Bolivian sports journalist Pina Pozo interviews Paraguayan track and field Olympian Camila “the Guarani Panther” Pirelli to uncover what it takes to make it to the Tokyo Olympic Games, vital items in an Olympics-bound suitcase (spikes, Paraguayan flag, and warmups), and post-Tokyo plans. Pina and Camila met during the Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), an award-winning sports diplomacy and mentorship exchange initiative run by the Center for Sport Peace and Society in partnership with the U.S. Department of State and espnW.
Pina (0:05): Welcome to the Strong Women Better World Podcast Series: Season Two. In this short season, we'll focus on the road to Tokyo. A project to share about our strong GSMP sisters competing in the Tokyo games. We couldn't be more proud of each of them. They have made huge sacrifices and achieve unthinkable feats to qualify for the most important sports events in the world; The Olympic and Paralympic games. I am Pina Pozo from Bolivia a sports journalist. And it's my great pleasure to welcome you to this podcast about the journeys of our sisters in sports. And let me tell you, it's not an easy road. In today's episode, we travel to South America to Paraguay, to hear from our strong athletes, somebody who trained so hard to be in Tokyo in a very demanding competition in track and field 100 meters hurdles. This sister is referred to as the Guarani Panther, but it means “warrior” in Guarani language is spoken in Paraguay. And we can’t think of anyone more deserving of the name. Hello, Cami Pirelli, our strong sister, are you ready to pack your spikes and travel from Paraguay to Japan?
Cami (1:28): I am. I'm so happy. I've been waiting for this for so long. I think I already packed my stuff and I still have a week to go to travel. So I'm really excited.
Pina (1:39): Okay, so the first thing you're going to put in your suitcase are the spikes?
Cami (1:43): Of course. Yeah. I think everything else doesn't matter, but the spikes are something that is personal and you know, you can't really buy and use spikes on the spot. So I think that's the most important thing that I will pack.
Pina (1:58): Okay. So let's just start with an easy question. How did you get the nickname “the Guarani Panther”, and what does this mean to you?
Cami (2:06): Well, it was 2013. I was, I came back to Paraguay after going to the states for, for school, I went there for four years. I studied Biology. So it was my first year as a professional athlete because that's, that was the first year that I actually had a, a salary as an athlete. And I didn't have to worry about school or university or any, anything else, but training. So I started very breaking records. And it was like, I will break it on Wednesday and then I'll break it on Saturday and I'll break it again on Sunday. But usually it was like more between the heptathlon or the hundred hurdles. And this time I went to Chile on a meet that I think it was a Wednesday and then Saturday and then Sunday. So on Sunday when I broke the record again, this journalist, he posted on the newspaper. One of the famous newspaper in Paraguay. He just put like this he's like, La Pantera Guarani. The Guarini Panther did it again. I saw it being in Chile and I called him and I was like, what? I loved it. And it was funny because growing up people ask you, what kind of animal do you think you are? And I always said, a Panther. So yeah, I loved it. I still love it. Some people don't even call me Cami. They just say, Hey Panther, la pantera it's right on. I really like it.
Pina (3:35): Let's talk about your recent road to Tokyo has looked like. How has these six past months been to you? What did it feel like when you cross the finish line and secure your spot for the games?
Cami (3:48): I feel so much pressure, especially because they changed coaches at the end of 2019 before COVID and I was doing good. I went to the states and I started training with a new coach. Then COVID happened. And then, so I came back to Paraguay because of quarantine, because nobody knew what was going on. So everybody wanted me here just in case. Distance training last six months, I actually went back to the states after COVID got, you know, but in America, like the states have a better situation. My coach wasn't able to coach me because of the university rules because inside coach for a university also, so I basically went there to train by myself anyway. So I was unsure of what was going on. I was practicing. Without anyone watching me and I actually got hurt. And so I was like, I wasn't sure if I was going to go, I wasn't sure if, you know, if I was going to be healthy, if another person was gonna beat my time to go. So I was just, I was like, okay, whatever it is, whatever happened, I would just go back to Paraguay, heal my leg, and wait, and I waited for a month and a half. And I, I feel like when I, when I heard the news that I was the one going, it's like that out of my bag, like this weight, I don't know a lot of pressure that I got out of me and I started enjoying it. I know I will. I haven't started, you know, what the Olympics mean or what the Olympics feel. But I am enjoying it. I really like it. And I, I I'm, I'm happy.
Pina (5:35): No. And it's going to be amazing. And we know you're going to compete in the 100 hurdles. How was your training in a pandemic situation? We saw some videos of you going over the hurdles. It's not an easy, not an easy competition.
