HPU’s Fast New ‘Irish Hawaiian’

Fiona McKenna. Photo from HPU Sports Information

Fiona McKenna. Photo from HPU Sports Information

Her name sounds every bit as Irish as she is. Say it out loud with an Irish brogue: Fiona McKenna. Now, imagine the green hills of Ireland, and country roads, and friendly pubs. That’s where she grew up.

“I come from a small town about an hour outside of Dublin,” McKenna says in her thick Irish accent. “When I was growing up, my parents would drop us off and then head to the pub. After awhile, it seemed everyone was at the pubs – men, women, families, everybody. Ireland is a lot like Hawaii; friendly, laid-back people, very relaxed.”

Soon, McKenna was running on those country roads, from family events to school to the gatherings at the pubs, and she was running well. By her late teens, she was running long-distance races for the Irish junior national team. And then she made the decision to come to America to run.

“She went to a junior college in Iowa,” says Hawaii Pacific University cross country coach Jorge Medina. “Iowa Central (in Fort Dodge) has a great reputation and has won several national championships.”

McKenna was a junior college All-American and won the national junior college Steeplechase and 5K national titles. But it was very cold in the Midwest.

“Iowa is nice, but Iowa in the winter months is not ideal,” she says.

She wanted a warmer place to run. So, she found the Hawaiian Islands on the map and she started sending inquiries.

“I got an email from her in December, I think it was,” Medina says. “I looked up her times and realized that she could probably go to any DI school anywhere in the country.”

It helped that McKenna’s teammate at Iowa Central, Jamie Neal, already had decided on HPU. Soon, Fiona followed. As a junior biology major, she fell in love with her new surroundings on daily practice runs around Diamond Head.

“It’s funny; her teammates couldn’t quite understand her at first. They’d have to ask her something twice because of her Irish accent,” Coach Medina recalls. “Soon, her American friends learned to adjust. She’s such a sweet girl, so humble, with a wonderful personality.”

And when McKenna put on her HPU cross country uniform this fall, she made heads spin. She won race after race, and several conference and regional weekly awards. Earlier this month, McKenna and her teammates headed to the PacWest Championships just north of San Francisco.

Perhaps it was the beautiful setting in the hills of Marin County outside Novato, or maybe it was the country roads she ran on, but McKenna just blew away the competition. She took the lead in the first couple of miles of the 5,000-meter course, and when she turned for home after passing Stafford Lake, she was nearly a half-minute in front of her nearest competitor. She won the title by a 27-second margin over the first runner-up with a blazing time of 17 minutes, 16 seconds.

“It was a lot of fun; a great course, very beautiful,” she tells me a few minutes after crossing the finish line.

She’s smiling with her team-mates, congratulating them on finishing a close second in the team race. “She helped us improve from seventh overall to second this year,” says Coach Medina.

For her efforts, McKenna was named National Cross Country Runner of the Week and PacWest Runner of the Year. Her next goal is trying to reach Nationals.

Call her the Irish Hawaiian, if you will. Say it with your best brogue. Say it with a smile: Fiona McKenna, chapion.