Almost 20 years before Veronica Toro Arana became Puerto Rico’s first rower to compete in the Olympics, she joined a boy-only Little League baseball team at the age of 6.
Bored in the stands, she concluded that if she was to watch her younger brother Sebastian play ball, she should also take a glove and join the team. The year before, Toro Arana had seen a lone girl play on another team. She knew it could be done. So her father Pedro signed her up to play.
“I was taller than all the guys,” Toro Arana said. “They were probably intimidated.
Growing up in San Juan, on the baseball field or in the classroom, Toro Arana approached any challenge with fearlessness and determination. It was that same attitude that propelled her to the top of Puerto Rican rowing, through the pre-medical track at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and into Stanford Medical School. Now, she will become the first Puerto Rican rower, male or female, to compete in the Olympics in 33 years. The rowing series begin Friday in Tokyo.
“It’s kind of a thing where rowing chose me, I didn’t necessarily choose rowing,” said Toro Arana. “It’s just the thing I ended up doing and then I ended up really liking it, so I stuck with it.” Even more after learning about the possibility of representing Puerto Rico by doing so. “
How she found the Puerto Rican national team
Toro Arana, who wouldn’t describe herself as a “natural athlete”, never dreamed of becoming an Olympian as a child. Well, not an Olympian, to be precise – she competed in the school math Olympics. But from baseball to ballet to volleyball, Toro Arana has dabbled in everything competitive a bit.
This curiosity never wavered, even when Toro Arana arrived at MIT. At 5ft 10in, she didn’t think she would be tall enough to play front row club volleyball like she did in high school. A water lover who grew up on an island, Toro Arana decided to give sailing a try, but was left out of the class during MIT’s pre-orientation summer program. A teaching assistant suggested that the gangly freshman try paddling instead.
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“I remember sitting on the boat for the first time and realizing that you are actually paddling backwards,” said Toro Arana. “I don’t think I got that feeling when I was doing all the rowing (indoors). So I was like, okay. We go back. “
Toro Arana has joined the lightweight team, forcing women to weigh 130 pounds or less. During her first semester, she demonstrated that she had the raw power to be a good rower by shooting fast times on the ergometer, the indoor rower.
When she returned home for her first winter vacation, her father found an article about how the Puerto Rico Rowing Federation was looking to add new rowers. Toro Arana reached out and showed up at Laguna de Condado in San Juan, a small lagoon about a mile long, where the mostly male team trained. Coach placed her in a double on day one and a single on day two even though she had never sculled with two oars before. Rowing the eight at MIT, she only learned to sweep with one.
Either way, Toro Arana was determined to learn to row. But at the start of her experience, she said she felt like she wasn’t taken as seriously as her male counterparts.
“I think (the coach) just didn’t know what to do with me,” said Toro Arana. “Because I hadn’t trained with him for a long time. But I think after a while when we did all the workouts together and most of the time I was probably taking things more seriously than the guys that were there, he just treated me like one of the guys.
While training in Puerto Rico this summer, Toro Arana was encouraged to make the switch to the free weight team. Changing categories would give him more opportunities to represent Puerto Rico in singles internationally, including at the Olympics.
At first nervous about changing weight classes, Toro Arana put her pride aside and took the plunge in her sophomore year at MIT. She found that competing against bigger, faster rowers motivated her to row harder and become stronger.
“Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing,” Toro Arana said. “I think physically because I was training with the Puerto Rican national team and they were all guys, I was physically in (a) better position.”
Decide to postpone medical school
Switching to the free weight class and focusing on his technique in the singles gave Toro Arana opportunities to compete internationally for Puerto Rico. But with the opportunities came the challenges. During the first four years, Toro Arana participated in international competitions without a coach. She oversaw her own logistics – she learned to rig her boat on her own and enlisted the help of others with tasks she couldn’t do on her own.
Because the Puerto Rican Rowing Federation did not have much experience sending its rowers to compete in international competitions, Toro Arana said she competed in her first world rowing championships while ‘she was only 19 years old. instead, it lined up against older, more experienced rowers.
“I have a strong personality, but I feel like that’s part of the reason I was able to do it because I don’t think a 19-year-old goes to a competition alone. and manage, ”Toro told Arana.
Four years after his first international competition, Toro Arana sought to find his own coach who could help him reach the Olympics. She decided to postpone her medical studies and her dream of becoming a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon for two years on the recommendation of American rower, Olympic silver medalist and physician Gevvie Stone. She contacted Francisco Viacava of Miami RowHouse, who represented Peru at the 1984 Olympics and coached rowers from the United States, South America and Europe.
Together they embarked on a full cycle of training to put Toro Arana in position to qualify for the Olympics. It meant starting from scratch to reverse some habits Toro Arana had developed without consistent coaching, according to Viacava. He installed Toro Arana in a coastal boat designed to row the ocean, which is wider and more stable than a standard racing hull. On the coastal boat, Viacava helped Toro Arana perfect his swim without risking falling into the water.
“If you look at the videos from three and a half years ago and now, she doesn’t even recognize herself,” Viacava said. “We worked a lot on his strength. So she’s stronger now. Much stronger physically, much stronger mentally and also (improved) with the technical aspect of the boat. And strategy. We’ve made mega-changes to his rowing.
In March 2020, Toro Arana was preparing for his Olympic qualification in early April when the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to his plans. First, his qualification was canceled, and then the Olympics were postponed shortly thereafter. Toro Arana had to decide if she was going to continue her training for an additional year while continuing to delay graduation from medical school.
“We were in the middle of a pandemic and I had the potential to be a doctor,” said Toro Arana. “By this point I had already almost taken two years of medical school and the people I started medical school with were going to graduate and could help in the pandemic. And I was there, rowing in this sort of selfish pursuit, you know?
“Because yeah, I represent Puerto Rico and so on, but when you’re an elite athlete, it’s mostly super selfish. You have to focus on your training, your diet, your sleep, it all takes over your life.
When Toro Arana learned that she could do three of her internships remotely over three months, she decided to stay in Miami to train while taking online classes. In the end, she flew to California to complete three months of in-person rotations at Stanford. For the first month and a half, she woke up at 4 a.m. to train before going to the hospital at 6 a.m. But once she hit surgical rotation, she struggled to train for 12- to 16-hour days.
Toro Arana returned to Miami in late September 2020 and prepared full time for the Americas Qualifying Regatta in March. Shortly after arriving in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she found the competition had been shortened from three days to two due to new COVID-19 restrictions. Despite the stress, Toro Arana placed fifth in the final, which earned him a place in the Puerto Rican Olympic team.
“When she did, she started crying because there was no other Puerto Rican woman who qualified for the Olympics (in rowing),” Viacava said. “I knew it was important to her, but I didn’t know how deep her heart was.”
After training in Sabaudia, Italy with Viacava and Peruvian rower Alvaro Torres for a month, Toro Arana traveled to Tokyo expecting to fight in singles. Much like when she saw another girl playing Little League baseball years ago, she hopes she can set an example for Puerto Rican girls and women interested in trying rowing.
Toro Arana said she was working to submit a proposal to the government that would rehabilitate a park damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and establish an ideal location for rowing on the island. By making water sports more accessible in Puerto Rico, Toro Arana said the nation can develop more local talent. She regularly keeps an eye out for promising women in the Puerto Rican rowing community.
One day she aspires to compete internationally for Puerto Rico with a partner in the boat.
“I think that’s a way for me to start, to be directly involved in how this continues,” said Toro Arana. “If I row with someone else and motivate someone else to do it, they don’t have to do it on their own.