Virginia Tech alumna Irena Gillarova has traveled all over the world.
Just in the past year, she has 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 her current location is Tokyo, where she is representing the Czech Republic and the Hokies in the women’s javelin throw in the Olympics. She begins her quest for an Olympic medal Monday.
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, 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 a degree in international relations, Gillarova returned to the Czech Republic. She continued training, with the Olympics with 2020 as the target. She also began work toward a master’s degree in international relations at a university there in her home country.
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,” Gillarova said. “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 journalists. It just happened.”