The man who walked underwater

Ariel Ian Clarito
The man who walked underwater
'The sad reality in the Philippines is that we never really take care of our sports legends'




I first met Amman Jalmaani 34 years ago when I was 8 years old. Back then, my family lived inside an Armed Forces camp in Zamboanga City. I was tagging along with my mother to her office which was a 10-minute walk from where we lived.  

Right behind us, a tall, muscular man appeared and randomly struck up a conversation with my mother. “Maglalaro po ako ng volleyball, ma’am (I’m going to play volleyball, ma’am),” he casually said, referring to the annual summer sportsfest among military personnel.

Hindi nila ako pinayagang sumali sa basketball kasi nag-dudunk daw ako (They didn’t let me join basketball games because I can dunk).”  

I don’t exactly remember my mother’s response. All I recall was seeing up close the man the young kids in our neighborhood called “Abdul Jabbar.” He was, at that stage in my life, the biggest man I had ever seen. 

The following year, my parents enrolled me in a summer swimming class for children of members of the AFP. Imagine my surprise when I saw that our instructor was going to be “Abdul Jabbar.” 

He opened our first class with some fancy swim moves which left all of us kids wide-eyed and awestruck. He showed us the basics of freestyle, breaststroke, and butterfly. After that brief demonstration, he began to just show off. He floated upright in a cross-legged position and appeared like he was sitting almost above the water, all the while talking to us about how swimming builds discipline and character. 

He waded forward and backward without moving his legs, then in one swift maneuver, dove underwater and started walking on the floor at the bottom of the 10-foot deep pool. I was enraptured. All the kids in my class were, too. It felt like we were witnessing some form of sorcery. 

Before we plunged into the pool, I walked towards a bulletin board which had caught my attention as I arrived at the venue of our swim class. It was filled with old newspaper clippings, some almost faded, of sport stories from as far back as the 1960s.  

Most of the articles came with photos of a beaming, well-built young man with medals hanging around his neck. There was an article of Jalmaani winning 2 bronze medals in the 1966 Asian Games. Another story reported him winning 3 silver medals in the 1970 Asian Games.  

A couple of pieces detailed his participation in the Olympics. I had already been collecting copies of the Sports Weekly Magazine beginning in 1985 so I could say that I was already quite a sports fan that time.  

After reading the stories about Jalmaani, there was a faint realization in my young mind that I was in the presence of athletic greatness, although I could not quite grasp at that point the significance of the achievements of my swimming instructor.  

Jalmaani developed a soft spot for me during the course of that summer in 1987. Maybe it was just his way of keeping at bay a hyperactive, pesky 9-year-old who peppered him with so many questions about his swimming career.  

Or maybe he took pity on me after I almost drowned in an exercise he made us do where we had to swim the entire length of the pool, an incident witnessed by all the students in our class, an incident that caused me a great deal of embarrassment. 

Whatever it was, Jalmaani started to spend time with me before and after our daily swim lessons. We were like two old buddies talking, never mind that he was almost 30 years older than me. My memory bank has not retained much of our conversations. But I do recall him telling me how much he admired and respected my father for his integrity, and that he hoped I would grow up to be like my father.  

Days before our summer graduation, I rolled my ankle while I was trying to jump over some plants as my friends and I were playing catch. I was forced to miss two straight swim sessions.  

Jalmaani found out what happened and came over to our apartment to check on me. He brought with him a bottle of ointment. He told my mother he would do hilot (a type of massage) on my swollen ankle. It was my first time to experience a sprained ankle, so I was wincing in pain and holding on to my mother’s arms as Jalmaani ever so gently massaged my ankle.  

He told us that when he was still part of the national team, he had to learn the art of hilot so he could treat himself when he had injuries. The day after, I showed up limping for our class. Jalmaani would not let me join the session. He still applied hilot on my ankle when class that day ended and walked me home after.

We would bump into each other regularly years after that summer swim class, but I never really had any more conversations with Jalmaani after that summer.  

In my adult years, I would ask friends who are sports fans if they knew Amman Jalmaani. Most of them do not. If one looks him up on Google, there is little evidence to suggest he once was the brightest swimming star in the country.  

One would have to do a bit more research to discover that Jalmaani is only one among 3 Filipino swimmers to have qualified and competed in 3 editions of the Olympics and one among 6 to have made the semifinal round.  

He is a national treasure whom the sports world has seemingly confined to obscurity. The sad reality in the Philippines is that we never really take care of our sports legends.  

After they have gone past their utility, they are left on the fringes to be forgotten. He is probably over 70 years old now. But I have not forgotten. I have fond memories of him as a friend who more than 3 decades ago treated me like a son and an equal.  

I just hope that Philippine sports will also learn to remember him as one of the greatest Filipino athletes of all time. –


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