rio. Though the Pina siblings have never been to Cape Verde – a trip to the main island, Praia, where their mother is from was cancelled in 2020 – they were raised in the culture of a vibrant global diaspora, from the food to the music to a close bond with their mother’s side of the family.

Throughout their journey, the sisters knew a decision could beckon. With the five-year age difference, it seemed easy on paper. At the planned time of the 2020 Games, Latroya would be a year post-graduation. (She had planned to take a fifth year as a grad student in lacrosse in the spring of 2020, though COVID-19 cancelled the season; her final swim season was 2018-19.) Jayla would be about to start her junior year of high school. By 2024, Jayla would be midway through her college career. It positioned Latroya to be the stronger option for Tokyo, then Jayla for Paris.

But when COVID-19 knocked the schedule back a year, everything shifted. Extending her career would be a difficult ask on Latroya, especially as her master’s studies ramped up. With her focus shifted toward a career and Jayla dropping time in a way Latroya hadn’t in years, the decision came into focus.

After consultation with national team coaches, the decision was clear, to no one more so than Latroya.

“For the most part, they gave us the freedom of deciding what would be the best opportunity for us,” Latroya said. “And if it was last year, I would’ve gone. I wouldn’t have had as much to worry about, I wasn’t yet technically in grad school. I didn’t have as much of a work load. As you get older, you have to start preparing for life and setting up for what I want my future to look like – not that swimming isn’t my future but it’s something that I can’t do the rest of my life as a job.

“The decision kind of came pretty easily because my sister is super-fast and she’s getting faster. For me, it’s harder for me to get faster as you get older. It just gets harder. Then I knew it was either swim or school, and when you look in the long run, school is going to get me further than swimming.”

The first glimmer of an Olympic future caused Jayla to double down on her commitment to training. Accelerating that plan increased her dedication, as did the vote of confidence that Latroya provided by stepping aside.

“She’s definitely more focused in practice and more focused on what she wants to accomplish and where she sees herself in the sport,” said Brian Cameron, who has coached all three siblings at Gator Swim Club. “I think she’s made the decision that she’s going to come to practice every day and put in the work, and she’s done a good job overall with those things. She keeps getting better with it.”

Latroya plans to continue training on the side, and she remains able to represent the country at Worlds and regional meets.

For Tokyo, though, the two younger Pinas will be the standard bearers. It’s a challenge both are ready to embrace.

“People dream of this,” Troy told ABC6. “And to have it with your sibling makes it even better.”

“To be able to represent my country is amazing, and to be the first swimmers ever to go to the Olympics for them is even more awesome,” Jayla said. “I can’t wait, and I can’t wait to put the name out there, so that people when they hear the name Cape Verde, they know what others are talking about.”

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