Feb. 17, 2011
By Larry Watts
What many travel agencies and magazines will tell you – there is nothing better than strawberries in London in the summertime. But come 2012, it may be time to make room for “Peaches”.
If everything goes according to plan, the 2007 University of Iowa graduate Peaches Roach will be marching into the Olympic Stadium as part of the Jamaican team. However, the high jump is no longer the bread and butter for this four-time All-American and five-time Big Ten Champion.
“I’m a heptathlete now,’’ Roach says proudly. “When I got done at Iowa, I was looking for a new challenge. I felt like I had more to give to the sport, so I tapered off high jump and went out and did the hardest thing I could find.’’
Roach last competed solely as a high jumper at the 2007 Pan-American Games in Brazil.
“After I got done jumping, I had more energy than I had ever experienced in my life after competing,’’ she says. “I felt like I needed to find something that would really drain me. People always thought I would make a good heptathlete or do well in the 400 hurdles, which is probably my next challenge, but I came to Iowa as a high jumper.’’
Now 26-years-old, the 5-foot-7 native of Kingston was the 2003 Jamaican national champion and high school national champion in the high jump. As an 18-year-old, she cleared 6-foot-1¾, which still stands as her personal best.
Although high jump was her forte, Roach was also brought to Iowa to run short sprints. Former Hawkeye head coach James Grant, a Jamaican native, discovered her on one of his trips back home. Grant died while Roach was competing in the 2007 Pan-American Games.
“I made an oral commitment to coach Grant without even visiting Iowa,’’ she says. “However, I felt a real comfort level with coach Grant and really trusted him. He was really honest with me about the program.
“By the time I reported to Iowa, my mother had passed away that summer, but I was very comfortable with my decision. It was probably the biggest decision I had to make by myself, but I was confident I would be fine. It was a great institution and I figured I could use track and field to get a very good education. I wasn’t thinking seven years later I would still be here doing track.
“It was really a tough thing to deal with when coach Grant passed away,’’ she added. “I really built a bond with him over those four years.’’
There was a time when Roach did start to second-guess Grant. She laughs about it now.
“I did come up for a visit in May, when it was around 60 degrees, and I thought it was a little cold although I could handle it,’’ she says. “Coach Grant told me I would be OK.
“I got used to going to all my classes in shorts, but then it really got cold. I showed up crying in the weight room one day and told him, ‘You never said it would get this cold!’ He told me the first winter is always the roughest and if I made it through I would be fine. But if I really wanted to go home, he would let me. Well, I’m still here.’’
Roach made quite the splash in her freshman year with the Hawkeyes. At the Big Ten indoor meet, she won the high jump (5-11¼) and took fifth in the 60 meters (7.50) and then went on to take 15th in the high jump at the NCAA Championships. Outdoors, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year won the conference high jump title (5-11¼) and tied for ninth at the NCAA Championships with the same height.
Over the course of the next three years, Roach would add two more Big Ten indoor titles (2005 and 2007) and one outdoor title (2007) to her collection. She also earned her first All-America accolade as a sophomore after placing sixth at the NCAA Championships. In addition, she added two more All-America honors during her junior year and another as a senior (seventh outdoors). She still holds both the indoor (6-0¾) and outdoor (6-1¾) records at Iowa.
“I don’t know if it would have made a big difference if I had just concentrated on the high jump,’’ she says. “I was an asset to the team in the sprints and we needed to get points. At the end of the day, I had helped my team get points and I still won five Big Ten titles.’’
Roach, who has remained at Iowa to work on her master’s degree in science education and to train, entered her first heptathlon at the Drake Relays in 2008 and finished third.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,’’ she says. “I was probably the most happy-go-lucky competitor out there. I was just bouncing around from one event to the other. I was leading after the first day and I was so wound up that I couldn’t sleep that night. I didn’t win, but it was a victory just to finish.’’
Roach claims she is usually at her best on the first day because the high jump, hurdles and 200-meter dash are three of her strongest events. She is making improvements in the shot put, though.
“The second day isn’t tough in itself, but those are the events (long jump, javelin and 800) I’m not best at,’’ she says. “I’ve been up and down in the long jump; some days I get it and some days I don’t. I’ve got bird arms and am still learning the technique in the javelin, but several of the other competitors have told me that’s the hardest to learn. And to be honest, I really don’t like running that 800. It has become one of my better events, but I hate it.’’
Roach’s quick progress was apparent last January when she broke the Jamaican pentathlon record at the Penn State National. She took firsts in the high jump and 800 while finishing third overall to Olympic silver medalist Hyleas Fountain.
She then stepped into the winner’s circle for the first time this summer when she took the gold in the heptathlon at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. In October, she was fourth at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India.
“I am so much stronger as an athlete now than when I was just a high jumper,’’ she says. “I used to run the 60 and get tired. Now I compete in the high jump, hurdles, shot and 200 on the first day and then wake up in the morning ready to compete again.
“When I started training in 2008, it didn’t look like this was going to happen. But after the year I’ve had, competing in the World Championships (August in South Korea) and the Pan American (October in Mexico), next year should tell me a lot. I think I should be among the top two or three heptathletes in Jamaica.’’
Roach says Peaches is actually her birth name.
“My mother thought it would be different,’’ she says. “I don’t know where it came from because we don’t have any peaches in Jamaica.’’
But there could very well be Peaches in London in 2012.
“I’m praying I stay healthy and continue to progress,’’ she says. “I have tunnel vision right now and I am going to London!’’