Cami (5:52): It's not, but I always loved it since I started jogging and I started kind of late. Usually people start at like between 12 and 13. I started when I was 17 and my first coach, he's like, we have to conquer the hundred hurdles because this is the first event of the heptathlon. And this is the most important, because if you start with a good hurdle race, the whole heptathlon can go good. So we actually killed it. Like I was getting better and better every year. I don't think it's hard. I know it looks hard, but it's not for me. Like, I really like it and I, I really enjoy practicing. I will practice hurdles every day. I don't get tired. And I think I will become a hurdle coach soon because I like it so much.
Pina (6:42): Wow. Let's talk about one of my favorite subjects, food. I love food, we know athletes have to eat healthy and sleep well. What did you eat all this time? And what time did you try to go to bed?
Cami (6:56): I actually due to quarantine. I gained some weight last year. I gained like seven kilos, like 14 pounds. And, uh, for me it's terrible. Cause I'm used to have, you know, the physique of a heptathlete like all the muscles showing and stuff and I wasn't, I didn't like it, but I couldn't do anything. Cause I think like for two months we were stuck in our houses and even though I was practically. And I had like a treadmill here. It's not like going out there. And then when I got back to track, it wasn't enough. Like I never practiced enough to get to lose the weight because I was eating normal. I was eating burgers. I was eating sandwiches, like a little bread, like I didn't care. Cause we didn't know what was going on. We wasn't, we weren't sure if the limits were going to happen. But then this year, at the beginning of the year, I was like, I was committed. And I was like, I will be okay for Tokyo, even if I, you know, I wasn't sure. I was like, I'll be my best fitness on May. And that happened, I actually lost seven kilos and I feel like I've never been better because I started eating right. It's not like I have I'm on a diet. I just start eating right and I like it. I don't feel like I need anything that is not healthy.
Pina (8:19): Well, I'm asking you this because I'm sure it takes a lot of discipline and sacrifice. And what have you learned about yourself by leading such a regimented lifestyle this time these last months?
Cami (8:32): Oh, I have been patient when I was little, everybody told me that I had, I was really anxious. Um, but I always want to like right now, everything I want right now and I had no patience. So because of COVID. I learned my final lesson as an athlete. And I think that will help me in the future when I stop being an athlete and I start being a coach or, you know, maybe a president of a club or something, because I couldn't do anything. It was not on my hands. It wasn't on my coach's hands. So I learned how to be patient and, you know, just trust the time, trust the work and just wait. It works. Now I'm happy. I waited. And, and you know, when they told me, well, you have to come back to Paraguay. It was May. You have to stop practicing and get healthy. Otherwise, if you're not healthy, we're not taking you to Olympics. So I'm like, okay, I'm staying. I’m staying and still, and so I got better healthy and I'm glad I did.
Pina (9:35): And meanwhile, like now I want to know, do you ever induce, I, and if you do, what's your go-to cheat food or dessert.
Cami (9:48): I used to be more like that would cheat with sweets, but like I tell you, I eat like, like right now it's strawberry season and I love strawberries. So for me, strawberry is my sweet and it's approved. So it's not really cheating. But now it's more like pizza or burgers. I don't know why. And I love French fries, so I will try to wait till Saturday for my cheat day. And that's it. It's not like the full day, but usually it's either Friday, like a pizza on Friday or a burger on Saturday.
Pina (10:25): You have trained for so many years to qualify for the Olympics now that you have achieved the goal of going does it feel like what you thought? Are you nervous, excited? What goes through your mind when you think about the chance to hear your country’s National Anthem, while standing on the podium?
Cami (10:46): I'm like overwhelmed right now. I never thought that I would feel like this. It’s like it’s too much sometimes. I get over excited. It will be even worse when I get there and I will see everyone. I don't know. It's like uncertain for me. Like, because the last time I got so excited and about the Olympics in Rio, you know? And then I ended up not going that now is like, I'm saving myself, just in case. I don't want to get too over excited. But I am, and then it's like, I go back and I'm like, relax just wait. And then I'm all excited again, but we'll see. I don't think I would get more nervous than I, what I always get when I go to any other meet. I think it will be the same. I think I will, I will dominate the hurdles even though I'll be like with the best hurdles in the world.
Pina (11:42): Good. Okay. You told me the first thing you're going to pack are going to be your spikes. So I'm just curious, nosy. How does an Olympian pack their suitcase for traveling to the world's biggest sports event? Are you taking anything special besides your spikes?
Cami (12:00): I might take this pillow that is for traveling, but I don't think it's is more to be like for comfort during the airplane, but I'm, I'm still thinking, um, I pack, I usually pack from the meet backwards. Like what, what am I going to need the day of the meet? Um, despite my socks, my, my uniform. And then it will all go to the day before the meet. And then the day before, before the meet and so on. I don't know. I don't have anything special so far. Maybe my Paraguayan, a jog it's called. [Paraguayan word] I’m not sure we're allowed to take everything like that. I, I heard that we can't take food with us, but at least the Thermo. It has my name on it. So I think that's the most important thing. Of course my flag, flag is number one.
