Latroya Pina has yet to graduate college, but she’s already accomplished one major historic first. In August, she was chosen to compete on Cape Verde’s first Olympic national team, alongside her two younger siblings, in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Considering that the small African island nation is sending only four total swimmers, the Olympics will essentially be a Pina family affair.
Latroya, a proud Howard Bison, will also be repping HBCUs in a sport where black people are still underrepresented at the highest levels—though that is slowly changing.
But Latroya is used to taking the lead, both in the water and out. She’s the first in her family to learn how to swim, and the first to attend college. The eldest of the three, Latroya was always athletically gifted: in fact, her mother initially didn’t want Latroya swimming because she was already taking gymnastics.
But after learning how to swim at their local Boys and Girls Club, Latroya excelled at the sport. Competing at the Boys and Girls Club national meet at 12, she won the breaststroke event. Two years later, she joined the U.S.A. Swimming team. Her younger brother, Troy, ended up following her lead, even though he was initially less enthusiastic about the sport. But soon, the whole family took to the water.
“Once he got in the pool to tryout, it ended up sticking,” Latroya told The Root. “We all ended up just swimming on the USA Swim team instead of just me swimming.”
That includes her younger sister, Jayla, whom Troy and Latroya taught how to swim. Jayla ended up joining USA Swim Team at 6 years old, making the team with a time fast enough to qualify as an 8 year old.
For Latroya’s mother Maria Alfama, the pool introduced a new way of life, one she ultimately embraced.
“I don’t even know how to swim!” Alfama told the Sun Chronicle. “I was happy just watching. I’ve spent a lot of miles on the road, a lot of hours at pools with them. My life began when they got involved with sports and swimming. I was a super sports mom.”
That may be an understatement. It’s because Alfama posted her children’s times on Facebook that Cape Verdean officials hunting for potential athletes discovered the siblings, and promptly recruited them for the nation’s first swim team, Troy told the Sun Chronicle.
When you’re as good at swimming as Latroya is, the pool ends up shaping your life: your schedule revolves around meets and practices, and your swim team becomes an extended family. Without her swim team, Latroya may never have ended up at Howard University. Aside from being the first in her family to attend college, the historically black school is literally and figuratively miles away from the suburban, mostly white Massachusetts town of Seekonk, where she grew up.
But for Latroya, Howard—the only HBCU to have a swim team—was her top choice.
“One of the girls [on my swim team], she’s really like my sister. Two of them actually, they both swam for Howard: Sydney Cooper and Michaella Johnson,” Latroya said. “They really influenced me a lot to come here.”
“My team back home, we are very family oriented,” she said. “We still keep up with each other ‘til today. We know what everyone’s doing. And they told me the swim team [at Howard] is like family. They told me how much fun it is, and [about] Howard’s culture.”
Latroya says she loves her hometown of Seekonk, Mass., and has always found the people there to be encouraging and supportive of her. But she was only one of a handful of black students who graduated from her high school class, and was eager to be around more black people.
For Latroya, it was a decision that’s paid off; helping her mature in the classroom and in the pool, and giving her the kind of familial support she was looking for. And as the biology major sets her sights on Tokyo 2020, she’s fully aware of what her presence on the world stage could mean, both as a member of Cape Verde’s first national team and as a Howard alum.
“There’s always that stereotype that we don’t swim—or we can’t swim,” she said. “It’s kind of nice to show little kids that we can swim, and that it’s just a matter of learning. We can do anything.”
As the Olympic Games draw nearer, Latroya says she’d love to provide swimming lessons and coaching to Cape Verde’s children.
“They obviously don’t have a swimming pool, so I do want to help them start up a program to start swim classes and to teach them how to swim. Not only in the ocean, but swim in an actual competitive pool,” said the senior, who’s set to graduate next spring. Latroya also has her sights set on med school after she graduates, but wants to take a gap year to focus on the Olympics.
At the moment, Latroya still doesn’t know what events she’ll be swimming for the Cape Verde national team, though the breaststroke—her best event—seems a sure bet. With Tokyo still in the distance, she’s just taking it one meet at a time. This week, she and her siblings are competing for Cape Verde at the Confederation Africaine de Natation Amateur Swimming in Algiers, Algeria,—a pan-African meet that is a precursor to next year’s World Championship in South Korea.
The times she swims in Algiers this week will be her qualifying times for South Korea next summer. Then comes the Olympics, where the family she led into the water won’t just be swimming by her side, but inspiring her to be her best.
“We kind of push each other to be great,” she said. “They inspire me all the time.”