Olympics the latest stop on Irena Gillarova’s life journey
Virginia Tech alumna Irena Gillarova has traveled all over the world, and her current location is Tokyo, where she is representing the Czech Republic—and the Hokies—in the Olympics
Just in the past year, she’s visited some of the most beautiful places on Earth, hiking snow-capped mountains in Slovakia, riding horses in South Africa, and going scuba diving in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Croatia. And a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, she went surfing in Indonesia.
Now, Irena Gillarova ’17 is ready for her next adventure – throwing a stick at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Gillarova begins her quest for an Olympic medal Monday when she opens competition in the women’s javelin event. The former two-time national champion in the event for the Hokies will be competing for her native Czech Republic after she earned a spot from the Czech Olympic Committee in early July.
The Olympics represent a career accomplishment for Gillarova. The 29-year-old from Pribam, Czech Republic, a small town southwest of Prague, started thinking about the Olympics after she watched Cool Runnings, a 1993 movie about the Jamaican bobsled team competing at the Winter Olympics, when she was 7.
“This is a huge thing for me,” Gillarova said of her Olympic experience. “It’s like, ‘OK, I’ve fulfilled my biggest goal and now I can just focus on the future. I know my career has been good. There will be no regrets because I’ve made the Olympics.’”
Gillarova contemplated a pursuit of an Olympic bid in 2016, but an Achilles injury all but dashed those hopes. Not only that, but she also found herself immersed more in her collegiate career than the chasing of an international one.
In 2015, competing as Irena Sediva — more on the name change in a bit — she won Virginia Tech’s first national title in the javelin, overcoming the competition with a school-record toss on her final attempt at the NCAA Championships. Her Achilles injury prevented her from defending her title, but as a senior, she won it again at her final collegiate event, joining Queen Harrison as the only two Virginia Tech female student-athletes to win at least two national crowns.
“In 2016, I was injured, so it wasn’t such a big surprise of me not making it [the Czech Olympic team],” Gillarova said. “I think I was living in a bubble of my college career, and I was very focused on that. So, the Olympics were a big thing for me, but more important to me at the time was the NCAA Championship and things like that. I probably should have had bigger goals, but it all worked out how it was supposed to work out.”
After graduating from Virginia Tech with degrees in international relations and religion and culture, Gillarova returned to the Czech Republic. She continued training, with the Olympics and 2020 as the target. She also began work toward a master’s degree in international relations at a university there in her home country.
She has been balancing classes and her role as a full-time athlete over the past three years. Once her track career ends, she wants to work for a nonprofit organization or nongovernment organization that focuses on child care policy.
“I’m very interested in child care,” Gillarova said. “I’d like to go international, not just local or in the Czech Republic. It would be great to be a part of some international organization. I was hoping to get an internship in New York, but I’m a little old for internships, so we will see where it goes.”
Life hasn’t been all classes and track and field, though, since she left Tech. After a two-decade relationship, her parents finally wed in the fall of 2019.
How that marriage came about is a rather interesting tale, and it led to Gillarova taking her father’s last name. Most people assumed that she had gotten married, so she wanted to set the record straight.
“My dad proposed to my mom 20 years ago, but somehow it didn’t happen,” she said. “When I was competing at the European Championships in 2018, my dad told me that If I would make it to the finals, then he was going to propose again.
“Then I went to the reporters and journalists [after competing], and the lady was asking me, ‘So, you’re holding a chocolate. Is that something your parents give to you when you have a successful competition?’ I was like, ‘Actually no, but my father promised me one thing — that he is going to marry my mom.’
“It was all over the newspapers, and my mom started receiving congratulations over the wedding, and she had no idea what was going on. We had to tell her what happened, and they were kind of forced to get married. They got married, and my mom is 64 and my dad is 66. Then, I promised my dad that I was going to change my last name to his name. Honestly, I did not plan to share that with the journalist. It just happened.”
With her professional career and private life going in positive directions, Gillarova enters the Olympics relaxed, rested, and hopeful. Jan Zelezny, a three-time Olympic gold medalist for the Czech Republic and the men’s world record holder in the javelin, serves as GIllarova’s coach, and while Gillarova refuses to say that she’s throwing well for fear of jinxing herself, she says that training has been going well.
She wants to continue her country’s rich tradition in the event. Another Czech native, Barbora Spotakova, holds the women’s world record and is a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
“In my previous big competitions, even though I would struggle during the season before the competition, when it comes to the big moments, somehow I’m able to perform,” Gillarova said. “So, I’m expecting to be able to put up a good fight. That’s my expectation and we’ll see where it brings me. I just hope I’ll have been proud of the performance.”
Regardless of the results of his former student-athletes, Dave Cianelli will be proud. The longest-tenured coach at Virginia Tech, Cianelli, who started running the track and field teams for the Hokies in 2001, has coached nearly 20 Olympic and World Championship competitors, including three in this year’s Olympics.
Cianelli knows the amount of work and sacrifice that it takes just to make an Olympic team, much less to earn a medal. He appreciates those efforts, which he said comes as no surprise considering character of his former athletes in Tokyo.
“They’re great people. That’s the thing,” Cianelli said. “They’re not just gifted athletes, but they’re really good people, and they really love Virginia Tech. It’s something that they’ve taken with them back home, and they’re always talking about their experiences. They’re great ambassadors for our university and our program, and that’s great to see.
“I’m just happy that they all look back on their Virginia Tech experiences as being positive and something that propelled them to what they’re doing now.”
After the Olympics, Gillarova’s itinerary consists of time off and then probably more training and more traveling. Her search for adventure never seems to be quite satisfied.
Yet of all the beautiful places she has been, the small town of Blacksburg ranks near or at the top.
“Since I was able to go the U.S. and experience everything there and gain a degree, I feel peace in my life,” Gillarova said. “I’m very proud of the four years that I spent there. I’m now living the dream, but it’s because I was able to accomplish some great stuff at Virginia Tech.”
— Written by Jimmy Robertson