I won 3 SEA Games gold medals in karate but fighting in the mat was not the hard part. While training and competing abroad, I was mistaken for a prostitute, worked part time to buy food and lived in one of the most lawless parts of Italy ran by the mafia.
Il primo giorno
The first day
It was an old, run-down three-story building at the far end of an open lot. Walking up the stairs, we saw our new neighbor staring at us. There was no hi or hello, so we flashed our big Filipino smile and waved our hands.
I thought that there were probably not a lot of Asians living in the area. I pushed the door open and it made a sound that you often hear in horror movies before shit starts to happen. It smelled like mold. The walls were bare, old wooden furniture about to break, a kitchen and 3 bedrooms. We had a balcony and lots of natural light so I thought things wouldn’t be that bad.
We were 6 in the team. Two women – Cherli and I – and 4 men – Junel, Bong, Nelson and Bernard. We were taking dibs on our rooms when we heard the doorbell rang. Bernard answered the door.
An old, short, silver-haired Italian man floundered in our apartment. He spoke in Italian and of course we couldn’t understand a single word he uttered. Then he made a sexual gesture with his clasped right hand going up and down and pointed at me and Cherli. He was asking for a handjob and flashed his euros.
Junel shouted, “No! no! no!” That did not work because “Nonno” means grandfather in Italian and he was in that category. I was so furious and started cursing in Tagalog. I wanted to hit the old bloke but we just arrived in the country and I did not want any trouble.
It took about 5 minutes before he felt that he was not welcome and left. We were all baffled and Cherli and I petrified. What is this place? What is this town? How can that old perverted man think that we are in the sexual service business?
Welcome to Castel Volturno, Napoli. It was one of the toughest areas in Italy where prostitution thrived and a place boon for local mobsters. There were more African migrants than Italians in Castel Volturno. The oldest and largest criminal organization in Italy called the Camorra, ran this town. They had close ties with the Nigerian mafia who was in charge of drug and human trafficking. We were living in the cheapest and most dangerous part of Italy. This was our home for the next 6 months.
Angela was our African neighbor who lived one floor below us. She didn’t really explain to us why an old pervert came to our apartment, but we sort of understood the lay of the land when we noticed that men always visited her for an hour or less from the afternoon until late evening.
Yes, she was a prostitute and she wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood. After evening training, we would hang out in the balcony to contemplate on our new world.
There were 3 to 5 girls standing under a lamppost along the road. A car stops and one of the ladies hops in. They drive a few meters to the vacant lot and turn off the engine for 15 to 20 minutes to consume their business transaction.
Each lady could have 2 to 4 customers a night and even more on weekends. We made it a point to be home before dark in order to not be mistaken for prostitutes.
In the morning, we saw condoms popping like mushrooms on the side of the road. I accidentally stepped on one and the whole team just started laughing. We fondly named our street the Condom Street.
Angela was the madam of the house. Sometimes there were a few younger girls staying at her place who were also in the same line of business. We were invited a couple of times for birthday celebrations. Some of my teammates went, but I did not.
I don’t want to be a hypocrite; I did judge her and did not want to be associated with her. But I respected her. It was her job.
There were many Angelas in Castel Volturno. Hundreds of Nigerian women were trafficked in Italy by Nigerian crime syndicates and Castel Volturno was the main gateway to all of Europe. These women dreamed of a better life abroad but were forced to work as prostitutes.
Training with Pepe
We were in Italy for training and competition. It was our preparation for the 2005 SEA Games hosted by the Philippines. We had a bit of funding from the Philippine Sports Commission and a corporate sponsor who made the trip happen.
But before we even left, our sports association told us to tighten our black belts and live frugally because the funding will not be enough to last for the whole duration of the training. We still didn’t mind. We were national athletes which equate to being used to having no money. This explains why we were living in the cheapest part of town. I just didn’t expect that we would be living in an area where prostitution was so rampant.
We trained under Italian world karate champion Giuseppe Romano, who we fondly called "Maestro Pepe." We met Pepe in 2004 when we joined a competition he organized in Torino, Italy.
Pepe saw potential in the Philippine team and offered to train us. There was a delay on the release of our funding and Pepe spent his own money taking care of us for the first 3 months. He chose Castel Volturno because the rent was cheap; 100 euros a month. He also has a friend who owned a gym and we used the facilities for free.
We trained 8 hours a day, just like clocking in for work. Four hours in the morning and 4 hours in the afternoon. He pushed us to our physical limits. We punched, kicked, sparred, rested, woke up and did it all over again the next day.
I was in my mid-20s, so nothing seemed physically impossible. I bled, got knocked down, punched and kicked in the body and head, received my fair share of shiners but still continued to fight. So did the whole team. We became faster, stronger and learned new fighting techniques.
Pepe wanted us to become champions. We were the underdogs in the tournaments we competed in, but Pepe taught us to fight not just with our fists and legs but also with our hearts. He was our Italian Miyagi.
