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LEYTE, Philippines – Like most 16-year-olds, Angelica Publico of Leyte has a winsome smile and girlish giggle that she tries to hide when something funny catches her attention.
But unlike most girls her age, Angelica dreams of becoming an Olympic champion. Twice a day, 6 times a week, she hits the cinder paths with her young track teammates to sprint, work on baton passing techniques, and build stamina for future meets.
Angelica is a fine reminder of a young Lydia de Vega, the long-time fastest woman in Asia who seared the tracks with her blinding speed. Angelica has the same long legs suited for track and field and engaging provincial lass innocence. She already won gold in the 400 hurdles at the Batang Pinoy competitions in 2011 and has gotten the attention of Manila-based schools eager for new champions for the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) or the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
“Gusto ko po yung scholarship (I like the scholarship, sir),” she gushes as she imagines pursuing a college degree while honing her athletic skills.
Critics of Philippine sports may dismiss her dream as nothing more than a childish wish. But for her and the other 63 athletes, aged 8 to 16 at the Leyte Sports Academy (LSA), their sports dreams are tangible and can be achieved.
The program at the academy could very well be a model for real grassroots development in Philippine sports. Recent debacles in multi-sports events like the Southeast Asian Games have seen the country lose its grip on its once lofty and revered position as one of the sports powers in Asia. Though still hearty and determined, old and tired Filipino champions were trounced by younger opponents.
Philippine sports needs new heroes and the best place to get them is in the provinces when they are young and coachable. Reversing the downward trend could start in Leyte.
The LSA is housed at the Tacloban sports complex, recently refurbished when the province hosted the 2009 Palarong Pambansa. It has dormitories, classrooms, and a boxing gym where the youngsters live and go to school. They train in the morning, attend classes, and then train some more in the afternoon under the supervision of coaches and trainers, most of whom are former Leyte athletes.
The academy was established in August 2010. Leyte Governor Carlos Jericho Petilla tasked former Philippine Sports Commission executive Dr Lucrecio Calo to further develop sports in the province after the Palaro.
A longtime sports educator and swimming coach, Calo envisioned a training center for 3 medal-rich sports: athletics, boxing, and swimming.
“The Governor asked me why not basketball,” the nimble 76-year-old Calo relates. “I said we would have to have 12 players vying for only one medal. By prioritizing the 3 sports, we can develop more athletes for more events.”
Potential athletes are identified in school and provincial meets and then offered slots at the LSA. “We look for 3 things in athletes: athletic potential, capacity to be disciplined and academic ability,” explains academy executive director Rowil Batan.
Accepted athletes are not dislodged from their grade or year levels. Through mentors from the Department of Education who teach them all the subjects at the academy, they proceed with their classes until they earn an elementary or high school diploma from their original schools.
“Our hope is to train the athletes to shine for the province,” explains Batan. “But our long-term goal is to make them good enough for college athletic scholarships while meeting academic admission requirements.”
Classrooms blend seamlessly with living quarters and training facilities. The LSA is like the Glee TV series or Fame movies with sports, instead of music, as its main fare.
It was actually exam week when we visited, and anxious teeners dealing with science and math problems were everywhere. There would be time for training later in the day but the morning is time for polynomials and scientific formula.
The athletes are fed for free, while maintaining nutrition suited for sports. The boxers, in particular, have to watch what they eat because of the weight categories they fight in. “Mahirap na. Baka tumaba pag kumain nang kumain (It’s hard if the boxers gain too much weight),” explains Dioniso Jabagat, the educator who oversees the boxing program.
Like any teaching institution, the LSA deals with teenage concerns, like homesickness and academic performance. Swimmer Christal Bulio, a 13-year-old high school freshman, missed home after leaving her town of Baybay to join the academy. Through the encouragement of staff mentors, coaches and family visits, Bulio has adjusted to the student-athlete life and has won several 50-meter freestyle events.
There’s flexibility in teaching within the rigid discipline needed for athletic success. Calo relates the story of swimmer Saturnino Ageto, 14, who found the swimming pool rather restricting. Used to swimming in the seas, the boy was allowed to join an open sea swimming competition and won, earning a substantial cash prize to help his family’s fishing livelihood.
Maintaining the dream
The academy is bold enough to envision future champions but there is of course the reality of maintenance costs. The Olympic-sized swimming pool and a well-maintained track oval was from the Palaro hosting. The boxers could use a new heavy bag, though, as it has taken its toll from training. The Amateur Boxing Association of the Philippines donated head protectors and gloves but these, too, will wear out some day.
The provincial government’s budget for the project is also limited, and its future figure is determined after pressing concerns like social services and economic development are first attended to. That’s why Batan is always on the lookout for sponsors and financial help. Private firms have pledged support, but a sports program needs all the backing it can get.
It would be disappointing if the academy is unable to sustain itself because of financial problems and the constant changes in the political landscape where programs are scrapped for other priorities. But for now, the academy carries on, preparing for the next regional meets and the bigger challenge of the Palarong Pambansa.
There hasn’t been a gold rush yet in the regional battles and the national competitions because of keen competition. But the handful of medals won by the academy in the Batang Pinoy meet in Naga in 2011 is an indication that the program is on track and that an organized sports program indeed works.
Not all young athletes will be like Angelica Publico who will push her dream to another level. But having the LSA to give a young dream a chance is worth building throughout a country aching for a new breed of sports heroes. – Rappler.com
Sev Sarmenta is an avid sports lover, a sportscaster, and columnist. He is also the chair of the Ateneo de Manila’s Department of Communication.