Former Filipino Olympian: ‘It was worth it’

Michi Ferreol
A 2004 Filipino Olympian recalls the grueling journey to the Athens Games and the experience of competing in the world's biggest sports stage

POST OLYMPICS. Timmy Chua competed in the Southeast Asian Games 2005. Courtesy of the SEA Games Media.

MANILA, Philippines – Before Raphael Matthew “Timmy” Chua dives into the pool during a swim meet, he visualizes speeding through the water like a bullet.

He anticipates everything from the sound of the crowd’s cheers to the familiar smell of chlorine to the touch of the tiles on the pool floor. Three times he whispers to himself: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

Then, he is ready. He sees nothing and no one but victory.

“I got this trick from a Kevin Costner movie,” Chua said, laughing. “I ‘clear the mechanism.’ I shut everything down. It’s just me and my lane.”

In his 12 years of competitive swimming until his retirement in 2005, Chua represented the Philippines in several international competitions, most notably the Asian Games in 2002 and the World Swimming Championships in 2003.

Though he failed to place in either of these tournaments, Chua nabbed the bronze medal in the 2003 and 2005 SEA Games for the men’s 100-meter breaststroke event.

At the age of 21, Chua earned the ultimate honor of representing his home country in the 2004 Olympics at Athens.

Born for the water

In 1993, at 11 years old, he and his two older brothers decided to join the swimming team at the Philippine Columbian Association Sports Club. As the youngest child among four, Chua remembered always having to catch up with his stronger, more experienced siblings.

“At first, they were faster than me,” Chua recalled. “I had to swim only every alternate lap when we trained together because I was too slow and couldn’t keep up. But eventually, I beat my brothers.”

With ten sessions of training over six days a week, Chua was pushed to improve and to prioritize swimming.

He was instructed not to play other sports like basketball or tennis out of fear that he would get hurt. Even traditional Filipino games like tumbang preso or sarangola, which Chua says he loved to play, were not allowed.

“After school, my classmates would play billiards at Recto or watch a movie, but I had to stop that,” he said, revisiting his days at San Beda High School in Mendiola. “I really sacrificed a lot of things for swimming when I was growing up. But it was worth it.”

Road to the top

With his parents, friends and coaches supporting him, Chua said that it was mostly his personal drive that pushed him to train harder and get better.

In 1995, when he was 13 years old, Chua attended a swimming camp headed by American coach Mike Cody.

Cody had the kids write three goals that they would aim to have accomplished in the short, mid, and long-term. Chua’s three goals were no joke—the first was to win a gold medal at the SEA Games, then to make it to a finals at the Asian Games, and finally, place in the top 16 at the Olympics.

“I think I only got one of these goals—I got to the finals of the Asian Games,” Chua said. “But I think it was a good dream to always have in my head.”

CHAMPION SWIMMER. Timmy Chua represented the country in the 2005 Southeast Asian Games. Courtesy of Timmy Chua.

Chua’s specialty is the breaststroke, for which he has perfected the kick. Before a meet, he quickly learned to practice a series of routine stretches. He said that of the three qualities he was told all swimmers need to have—physical, mental, and technical—his advantage always lay in being mentally strong.

Of the several coaches that helped him grow, including Philippine swimmer Angelo Lozada, Chua said he owes a lot to Ryuzo Ishikawa, a Japanese trainer who was his longest coach and mentor.

Chua said he may not have tried to qualify for the Olympics without Ishikawa’s encouragement.

Two months before the 2004 Olympics, he swam poorly in a trial competition in Malaysia where a qualifying time would have landed him a spot on the Philippine team. At that time, Chua was about ready to give up.

“That killed the dream for me and I thought it was over,” he said. “But [Coach Ishikawa] convinced me to try again at another trial competition in Hong Kong. Without him, I may never have gotten to the Olympics.”

Controversial Olympian

Chua qualified for the Athens Games with a time of 1:04.93 in the 100-meter breaststroke event at the Hong Kong Long Course Championships just weeks before the Olympics were scheduled to begin.

But the Philippine Amateur Swimming Association (PASA) claimed that Chua’s attendance at the competition was unauthorized and denied his eligibility for the Olympic team. Though Chua admittedly competed in Hong Kong without PASA’s knowledge, his qualifying time should have secured him a spot at the Games.