We competed in Italy and around Europe. We had at least 2 competitions a month. We went around driving in Pepe’s car. Cherli and I took turns in helping Pepe drive as some of our trips were 20-hour journeys.
We often arrived on the day of the competition and drove back immediately after because we didn’t have money to pay for hotels. For competitions outside Italy, which usually lasted 2 to 3 days, Pepe looked for the cheapest hotel or negotiated free accommodations with the organizers.
During a competition in Carcassonne, France, I was in the locker room gauging my foreign competitors. They were taller, leaner and looked stronger than I was. I saw their rock-hard, six-pack abs while mine, even with the 8-hour a day training, were still nonexistent.
I saw their well-developed biceps, triceps and legs and looked at mine. It made me think that maybe it was just genes. Their training could not be harder or better than ours.
But it dawned on me that one reason for my not-so-at-par abs, arms and legs was due to diet. I didn’t have enough protein. I survived mainly on rice and more rice to make me full. Pasta was another staple for me. Pepe tried his best to feed us properly with the budget we had but it was just not enough.
I also realized that even before we got to Europe, the food we were eating in the Philippines was also not adapted for athletes. I tried to remember what the drawer below my bunk bed in the athlete’s dormitory in Pasig contained: Lucky Me instant noodles, Skyflakes, Century tuna, 555 sardines, hopia, tamarind candies and oral rehydration tablets, which I drank as a substitute for Gatorade. I was a class A athlete earning P11,000 a month and that was the only food I could afford to nourish myself.
I was in the middle of the mat staring at my opponent, who earlier I was sizing up in the locker room. I was telling myself that even if she was used to eating steaks, sausages and all the good food, I was still stronger and faster because I munch on willpower, gobble up on grit and savor courage for dessert. That for me was enough.
My thoughts fueled me and like a bull pawing the ground, I was ready to attack. Prrrtttt! The referee blew his whistle. He went up to me and asked where my instep protector was.
There was a new rule stating that every player must have one before fighting and I didn’t have one. Our team didn’t have any. We even took turns borrowing our red and blue belts and gloves, what more an instep protector!
So, I stepped out of the mat and asked players who were still waiting for their bout to lend me one. Luckily, one coach took pity and asked her player to let me borrow a pair. I was back in the mat.
I didn’t feel shy or sorry for myself for the situation I was in. It energized me. Prttttt! Hajime! (Begin!) I lunged to do a bait punch then a roundhouse kick to the head. Prrttt! Sanbon! (3 points!) Three points from my feet wearing the borrowed instep protector. I won that bout and shook the hand of my steak-eating opponent.
My teammates tried looking for a part-time job. We did not have any monthly allowance and Pepe was trying his best to feed us, but it was not enough.
Pepe had a friend who owned a restaurant and vouched for the guys to work as dishwashers and cleaners. But they only lasted for a couple of days. They said work was too tiring and was affecting their training.
I saw an opportunity to work and took it. Internet time was always a source of conflict within the team. We had one laptop shared by 7 homesick athletes. I refused to fight over internet time.
I walked a few kilometers and found an internet shop ran by a guy from Ghana called Moses. He was smiling when I stepped in the shop. I was his first customer of the day.
The shop was called Skynet. I was hopeful that the internet speed and hardware would live up to the name. I logged in my Friendster account to post some karate photos. I was big into chatrooms back then, ICQ, AOL, MSN messenger, you name it.
But Skynet’s browser had nothing in it. I downloaded several chat programs and even the ill-fated yet ingenious Napster. I downloaded music and burned cds for my training playlist. A bulb lit in my brain.
I went to Moses to complain about the lack of programs and the online security risk he might be facing. He had no idea what I was talking about because I threw in technical jargons. But I told him he was in luck because I had a solution to his problem. He just needed to hire me.
I had an above average computer background in a pre-digital age. My first job was a production assistant at Pinoycentral, now ABS-CBN Digital. I organized online chats for university basketball players, digitized analog videos and uploaded them on the website for subscribers to watch, edited photos with Photoshop etc. These skills came in handy.
Moses agreed and hired me to work part time. I trained in the morning, went to Skynet to work, then trained in the afternoon. You must be thinking that I should have been resting instead of working. But honestly, it kept me sane. It kept my brain busy and helped me cope up with homesickness.
Six months away from the family before the digital age was no joke. I also needed the extra money to afford to eat right. To eat like a pro athlete, because I was one.
Not to brag, but Skynet became the go-to place for the Africans living in the area. I taught customers how to set up their own email and chat online. I made their Friendster accounts. Customers contracted me to teach their kids how to use a computer before they would buy one. I became a computer teacher.
I launched an ID picture business. I removed pimples, smoothed wrinkles, lightened complexions using Photoshop. Our clients loved it. College students came to me with their thesis papers to have them typed and printed. I made company logos, calling cards and church leaflets. They coined a name for me – the computer wizard of Castel Volturno.
