April 28, 2014
Rachel Pena had just wrapped up another track meet. As she had so many other times, she did a little bit of everything for her high school coach that day. Her talents were needed in sprinting events, as a jumper and in throwing the discus.
As she caught her breath and sat down to chat with then Lafayette College associate track coach Michele Curcio, Pena assumed the two would be talking about her future in one of the events she had just competed in.
Then Curcio told Pena she had something different in mind for her: the hammer throw.
“I had no idea what it was,” admitted Pena, who will graduate in May with a degree in English.
Curcio, who threw the hammer in college before qualifying for the Olympic trials, saw Pena as the perfect candidate to make the conversion.
“Hammer is a unique event where you need to be not only strong, but very fast and explosive and you don't have to be huge, which was pretty much me in high school,” Pena, 5-foot-7, said. “I was always good in a lot of events, but wasn't great in one event. I was fast, but not fast enough. I was strong, but not strong enough.”
She's definitely strong enough for the hammer. With a career-best throw of 206 feet, 8 inches, which she threw on April 23, Pena owns the best throw this year in the Patriot League by 24 feet. Her throw broke her personal record by six feet and currently ranks 11th in the nation.
Pena is now only 2 feet, 3 inches off Ashley Harbin's school record of 209 feet.
Not bad for someone who didn't even know the event existed four years ago.
Rachel Pena on the Lafayette Sports Network.
“She took to it right away,” Curcio recalled. “Not every kid will have success early on when you introduce them to a new event. But she had a very positive attitude about it. She has done a very good job.”
“I try not to label kids when they come in with how far I think they'll throw, but she had a lot of ability early on comparable to our present school-record holder. She made some really big improvements right away. I think she can pass [Harbin].”
Curcio, now Lafayette’s head coach, has some others she'd like to pass, too. First on the hit list are her opponents in the Patriot League. Pena, 22, won the League title as a sophomore, and although she was the top seed going into the competition a year ago, she was a little too conservative with her early throws, Curcio said, and wound up finishing third.
Pena, co-captain of the track team, is coming off a first-place finish in indoors this year and will be the top seed going into this year's Patriot League outdoor championships, which are Friday-Saturday, May 2-3, at the United States Naval Academy's Ingram Field. If she regains her championship status, she'll be headed to NCAAs for the second time in three years, only this time she's like to make it past the first round and compete in the second round, which is slated for Jacksonville, Fla.
"I think last year was a good learning experience for her,” Curcio said. “I tell my throwers to make the first attempt the big one and have everyone chase them. She was tentative last year and she has not been doing that this year. At the indoor championships, she hit a big throw. You don't want to leave the door open for somebody to give them a chance. I'm excited to see what she's going to do. She's throwing with a lot more confidence this year."
Once her collegiate competitions are behind her, Pena, whose mom Pascale Pena qualified for Division III nationals in the discus, will set her sights on the 2016 Olympics Trials. With her grandmother having been born in Puerto Rico, Pena has citizenship there as well as in the U.S., and she's looking to compete for Puerto Rico.
"When Coach said she thought I could get to the trials, I thought she was crazy,” Pena said. “I never imagined that. Then the summer after my sophomore year, I was just over the moon watching the Olympics. I couldn't believe it. For the first time, it wasn't just a silly dream. It became a reality."
And The other reality that's about to hit Pena, whose sister, Danielle, is a junior at Lafayette, is the real world. While she is planning on taking some time off to train, she knows eventually she'll be getting a full-time job. This semester, she took a speech and linguistics class, which opened her eyes to a whole new career path. She now has visions of getting her master's degree and becoming a speech pathologist.
“I kept hearing people say the class was really hard and that was my first clue that I was meant to do this because I caught on early with this class,” she said. “It is something I will definitely love doing.”
Something else Pena, who is a mentor writing associate, an assistant supervisor at the school's recreation center and co-president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group, has loved has been her time at Lafayette. In less than a month, she'll say goodbye to the campus, classmates, teammates and professors she's has grown so fond of, and she knows she's going to miss it tremendously.
Curcio knows it will be hard to fill Pena's shoes.
"She's somebody you'd want to hang out with,” Curcio said. “She provides great direction for her teammates. She does a great job representing Lafayette and she's into a lot on campus and that shows what you can do. She's a great person."