There are downsides to this job. Constantly washing sweaty clothes is one. Having ludicrous zebra style tan lines is another. But there are some positives. Spending a week training and racing in the Philippines was one of these, and for me, the experiences I had there epitomises the benefits of being a pro-athlete: the opportunity to travel, see different places, meet new people, eat weird and wonderful food and best of all (if you’re lucky) get paid for it.
I met some of the Philippine duathlon and triathlon team at the Mekong River ITU race in March, well to be more precise I had danced funky chicken style to ‘its raining men’ (which it wasn’t unfortunately) with the Filipinos and a group of thai lady boys. They were obviously so impressed with my dancing prowess that I was invited to complete at the Subic Bay ITU race in the Philippines on 5 May. Having managed to persuade the boss, I travelled to the race a week early to do some training (read: sightseeing) with the duathlon team, who are based in Clark (a town centred on the old US air force base 70km from Subic Bay). This blog is my long and very rambling account of my week with the duathlon team. I have written a separate (and thankfully much shorter) blogette about the race itself.
The national duathlon team is made up of 4 females and 4 males. They have a head coach (and pro triathlete) – ‘Coach Mark’ – and a manager-cum-assistant coach, the perpetually helpful and happy ‘Coach Melvin’. The local government (CDC) kindly provides a small house for the team, where they stay for all or part of the year and which would be my home for the week. I was sharing with Analiza Dysangco (19 years old and the youngest and newest member of the team), Jefferson Valdez (28, and chef extraordinaire) and August Benedicto (22, resident massage man). All three come from poorer sections of the community, well – poor in a monetary sense, but as I quickly realised millionaires when it came to their generosity, kindness and good humour. All had been spotted at local sports events – Jeff five years ago and August and Analiza more recently – and now train as professional duathletes. Their current focus is on the South East Asian (SEA) Games being held in Thailand in December, as well as other local races such as the Malaysian Powerman series.
The team is sponsored by adidas, who give the athletes shoes and some apparel. A couple of the athletes also have a bike sponsor, although the majority are training and competing on bikes they have either bought or borrowed. Some of them have to work to supplement the income they get through race prize money. August for example, earns 100 pesos (US$2) a day delivering blocks of ice as part of his family’s small business.
In addition to the pro duathlon team, Clark boasts a small triathlon/duathlon club, which has about 20-30 members – mainly male – some of whom competed as age groupers in the Langkawi Iron Man. The athletes do the majority of their bike and run training on the wide roads of Clark Air Force base, which are idyllic compared to the rather more chaotic, polluted and potholed roads that radiate out from the town. Swimming is done in the early morning at the clean and quiet 27m private members club pool, a short 8km cycle ride from the team house.
The creation and development of the pro team owes much to the passion and hard work of a number of individuals, but particularly Coach Melvin; and the wider partnership between TRAP (Triathlon Association of the Philippines), local and national government, the corporate sponsors and the media – all of whom see sport as a vital means of social and economic development. A few years ago Melvin started a local Street Kids Project, with the aim of using art to empower homeless children and give them the opportunity to have fun, meet people and learn new skills. There was a shift from art to sport, and several local level duathlon events were organised. The aim was not only to enable children to take part in sporting events, but also to identify talented (but underprivileged) athletes who had the potential to make a career out of duathlon. Both Analiza and August were identified under this scheme. They are now the Pilipino Under23 duathlon champions.
For them, and their teammates, duathlon offers the best means of earning money to support themselves and their families. Coming from the UK where the family units and the sense of community are being steadily eroded and replaced by materialistic individualism, I was repeatedly struck by the strong family and community bonds that pervade Pilipino life. Any money that the athletes earn is immediately shared with mothers and fathers, siblings and even friends who may need it. In fact for Jeff, Analiza and August the desire to support their family was the number one motivating factor behind their decision to become professional sportspeople.
Living and training with the athletes I was given a unique, albeit brief, insight into their social customs, culture, characteristics and way of life. No more so than when I was invited to the family homes of both Analiza and August. Although both come from underprivileged families, their generosity knew no bounds. I was welcomed with open arms, and fed and watered until I had difficulty getting up from the chair. I was treated to three local culinary specialities: ‘adobo’ – a stew of pork, egg and potatoes in a tomato based sauce, served with the obligatory mountain of white rice; a fish and a vegetable hot-pot, also with the rice mound and a ‘tom yum’ style vegetable and meat soup, with – yes you guessed it – more of the white stuff. On one occasion (given my sweet tooth and having swum 5km and ridden 80km) I couldn’t resist the other offering: a fruit, bean, jelly, evaporated milk, ice and sugar concoction called ‘halo halo’. I think I said ‘hello hello’ to halo halo a few more times than I probably should have!
As I said above though, what struck me even more than the tasty culinary treats was the warmth, good humour and overwhelming generosity of the people I met, from the more well off to those who had little (materialistically at least). It was a humbling experience to sit in a small house, topped with a corrugated iron roof, an outside fire for a stove, (hap)hazardous electrical wiring and hand pumped water, yet be served a sumptuous feast of fish, vegetables, rice and even a litre of coke. I was repeatedly reminded of what a privilege it is for me to be able to do this sport, see these things and learn from, and be inspired by, these types of people and experiences.
As more people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe take up multisport, as the number of local and national competitions escalates and the media, corporate and government interest increases: sport will increasingly give athletes like Analiza, Jeff and August the opportunity to make a living and support their families, in a way that would never have been considered possible 10 years ago. But this is only happening due to hard work and dedication of people like Melvin Fausto and his team, who work long, hard hours to enable these athletes to achieve their goals.
As I said in my first blog, I joined teamTBB because I want to be the best athlete I can be. But I also want to combine this with my passion for helping others, for travelling, for leaning about new cultures and experiencing new things. Sport is allowing me to do this, and hopefully as teamTBB grows we can play our part in ensuring that the children and youth of Asia have the chance to fulfil their potential through triathlon and bike related sports: opening doors for those who need it most.
I want to use this opportunity to pass on my sincere thanks once again to Melvin, Analiza, Jeff, August and the many many others I met whilst in the Philippines. You are an inspiration.