This is a post that took over a decade for me to write. Blogging has not yet gained traction, at least as far as I knew, in 2002. And most of my time was taken up by daily training that I rarely use a computer unless for emails or writing letters and reports. With no smartphones and social networking sites, much of what happened were mostly imprinted in my memory and captured by a few photographs. I managed to keep some good images in my head along with several unforgettable experiences that came with them. So here’s an attempt to recall some of the reasons why the 5th Asian Dragon Boat Championships in Aioi in 2002 was a most memorable time for me:
1. The long road to Aioi
Funding was scarce during my time as a member of the women’s national dragon boat team. Priority for the budget always leaned on the men’s team’s favor. After all, they were formed in 1991, which was well ahead of the women’s team’s inception in 1997, and had several achievements already under their collective belt. So the men’s team was always first on the line-up for international competitions. As for us ladies, we were first on the chopping block if a team has to be disbanded for budgetary reasons.
When I heard about the invitation for the 5th Asian Dragon Boat Championships in Aioi, I was so excited because I’ve always wanted to compete in Japan. I lobbied for a women’s crew, at least for the mixed team event, to be included despite knowing that it was likely to be rejected. But no amount of pleading could budge our head coach then.
After repeated rejections, part of me wanted to just let what seemed to be a lost cause go. But I think a bigger part of me just did not want to give up that easily. BECAUSE JAPAN. And Asian Championships. So it was probably out of desperation that I did something that was not usually done by the national team before. I sent feelers by email to some club team paddlers I knew. To my surprise, I got positive responses from some who seemed quite interested to be part of it.
Thirteen women, including myself, eventually came together. Four of us from the national team and the rest from three other club teams. But forming the group was just the first challenge hurdled. I talked to our head coach about my plan to have us women participate in the mixed event out of our own expense. Since food and accommodation will be shouldered by the organizers, we just had to shell out for our airfares. And everyone was willing to do so. I remember our head coach being skeptical about it. It took a while before he relented albeit on the condition that we had to do everything, including the training, on our own. It was a compromise I had to make. After all, I understood our coach’s misgivings. The national team has a strictly regulated training program. He was not taking any chances of having non-national team athletes disrupt the men’s team’s training and momentum. More so since there were less than two months left before the competition.
So we trained on our own. But there were days that we were lent a trainer, especially nearing the competition dates. It was a great time despite the hardships. Mainly because the team that we formed was a bunch of the most awesome people I have met. With the exception of us four full-time athletes, the other ladies were busy career women, one was a businesswoman, and one a university student. But they tried their best not to miss training even on days that typhoons made it impossible for us to venture out on the water. And majority pulled through together during the many crunch times. I remember one day we huddled at the parking lot after training discussing how we can pool money for the airfare of two of our athletes. Somehow we managed to get the plane tickets by lending or contributing whatever amount we can. I also remember days we were busy with meetings, uniform designs, etc. while the men’s team just focused on their training. We were on our own and each of us gave each other strength at that time.
The day of our departure, the men’s team left on a PAL flight to Kansai airport a few hours ahead of us. The 13 of us women traveled via Thai Airways. For the superstitious, the number 13 doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. But I clearly recall thinking when we were at the airport that I felt that luck was on our side. And judging from what happened since we came together, it was not a mistake to think so. I had since considered 13 as a lucky number.
Grandpa was the owner of the small inn where our team stayed. I think each country was assigned to different inns across the city. Grandpa told us that he volunteered to take us in as soon as he heard that there was a team coming from the Philippines. He said he had been to the country before and had some really good memories about it. He immediately struck me as a kind and sincere person. While it was natural for hotel owners and innkeepers to be hospitable to their guests, he seemed genuinely happy to have us there. He went out of his way to make us feel comfortable. And he was always present during meals, bringing in the food, sitting and sharing stories with us. It went on like that throughout our stay. He also took the time to watch our competitions with some of his family members.
3. The Inn
It was small hotel with modern amenities blending with traditional comforts. It was the type of inn where you have to change to indoor slippers and leave shoes in designated racks. I was happy to be in a traditional room with tatami mats. There were also beautiful yukatas for us to use. The bathroom was compact. I was amazed how such as small space could hold a toilet, a bathtub, shower, and a sink. It was the smallest but efficiently designed bathroom I have seen thus far.
4. The people, especially the volunteers
I have so many good memories of the people I met there. The organizers, the marching band who played the Doraemon theme song at the opening ceremonies, the spectators, and the volunteers were kind, efficient, professional, and generally fun to be around. Our liaison officers really took good care of us. Community elders likewise volunteered to keep the venue clean. I remember them taking the segregation of trash seriously. They also made sure that participants throw waste in their respective assigned containers.
5. The city
Quiet and charming is how I remembered most of the places I had been to in the city. It definitely had none of the noise and hectic pace of heavily populated Manila. I remember being amazed by how silently cars glide along clean and traffic-free roads. There was one time we were sitting at a bus stop near the inn and a car quietly came to a stop in front of us as the traffic light turned red. It was the only car we saw at that time in that stretch of road. It just stayed there, the driver patiently waiting for the light to go green. It was noteworthy for us who were used to some Manila drivers who beat traffic lights even on busy roads. It was the hallmark of the discipline Japan’s so famous for among other things.
6. The food
The food served at the inn and the packed meals at the venue were mostly simple fares. But they were immensely satisfying. And then there were the shops that sell whatever food we fancied during our rest times. The grocery was a source of constant fascination with the variety of treats, some of which we tasted and thoroughly enjoyed.
7. The experiences
A lot of good things happened to us in that trip. Maybe it helped that we did not have much expectation to begin with. I think the women’s crew really just wanted to compete in Japan as best as we could given the circumstances. Since we did not spend much time training with the men’s team who were busy with their own training, we were really surprised and happy when we bagged our first silver in the mixed team event. I think it was then that our head coach began to acknowledge that bringing us along may not have been a bad thing after all. We ended up snagging 6 silver medals, 3 for the men’s and 3 for the mixed team events. And we did it by giving the China team a good fight with only a few precious milliseconds of difference in most of the races.
It was a happy time with people I grew to respect even more as our training progressed. After we came home from Japan, I took a chance and asked our association president if we could reimburse the airfare we spent for the trip since we did manage to place second in all three of our events. The president supported us by signing the request and the Philippine Sports Commission approved it. So we eventually got our money back and paid back those who lent extra for our two teammates.
There were many lessons I learned from that experience. But perhaps one that really stuck with me was to never give up on a goal that truly matters to you. I dreamed of going to Japan and to participate in an Asian Championship. Despite the odds not being on the women’s team’s favor, it turned out way better than we expected. Because we believed. And we made it happen.