Ianna Roach was expecting just another normal drive home from secondary school with her parents when she was 15-year-old. Her mom and dad had questioned her repeatedly about whether she wanted to try out shot put, but Roach declined.
That afternoon in her native Trinidad and Tobago however, Roach didn’t have a choice.
“I got in the car and there was a pile of clothes and sneakers,” the now Iowa women’s track and field senior said. “They were like, ‘We’re going to the stadium. You’re going to throw shot put.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I was literally just hijacked after school. I went and was like, ‘I don’t hate this.’ That’s how it happened, really.”
Seven years later, Roach is a senior at Iowa, competing in her fourth season in various field events, including the shot put. Roach has not only learned to adjust to life in the U.S., but also to the internal struggles of being a Division I athlete.
For most of her childhood, Roach had played water polo and was later introduced to track and field. She was on the Trinidad and Tobago national water polo team until a shoulder injury forced her to choose between the pool or the track.
“I enjoy it a lot more because it’s an individual sport,” Roach said of track. “In water polo, if you lost a game there was always finger-pointing, whereas if I lost in shot put, I lost. It just made more sense.”
After visiting Oregon and UTSA during her recruiting process, Roach was prepared to join the Roadrunners. On national signing day in 2018, Roach had a sudden change of heart.
“I bought balloons, I was at my dining table, and I was like, ‘I don’t think I want to go here,’” Roach said. “My mom was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I’m like, ‘I just don’t think I want to go to this school, It’s fine.’ But if I had gone to that program, I would’ve been the best thrower they had. I didn’t want to go to somewhere where I’d already be the best.”
Roach decided to take something similar to a gap year, where she divided her time between continuing her education in the secondary school system and training for track and field, including a camp in Finland. Yet as the spring neared, Roach had yet to receive interest from other schools.
“It was nearing April and I really hadn’t heard from anybody else,” Roach said. “I was like sh ***ing myself because if I didn’t get a school within like three months, I would have to go to junior college. I was so scared.”
After the Caribbean Free Trade Association Games in 2019, Iowa track and field followed Roach on Instagram. After some direct messages with coaches over the next two days, Roach was on her official visit to Iowa City. Less than a week later, she committed to the Hawkeyes.
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With all her family more than 2,000 miles away, Roach stays in constant contact, including calling her dad regularly. Living with two of her teammates and another upperclassman during her freshman year, Roach found herself another family.
“They were all kind of like older sisters because they were all in their junior years my freshman year,” Roach said. “They never had a problem to help me in anything, and it was really like an instant click. It was hard when they all had to graduate.”
Even with a newfound family, Roach still had other difficulties to endure.
“It’s so f***ing cold for no reason,” Roach said. “We have two seasons [in Trinidad and Tobago,] it’s either sunshine or it’s raining. My first winter, I remember when it got to like 40 or 50-degrees Fahrenheit, I had my whole entire winter coat on.”
Outside of the cold and in the classroom, Roach had to deal with sounding different from others. The official language of her home nation is English, but Roach explained how her accent brought plenty of looks.
“People hear me talk, and they just stare,” Roach said. “I would get really nervous to talk in my classes because people would just stare at me. I was like, ‘Am I talking absolute BS?’ To me, I don’t have an accent, but to everyone else, I sound very foreign.”
According to the UN Refugee Agency, the ethnic population of Trinidad and Tobago is mainly composed of Africans and East Indians, as well as a growing mixed group and small pockets of Chinese and Syrians.
“There’s so many different cultures and ethnicities where I’m from,” Roach said. “Our national anthem literally says, ‘Here every creed and race find an equal place.’ So coming to America is very Black and white, it’s a different vibe.”
During her freshman year in 2019, Roach became homesick and upon recommendation from her coaches, she took the three-flight trip back to Trinidad and Tobago for Thanksgiving break.
“I went home and didn’t think I was going to come back,” Roach said. “That’s how bad it was, I cried every single day.”
Roach returned to Iowa City after the break, but when COVID struck the following semester, she was forced to stay in Trinidad and Tobago until January 2021. During this extended period at home, Roach cured her homesickness.
“I started to miss Iowa,” Roach said. “I was missing my friends, training with my group, my life in Iowa. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh I’m fine.’ I went back up in January and didn’t go back home till the following December.”
Looking back on her track career at Iowa, Roach learned not to let what occurs at meets impact her life outside of track. Part of this process was acknowledging the arduous path she took to get to Iowa in the first place.
“I’ve learned that I am more than my sport, because I used to put a lot of my self-value on shot put and how I did when I was competing,” Roach said. “The last four years have been really rough competition-wise, they have not gone how I’d imagine them going.
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