Photo by Naveen Ganglani/Rappler
LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines – The Albay Sports and Tourism Complex swimming pool was rowdy on Tuesday morning, April 12. It was the first day of meets for the 2016 Palarong Pambansa, and, naturally, athletes crowded the area.
Each face fighting the blistering rays of the summer sun showed a different emotion: some excited, some scared, some anxious, some indistinguishable.
In the party of kids stretching in preparation for action, coaches barking last-minute orders, and fans shouting cheers as they watched the intensifying action in the water, a 14-year-old athlete was surrounded by guests wearing shirts of navy blue-and-gold and navy blue-and-white.
The teen athlete's private coach, who accompanied her from Mindanao, posed and smiled for the camera about to take their group picture with the guests.
As the gadget made a sound to signify a photograph being taken, Honey Maye Escarez finally flashed a smile, then again became reserved. Maybe she was just being kind. Maybe she liked smiling for photos.
Or maybe it had something to do with the white shirt she was holding up with the letters "NU" plastered on the middle.
Maybe she finally realized her dream coming to life right in front of her.
Escarez is in her second Palarong Pambansa appearance after finishing with a bronze medal last year. A swimmer from Agusan del Sur in the Caraga Region, she only started the sport two years ago, but not competitively at first.
"Ewan ko, nahilig ko lang talaga lumangoy," she told Rappler in a matter-of-fact way, as if the decision was really a simple one.
(I don't know why. I just really liked to swim.)
Her private coach, Ivy Bastillada Iligan, shared that Escarez joined her program "Learn to Swim," and quickly mastered the fundamentals of the sport.
Soon enough, it was clear that Escarez had God-given talents which would be honed in a competitive environment. Her long limbs made her a powerful swimmer, and the will she had enabled her to come away victorious more often than not.
Getting to compete, however, was not that easy. Support from schools in their region was scarce.
"Lahat ng mga school principal, pinuntahan ko talaga, ayaw pa pumayag," said Iligan, shaking her head. “Mahirap sa amin ang mga private schools. Hindi sila sumusuporta sa amin sa mga sports. Mostly sa kanila academic."
(All of the school principals, I approached them. They didn't want to agree. Private schools are hard to deal with for us. It's hard to get support for sports. Most of the schools are focused on academics.)
Iligan found a way to have Escarez join friendlies. Not long after, she had racked up 6 gold medals in different swimming contests. Then came the bronze she won in last year's Palaro.
"Sabi niya may potential daw ako, kaya sumali ako sa regionals. Nanalo naman ako, kaya nasali ako sa Palaro," said Escarez.
(My coach said I have potential, so I joined the regionals. I won, so I was able to join Palaro.)
After that, schools in Manila came calling.
Ask Escarez whether she's independent, and not a moment of hesitation will go by before she nods her head in confidence. After all, she has been away from her parents for most of her life.
The only child of the family, Escarez grew up with her grandparents. Her father, an air traffic controller, has been stationed in Bahrain, where her mother works as well. It's been that way since after her first birthday.
That's not to say she doesn't frequently talk to them or they don't come to visit. Both are in town whenever Escarez has a competition, and her mom does visit every 3 months.
It's still not the same, of course, as coming home to your folks every day – especially when so much time is devoted to training as an athlete.
"Sasabihin ko lang sa sarili ko na okay lang 'to, kaya ko 'to, kasi ako naman kasi ang nagsimula nito," she said.
(I just tell myself that this is okay, I can do it, because I started this.)
At home, she has 9 pets – a mix of dogs, cats, and fish. One of them is named King. The other one, Princess. Another one, Prince. Kimmy, too. The list goes on. Her love for animals goes deep. Not long ago, a dog of hers died due to sickness. They didn’t know any doctor who could cure it. The painful experience, still fresh in her mind, is the reason why one of her goals is to become a veterinarian one day.
That dream is one she could fulfill after she studies in Manila – something she's earned a ticket to thanks to the time she devotes in the pool.
"'Pag lumalangoy ako, nare-remember ko ang mga hard training namin. Kasi every time nare-remember ko 'yun, parang nade-determined ako na gawin ko talaga ang best ko. Kasi nagpakamatay ako sa training," Escarez said.
(Whenever I swim, I remember all the hard training we do. Because every time I remember that, I become determined to do my best. I practically kill myself in training.)
Ready for Manila
After her Palaro stint last year, De La Salle Santiago Zobel School, Ateneo de Davao University, and the University of Santo Tomas High School offered scholarships to Escarez.
But fear of unfamiliarity in the Philippines' capital drove her away – at least momentarily.
Now, she says she's ready. Her coach believes it, too. "Mukha (Looks like it)," was what Iligan said when asked if Escarez is headed for Nazareth School of National University – NU's juniors team in the UAAP.
"Maganda kasi din offer nila," an excited Escarez said. "Air-conditioned dormitory, monthly allowance, tapos free na siya na bags, uniforms. High standards daw ang coach nila."
(Their offer is nice. Air-conditioned dormitory, monthly allowance, then free bags and uniforms. They said their coach has high standards.)
It sounds like she's already punched her ticket.
"'Pag papayag daddy ko (If my dad allows it)," the prized swimmer clarified. After all, parents know best.
One more major draw
If Escarez does go to Manila, one of her parents will join her. And that thought, the prospect of coming home to a mother welcoming her with open arms, is what she's most excited about.
"Gusto ko na kasi 'yung mommy ko mag-stay na talaga tapos kami nang dalawa, magsama na kami," Escarez said. "Kasi 'pag nasa Manila na kami, hindi na siya pupuntang abroad, ganon."
(I really want my mom to stay here in the country, so it'll be the two of us together. If we're already in Manila, she'll no longer go abroad.)
If things go according to plan, Escarez would be off to the Nazareth School of NU, where she would train in 50-meter pools instead of the 25-meter ones back at home, continue to master butterfly strokes and backstrokes, swim faster in 100-meter and 200-meter meets, and make an instant impact in the UAAP.
And even if things don't go according to plan – there's no indication they won't – at least she'll have her mother waiting for her daily, which is as priceless as it can be. – Rappler.com
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