GWANGJU, South Korea (AP) — When LaTroya Pina first learned to swim, she couldn’t have known she’d one day compete at the Olympics with her siblings.
Of course, she dreamed of it.
As an 11-year-old at Boys and Girls Club nationals she won two gold medals and promptly stated her goal was to become an Olympian. Her dad, who had dropped everything with two days’ notice to take her from East Providence, Rhode Island, to Florida to compete, never doubted her.
“There’s none greater,” he would repeat before swims, where he would sit in the stands with signs and hand out team gear.
Now, that longshot is finally becoming a reality.
The 23-year-old Pina represents her mother’s home country of Cape Verde, along with younger siblings Troy, 20, and Jayla, 15. Both LaTroya and Troy have qualified for next year’s Tokyo Olympics, with Jayla hoping to do so at next month’s youth world championships.
“It’s surreal,” LaTroya said.
The competition isn’t the first challenge they have faced as a team.
Just a year after LaTroya won her first medals, her 29-year-old father was the unintended victim of a fatal drive-by shooting, two days after returning from the same meet in Florida in 2009. The shooter was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The siblings’ shared grief has bonded them profoundly.
“We all root each other on,” LaTroya said, “which is the best part about us.”
LaTroya and her brother went on to be the first in their family to attend college. She graduated from Howard University and Troy attends Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, New Jersey. He still works summers as a lifeguard at Brown University, touching Ivy League waters but a world away from its privileges.
The siblings weren’t always as enthusiastic about swimming as they are now.
After their dad’s death, the family moved out of government-subsidized housing. Life with a single mom meant the younger kids had to accompany LaTroya to her practices. With nothing else to do at the pool, swimming was the best way to occupy their time.
“We’d be at the pool, so we just had to,” Jayla said.
“I wanted to quit a lot,” Troy added.
For two years he lagged behind until one day he decided he was ready to start winning races.
“No one wants to be slow and always behind,” he said.
Eventually the siblings got faster and people noticed.
As a college junior, LaTroya received a Facebook message from men claiming to represent the national Olympic committee of Cape Verde, an island nation off the northwest coast of Africa. They asked if she’d like to represent the country.
“At first I thought it was a complete joke because it was males and you know how that stereotype is. Why are these males giving you this offer for the Olympics?” she said.
Eventually her mother was able to deduce the offer was legitimate. The siblings got their Cape Verde passports and began competing internationally.
Now, a year out from the Tokyo Games, the siblings can’t help but wonder what it would be like if their dad were around to see them now.
“You guys would probably think he’s the craziest parent,” LaTroya said. “I know that he would definitely be in the stands right now. He’d be going crazy.”
Their dad might not be around to recite his pre-race mantra but that doesn’t mean the siblings are alone. Before one of her freestyle heats at the world championships in Gwangju, LaTroya walked onto the pool deck and heard two familiar voices from the stands.
“Go Yaya!” they screamed in unison.
She looked up and saw her siblings.
“They always yell before I race,” she said.
They’re keeping the family tradition alive.
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