Olympics: Dominican Republic’s Peña trying to vault to gold
By Dialogo July 18, 2012
SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – When it comes to athletics in the Dominican Republic, gymnastics hardly registers. Yet, one of the country’s best shots at an Olympic medal at the London Games comes in the form of a tiny, high-flying vaulter.
Yamilet Peña Abreu, 19, became the first Dominican gymnast ever to make the Olympics, when she beat out a New Zealand competitor by the thinnest of margins – 46.581 to 46.531 – in January.
“This is something historic,” said Dominican Federation of Gymnastics [FEDOGIM] President Edwin Rodríguez. “We achieved our objective after many long years of work and sacrifice.”
Peña is one of the country’s 32 athletes who will compete in the London Games, which begin on July 27. Expectations are high that Peña – alongside Gabriel Mercedes, who hopes to improve on his silver medal-winning performance in the 58-kilogram (127-pounds) division in taekwondo in 2008 – will leave the Games of the XXX Olympics with a medal.
Dominican athletes have won four Olympic medals, the first of which came in 1984 when boxer Pedro Nolasco won bronze.
Peña’s thrilling journey to the Olympics, which included landing a death-defying vault in qualifying that’s rarely attempted in competition, has captured the attention of Dominicans nationwide.
Peña, who first won a competition at age 7 and started competing at the international level at age 9, said qualifying was only the first step.
“I feel very happy to get to the Olympics because it’s the dream of every athlete,” said Peña, whose 5-foot stature earned her the nickname “Chiqui.” “But now I want to become the first Dominican Olympic medalist in gymnastics, regardless of the color of the medal.”
Whatever Peña accomplishes at the London summer games – even finishing dead last – will mean she’s defeated the odds.
In a country little known in international circles for gymnastics, Peña has trained 40 hours a week in a deteriorating gym with aged equipment. She received a monthly salary from the country’s Olympic federation of $3,000 pesos (US$76).
She took up occasional part-time work, like teaching at a gym for children. And yet, after qualifying for the Olympics, she was unsure she’d have the money to make the trip to London.
But thanks to a fundraising campaign, involving everything from seeking donations to selling “Yamilet” pins to support her, she came close – close enough for a group of French businesspeople and companies to donate the rest of the money, making her dream a reality.
“This athlete is a phenomenon: You have to support her,” said Patricia Dumas, who spearheaded the drive. “We’ll keep working to get more support and backing for the federation (FEDOGIM) so that it can keep working and developing the sport.”
Qualifying rounds in gymnastics will be held at North Greenwich Arena on July 28.
The finals in women’s vault – Peña’s strongest event – are scheduled for Aug. 5.
Peña has placed extremely well in international competitions leading to the Olympics. She won the gold medal in vault at the 2012 Pan American Championships in Colombia and took third at the 2012 World Cup.
American McKayla Maroney, the defending world champion, is favored to win the event, but Peña has a secret weapon: the highly difficult handspring double front vault. The “Prudnova” is among the most difficult vaults performed by women, involving flipping forward two-and-a-half times off the vaulting table.
She nailed it in qualifying at the 2011 World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, becoming only the second woman – and first since 1999 – to successfully land it in an international competition, according to press reports.
But when Peña tried in the finals, she faltered.
If Peña makes it to the medal round in London, it will be nerves – not a lack of talent – that she will have to overcome, her trainer Francisco Susana said.
“We’ve been in three finals of important [international] competitions,” he said. “The psychological part is what has failed us. That’s the part we need to work on.”