“Parents of other swimmers had discovered another qualifying competition that PASA did not authorize, so I chose not to seek permission,” Chua explained. “I went with them because they believed in me, but I didn’t tell PASA because the other kids wouldn’t have the chance to compete either. I was caught in the middle of everything.”

LIVING THE DREAM. At the Olympics Village in Athens, Greece with fellow Filipino athletes. Courtesy of Timmy Chua.

After a few days of uncertainty over his Olympic bid, PASA and the Philippine Sports Commission finally recognized Chua as an Olympian when he openly apologized for failing to inform officials of the competition at Hong Kong. Chua said that all he wanted to was to swim at the Olympics.

“Some athletes didn’t agree with what I had to do,” he said. “Imagine: you train your whole life, then you qualify for the Olympics and have to apologize for it? But at that time, my goal was just to go to the Olympics, so I had to do it.”

Chua said that since this little roadblock, tensions have smoothened between him and PASA, now called Philippine Swimming Inc.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing was that all of us had a chance to qualify,” he said. “Everyone understood. It was everything for swimming and the country.”

The Olympic dream

Chua was aware of the glitz and glam of the Olympics when he stepped off the plane at Athens in August of 2004. But according to him, he tried not to think about anything else but the fact that he was there to compete.

“Some great swimmers like Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps were there, and even some great athletes from other sports like Yao Ming and Allen Iverson,” he said. “They’re legends, but it felt that I was like them. We were all there to compete and represent our countries. I was happy and proud. I wanted to do well.”

He mentioned that some of the perks of being an Olympic athlete included a dining hall with every possible type of food available, an entertainment room with foosball and wi-fi, and a well-furnished house in the Olympic village where your entire team gets to stay.

Chua said that he was able to get to know his fellow Filipino athletes well, most especially swimmers Miguel Mendoza, Miguel Molina, JB Walsh and Jackie Pangilinan. He said that because of the great pressure that came with representing the Philippines, the team’s bonding was accelerated.

BEST MEMORY. Timmy Chua says his favorite Olympic memory was the opening ceremonies. Courtesy of Timmy Chua.

When asked what memory jumps out at him from his entire time in the Olympics, Chua said that swimming in the majestic Olympic pool and seeing the crowd in the stands are what pop into his mind. Also fresh in his mind is the image of the Olympic stadium packed with people during the opening ceremonies.

Chua said he was holding a video camera the entire time, moving it to the beat of the DJ Tiesto jam that was blasting on the speakers.

Despite these great experiences, Chua still shakes his head when he is reminded of his performance in the actual Olympic swimming competition. He clocked in a time of 1:06.37, which he said was more than a second slower than his personal best.

“The pressure was really heavy,” he said. “Though we honestly didn’t think that we could medal, we still wanted to swim well.”

Always a swimmer

Chua retired from competitive swimming in 2005 when he made the decision to finish his engineering course at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

“I don’t think I reached my peak,” Chua said. “At the 2005 SEA Games, I was still improving. But of course, I had to make a choice between swimming and schooling. If not, they would have kicked me out of college for overstaying!”

Today, eight years after his Olympic stint, Chua is a Technical Sales and Service Manager for LaFarge, a multinational French company that handles cement. He is also a part of the Philippine Olympic Committee Board.

It is clear, however, that even after all this time, Chua still has a love for the water. In addition to working, he coaches at UP, whose women’s team boasts of three straight championships in the UAAP. He and a couple of fellow swimmers also started a summer program for beginners called “Learn to Swim.” In his spare time, Chua said his new interest is surfing.

BORN FOR THE WATER. After the Olympics, Timmy Chua has returned to the water as a surfer. Courtesy of Carlo Sampan.

With the heart of a Philippine athlete still beating strongly, Chua said he wants to help encourage young athletes and build the Philippines’ swimming program.

“It’s weird when you stop swimming, especially after you’ve been to the Olympics. You don’t know where to put the passion,” he said. “I just want to encourage kids. Doing sports really teaches you something different. Maybe after a little bit more time, I’ll be able to do more.”

For now, he has expressed that passion to the two Philippine swimmers going to the Olympics this year: 18-year-old Jessie Khing Lacuna and 19-year-old Jasmine Alkhaldi.

Chua used to train with Jasmine back when she was a child and once competed with Lacuna’s brothers in the UAAP.

“I hope they won’t get distracted,” he said about the country’s bets. “I hope they focus, swim all out for the country, and, of course, have fun and make new friends!”-