In the school year 1982-83, I was 16 years old, a sophomore in the University of the Philippines (UP) and a varsity volleyball player. That year, my UP team won the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) volleyball championships.
We were on the moon.
Next on our list was the Palarong Pambansa. But first we had to beat the same teams we played against in the UAAP for the chance to represent the National Capitol Region (NCR).
Unfortunately, we lost to Far Eastern University (FEU).
But as it turned out, the FEU team wanted to put up a really strong team and invited three of us from UP – me, Lyra Resurreccion and Patty Inocencio-Ortega, and another player from UST to join their team. Patty reluctantly begged off due to the demands of her vet med classes. But Lyra and I went on to join the NCR selection.
The FEU team trained in the mornings. The UP team trained in the evenings after class. So my UP teammates and I worked out a schedule where we trained with the FEU team 2-3 days of the week in the mornings and the other days, we played with our UP team.
I had never been to the Palaro, but some of my UP teammates were Palaro veterans. I had heard their stories and dreamt of playing one day. This was enough reason for me to take on the extra training load.
Finally, it was time to head to Tacloban City, Leyte. The NCR team was led by no other than Michael Keon, the Gintong Alay head.
‘Starry-eyed’ at Palaro
The NCR team was housed together in a public school. I loved the energy and the thought of living and breathing sports.
Each team was assigned a classroom that would serve as their sleeping quarters. The classrooms were filled with cots with mosquito nets that protected us from mosquito bites so long as your net didn’t have holes.
When I arrived at the Sports Complex, I was as starry-eyed as any first time athlete would be.
On the opening day of the games, they were announcing the names of some known athletes who were participating and one of them was track star Lydia de Vega. I remember running up the bleachers to get a good view of the track when she was about to compete.
She was mesmerizing… she was grace in action.
On our second night, I woke up with a horrible sore throat and a fever which I knew meant I was coming down with a mean case of tonsilitis. For this reason, our coach and Lyra, my UP teammate decided I would be better off staying at a friend’s house so I could rest and possibly recover in time for the games.
When the volleyball games started, I wasn’t fully recovered but insisted that I was well enough to play. I didn’t come this far to miss playing with teams from all over the country in a complex full of other athletes and supporters.
The games were held in the BR Sports Complex. Our first game was in an outdoor court with gravel in the days when beach volleyball did not exist yet.
The whole stadium was filled with people.
We played against a number of teams including three very tough teams, the teams from Regions 6, 7 and 4. Some of the best Philippine National team players were from those regions and were playing on those teams – Thelma Barina, Grace Antigua, Joji Maranga, and the Jao twins from Cebu.
I already knew them as I had trained with them over the summer when I was invited to train and try-out for the national team.
Our team played really well.
I remember the shock on the faces of our opponents when many of my spikes went in and scored points. I was a relatively new face. I was less experienced than most but I was tall, a lefty and had been through serious training under my UP Coach Su Arrastia Rojas.
A lefty is always a team’s secret weapon because there are not that many lefties, so it’s harder to predict our play. We played hard, won some and lost some. In the end, we finished third.
But I felt like a winner after playing my best against the very best.
‘Time of my life’
What is forever etched in my memory is the deafening cheers of our supporters, jumping in the air at sunset, diving in the sand at the height of noon.
I had the time of my life playing against the best of the best in the country, living with my teammates and on one particular night, witnessing a midnight raid as my teammates painted the face of another teammate with nail polish.
To this day, I always ask people going to Leyte to bring me back the two local delicacies I first discovered during the Palarong Pambansa – chocolate moron and binagol.
So that’s what I took home with me — the experience of playing against the best in my sport, meeting amazing athletes in other fields, making new friends, and a lifetime of unforgettable memories. – Rappler.com
Pia Cayetano is a Philippine Senator, mother and triathlete. Follow her on Twitter: @piacayetano