PH Army Dragon Boat team overcomes funding issues to win gold in Italy

Ryan Songalia
PH Army Dragon Boat team overcomes funding issues to win gold in Italy
They didn't receive their flight tickets until 2 days before their departure, but the team showed up in a big way to win two golds at the IDBF Club Crews World Championships

They almost didn’t make it to Italy. 

With just two days before they’d have to fly out to the 9th International Dragon Boat Federation Club Crews World Championships, the Philippine Army’s 18 man Dragon Boat crew had no plane tickets to the races they qualified for. 

The situation became so dire that Lt. Col Harold Cabunoc, president of the Army paddlers, was prepared to cancel the trip if they didn’t receive the remaining balance of the P2M the team needed for expenses. 

Intermed Philippines had helped out, sponsoring half of what was needed while financing from the Armed Forces of the Philippines and friends of the paddlers trickled in. They even sold shirts to raise funds.

With the sand running out of the team’s hour glass, the owner of the travel agency Dr. Rowie Gabiola, herself a paddler, extended a life line to the team by allowing them to settle the balance after they returned. 

“She gladly allowed me to pay it later because she knows that we are a winning team which is awaited by the other competitors,” said Lt. Col. Cabunoc. 

The team flew out on August 31 for the races which began on September 3, and the team wouldn’t disappoint. 

Of the three events they competed in – 200 meters Premier Open, 500 meters Premier Open and 2 kilometers – the Philippine champions brought home gold in two of the events, outlasting the German runner-ups to set competition records in the 200m (47.85 seconds) and finally the 500m (2:06.76) on Sunday, September 7 in Ravenna, Italy. 

The Philippine Army team fell to seventh in the 2 kilometer race after a collision with Team Netherlands in their opening event. 

I am very proud to tell the whole world that the Army has world-class dragon boat athletes in its ranks. They all have hearts of a champion and attitude of a warrior. We just need to support and mentor them,” said Lt. Col. Cabunoc. 

Team co-manager Jobe Nkemakolam, who previously gained fame after winning a UAAP championship with the Ateneo de Manila University basketball team in 2008, said the will of the paddlers was greater than any other competitors he’s seen. 

The Philippine Army team (with Cabunoc at center and Nkemakolam to the right) celebrating after winning the 200m event. Photo from Facebook

“I have never seen athletes this dedicated to winning,” said Nkemakolam, who co-manages the team with Col. Rudy Illeto. “Against all odds without expecting anything in return. This is the modern ‘band of paddlers.’”

The team arrived in Italy with just their oars and some canned food to keep them nourished. Cabunoc says they survived on a hunter-gatherer subsistence, collecting mussels from Porto Corsini and vegetables from a garden owned by a 45-year-old Tarlac native named Noly Galzote, who was one of the many Filipinos in the area who helped keep the team going during hard times.

Cabunoc says that Galzote had waited for the team at the train station without knowing their time of arrival and offered them transportation. Philippine nationals from as far as Rome and Milan had traveled 3-4 hours by car to meet them, bringing Filipino food to feed the team.

Asked if he felt the country’s international success in dragon boating would help attract funding and sponsorships, Cabunoc was coy. “It depends. If sponsors look at the ‘pogi’ factor, and not superb accomplishment, we might not get enough sponsors.”

This wasn’t the first time the Philippine Army team has won medals abroad. In 2011, they won 5 golds and 2 silvers in the World Nations Championships in Tampa Bay, Fla. Seven of the paddlers on the 2014 team were veterans of that competition.

The success of the Philippine Army comes on the heels of the success of another Pinoy paddling crew which took home 5 golds, 3 silvers and 3 bronzes at the International Canoe Federation Dragon Boat World Championships in Poznan, Poland a week ago. –

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