Moses paid me every Friday. I was paid an average of 50 euros a week. I went straight to the grocery to buy food for the whole team. I also bought a big carton of cheap red wine.
Walking back home along Condom Street, I could see my teammates waiting for me on the balcony.
I felt like a mom with her children excitedly waiting for her to come home. But unlike a working mom, I did not cook. The guys did all the cooking and I also got a free massage. We feasted, drank, told stories and helped boost each other’s morale. It was our bonding night. Fridays were my favorite.
Months passed and one morning after training I was gazing outside the balcony. The construction of a house on our left was almost finished. I heard echoes of whimpering puppies. Our neighbor’s dog gave birth to a litter. I saw one of Angela’s girls walking along Condom Street. Her belly was bigger. A lot had changed in 6 months.
We had accumulated quite a number of medals from winning in competitions all over Europe. We displayed our trophies and medals in the living room.
Cherli and I were competing against our male teammates on who would get the most medals. I think the men were ahead by 3 medals but they outnumbered the girls two to one.
I had won 5 gold medals and 4 silver medals. I felt I was stronger, leaner, faster and more experienced. I believed I was ready to compete and win in the SEA Games.
I was cleaning my rubber shoes and saw its soles split apart, like it was smiling at me. I sealed it with super glue for the nth time. My teammates wrapped duct tape around theirs. I was telling my rubber shoes to not break apart and hold on.
We were almost done training and we would go back home soon. There were only a couple of miles left to run. A couple more punches and kicks to throw. We were nearly done. My rubber shoes did hold on and so did I.
The whole Mandaue stadium was packed and roaring. Nothing beats a Cebuano crowd. We came back to the Philippines a month before the SEA Games and flew to Cebu where our event was hosted.
I just defeated Vietnam in the semifinals and I was up against Malaysia for the championship round. Thoughts were sprinting in my mind. Fear of failure. The dread that all of my sacrifices might be for nothing. This was the moment that I was waiting for. The two-minute bout of my life which I prepared for. Breath. Focus. I heard Pepe say “forte (strong) Gretchen!” His way of reassuring me that I was ready. And I was.
There was dead silence in my mind even with the whole stadium roaring. I stepped on the mat and all of my doubts vanquished. Prrrtt! Hajime! (Start), the referee shouted. My opponent was in an unorthodox stance, making it difficult for me to gauge her distance. Both of us were cautious.
Both of us pranced around the mat, calculating each other’s move. I darted a roundhouse kick on the body but was parried. I got impatient, as always. I launched a combination of punches to the face, my opponent stepped back and countered. Prrrtt! The referee awarded her a point.
More than a minute left in the clock. Go Gege! Go Gege!, the crowd gave me a boost. I saw an opening in the body and lunged a punch. Prrrtt! I was awarded a point.
There was now only 30 seconds left in the clock. We were tied 1-1. I wanted to initiate another attack before the timer ends but being on the offensive was too risky. Prrrt! Yame! (Stop). We were given a time extension and the first one to score wins. Prrrt! Hajime! (Start).
I felt the world was in slow motion but my pulse was racing. At that moment, I saw what I was looking for. My opponent had a telltale sign when she was about to charge a punch. I saw it on her face and shoulder movement. Time to change tactic. I intentionally let her corner me on one side of the mat so she thought that she had the upper hand and would attack.
I waited even if I struggled with patience. I saw it coming. Left punch to the body. I blocked it with my left hand and countered a punch with my right. I hit her on the chest. Yame! (Stop). I was awarded a point and bagged the gold medal.
I hugged Pepe and thanked him. It was my third SEA Games gold medal as I also won in 2001 and 2003, but this one was the sweetest because I won in my home country. The whole stadium sang in unison as the national anthem was played during the awarding ceremony. I was home wrapped in my flag and my job was done.
Support our athletes
I told my story to raise awareness. I went back to Napoli a couple of months ago for vacation. I met with Pepe and his family. I visited Castel Volturno and not much has changed there in 14 years. Unfortunately, not much has changed either in Philippine sports.
SEA Games will be held soon in the Philippines. Our athletes are in their last phase of training. Please show them your support. Message them on social media and tell them they’re doing a good job. Encourage them. Tell them you’re proud of them. It would mean the world to them.
To politicians: Pass laws that would improve the situation of athletes. To business people: Please support all sports, not only the most popular ones. Our athletes are doing the best they can to make their countrymen proud. They may not be in Castel Volturno, but they’re virtually in the same situation. The mafia can have different faces. – Rappler.com
Gretchen Malalad retired from national duty in 2007 after 8 years with the Philippine karate team. She won 20 gold medals in international competitions in Europe, North America, and Asia, including 3 consecutive gold medals in the 2001, 2003 and 2005 SEA Games. Malalad is a freelance journalist and holds an MS in Journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism class of 2014. She’s also the president of Philippine Karate Federation-NSA Inc.