Pina (13:08): Are you thinking about the day of your competition? What goes through your mind and how do you control the fears and anxieties that must come with competing on such a big world stage?
Cami (13:20): I try not to think about it yet because one of my psychologist told me once, if you think about the meet before, and then you go to the meet, your mind is already tired. So what I do, it's not like I think about being there yet is just thinking about how am I supposed to be feeling like I try to control my feelings more than, oh, I want to run. I want to kill her one. I want to run my best. I don't, I'm trying not to put pressure. I try to put more like emotions, like, uh, not to be nervous or focus on my race not focusing on the other people. Cause I know, you know, what, what makes me more nervous is a lot of the girls are a lot faster than me, and that could be either really good or really bad because you feel like they are like passing you and you try harder. And you know, you can get better in a very time or you can get distracted because they are so far from you that you are not focusing on your race. So, what I'm thinking is basically just focusing on my race. I don't care who is next to me. Doesn't matter who it is, the best in the world. Then just focused on doing your best and break your time.
Pina (14:35): We know this Olympic is going to be way different. You're going to be in a bubble. Are you ready for that? Does it disappoint you at all or take away from your excitement at all?
Cami (14:47): I don't feel disappointed. I know it's going to be different. And I'm aware that we have to use cell phone apps to monitor everybody like GPS and stuff, Olympic games is the Olympic games. It doesn't matter how they are doing it. I mean, I'm, I'm glad they are doing it, because when I heard about everything, like COVID coming back to Japan, like two weeks ago, I was like, well, I'm glad they're still doing it. So they are dominating the protocols and stuff. So I feel safe. I don't feel disappointed. And I know we're not gonna have people like the, they're not going to allow the crowd to be there, but that doesn't really matter for, I don't think track athletes really care. Isn’t like soccer players, like they need their crowd, uh, we are always alone. Yeah. We're always alone. So I don't think I will get disappointed besides I don't have anything to compare to. I haven't been to the Olympic Games before. So I can't compare. Oh yeah. In London was like this, and now this is like, this, everything is new to me. So everything's going to be good.
Pina (15:58): Are you afraid of anything when you think about being in Tokyo or standing in the starting blocks or all the COVID testing requirements?
Cami (16:07): I try not to think about being scared or anything. I think everything is right, we are all vaccinated, and I'm not scared of the virus anymore, because I know how to take care of myself. I need to be focused and not to go against myself. Like my mind is the only one that can loin me. So I have to be focused on motivating me.
Pina (16:34): Okay, what's next for you after Tokyo, will you continue competing at such a high level and set your sights on Paris in 2024? Or will you start to think about transitioning into the next chapter of your life?
Cami (16:51): I think at least one more year because we have the South American Games here in Asunción, Paraguay. So I'm committed to that. I can't say if I'm going to retire soon or not, I'm excited because I think this is a new chapter because I'm a heptathlete. And for after the Olympics, I will start being a hurdler. I'm a rethinking. I already have ideas. I already have a project that I already, you know, more than what I had for GSMP. I have more ideas now have more people and I want to be a coach and I want to open a track and field club. And I think after the Olympics it's going to be is going to be easier for me to, you know, find more partners to support that idea. And I think it'll start doing that since I'm not going to be too busy with a heptathlon and I'll be doing one event. I think I'm going to have more time to focus on that.
Pina (17:48): What's next, will you start to think about how you can leverage your platform as an Olympian to work on your GSMP action plan again, empowering the next generation of girls in Paraguay through sports.
Cami (18:03): The Next Panteritas, Yeah that’s the name of my project. I think this platform about being an Olympian, it's going to explode after the Olympics. So that's what I'm going to start telling everyone what is my idea. And I think a lot of other people are going to join me with that.
Pina (18:27): Cami, you need to know that your entire GSMP family will be cheering for you. We love you and we are so proud of you. Please enjoy every moment. And remember you having an army of sisters and brothers that believe in you, respect you, that want the best for you. When you step into the second blocks, we'll be right there with you and reminding you that you are indeed The Guarani Panther, our strong sister. Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, now go chase the goal and keep making us proud.
Cami (19:04): Oh, thank you so much. That's so exciting and it makes me more emotional because I know that I'm not going by myself there, that a lot of people send me, helped me get there. And a lot of people are enjoying that with me.
Pina (19:20): Yeah. Such a big family. And we also like to thank our audience for tuning into this special edition of the Strong Women Better World Podcast Series. Until next time, remember when women are strong, the world is a better place for everyone.