The best young athletes of Leyte were cheerfully training for their first real battles on the Philippines’ biggest sporting stage. At the Leyte Sports Academy in Tacloban, they nursed the hope that even only a few of them would someday be called to compete for flag and country and tread the trail blazed by such sporting stars as Manny Pacquiao, Lydia de Vega and Onyok Velasco.
Until November 2013, when Supertyphoon “Yolanda” wiped out their training facilities and inundated their dreams. Left with no roof over their heads and going hungry like the tens of thousands of other Leyte folk, the youngsters thought they had reached the finish line even before they could show their worth. But salvation came soon enough. A rescue team sent by the government’s Philippine Sports Commission managed to reach the athletes. They were subsequently taken to Manila so they could resume training for the annual Palarong Pambansa, the granddaddy of all national games in the country.
Like other young athletic talents from 17 regions nationwide, the determined “Team Yolanda” from Leyte saw action last May 4-10 in Santa Cruz, Laguna, in the process drawing the attention of scouts ready with offers of scholarships, cash bonuses and training programs.
Borrowed battle cries reminiscent of Napoleon Bonaparte’s “Victory belongs to the most persevering” echoed across the playing arenas of the Laguna Sports Complex. When the curtains fell on the Palaro, certain young athletes were acknowledged for their bursts of brilliance.
In the centerpiece Olympic events of track and field and swimming, 18 records were broken, many older than the athletes who had shattered them. Trackster Jomar Udtohan, 17, of Sampaloc, Manila, did not win a gold medal in his three previous Palaro stints, but he made the most of his last tour of duty for the National Capital Region by capturing five golds, each one earned in record time. In swimming, first-timer Imee Joyce Saavedra, 12, rewrote three Palaro records and won four golds in all—a harvest topped only by her NCR teammate Maurice Sacho Ilustre, who bagged seven.
What makes the Palaro, a grassroots national competition among high school and grade school athletes, a powerful magnet for so many Lydia de Vega wannabes, as well as a sure-fire platform for national sporting distinction? One answer lies in the seemingly unending dearth of fresh Filipino sports heroes. The likes of Pacquiao, Efren “Bata” Reyes, Paeng Nepomuceno et al. come only once in a blue moon, after all. Then there’s the more practical lure of a better future after an athlete’s career in the playing arena is over.
Throughout the sporting week in Laguna, athletics directors from colleges and universities in Metro Manila observed the young athletes with an eye toward recruitment. Udtohan, for one, has admitted to being swamped with offers of scholarships and handsome allowances. Without a doubt, he and other Palaro standouts will soon be seeing action in the UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) or the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). Many will pursue other careers after college, but a good number will persevere to make the national team.
The Palaro has supplied a modest number of fresh talents to the national team, including trackster Patrick Unso, son of former 110m hurdles king Renato Unso, and the son and namesake of former Asian 400m marvel Isidro del Prado. Both were athletic scholars. The Palaro has also produced Olympic swimmers Jasmine Al-Khaldi of NCR and Jhessie King Lacuna of Bulacan.
This year’s Palaro also tugged at the heart. Still smarting from Yolanda-related injuries and bereft of training gear and other precious little symbols of dignity as athletes, the 30 youngsters from Leyte shone for their beloved province. Sprinter Leah Joan Creer, whose house in Palo town had crumbled in the storm surge, won the gold in the 200m and 400m runs and then anchored the Eastern Visayas quartet to a heart-rending triumph in the 4×400 relay. After receiving official confirmation of their victory, the girls made an emotional victory lap holding aloft a Team Yolanda tarp as the crowd inside the stadium lavished them with applause.
A tradition now 57 years old, the Palaro remains a beacon of hope for young athletes from underprivileged families, a stepping stone to college and beyond, and a gold mine for the national pool of international campaigners.
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