MANILA, Philippines – No one in the other ASEAN countries had a clue who he was.
Aries Bañez Toledo, 23, had never competed in any previous edition of the Southeast Asian Games, yet he was able to dethrone last year’s gold medalist Vietnam’s Nguyễn Văn Huê and secure Philippines’ 9th gold medal with a total of 7,433 points in the Men’s Decathlon event.
Snagging that gold medal in his SEA Games debut was not an easy feat nor was it expected of the Nueva Ecija native. Toledo went through the pressure of competing against his ASEAN counterparts who have long been participating in the prestigious biennial meet.
“Di rin ako makapaniwala sa nangyari eh. Eh, una sa lahat, ngayon palang ako nag-SEA Games, at di rin nawawala yung kaba at pressure,” explains Toledo.
(I also couldn’t believe what happened. First of all, this was my first SEA Games and the nervousness and pressure did not go away.)
“Alamat ng Nueva Ecija”
When Toledo arrived in the Philippines on Tuesday, August 29, he immediately traveled back to his home in Central Luzon. To his surprise, the decathlon gold medalist was given a hero’s welcome in his current school, Central Luzon State University (CLSU), in Muñoz, Nueva Ecjia.
Toledo paraded the streets of Muñoz on a Ford Ranger van while being ushered by his schoolmates. He was also awarded a certificate of recognition and a cash prize amount by CLSU President Tereso A. Abella for bringing honors to the school and the country.
After the school paid tribute to Toledo in Muñoz, the SEA Games champion went straight to this hometown in Cuyapo, where he was given another grand welcome by the townspeople. The festive moment saw how proud the people of Central Luzon were of Toledo as his name was bannered across the buildings of the city.
“Noong umuwi ako at natapos yung SEA Games, talagang inaabangan talaga nila ako pagdating ko. Tapos nag-parade kami, akala ko nga ako si Daniel Padilla eh,” said Toledo jokingly. “Di ako talaga sanay sa mga ganun. Nahihiya ako eh. Pero sabi ko enjoy ko nalang ito, moment ko naman ito.”
(When I went home and the SEA Games ended, they were really waiting for my arrival. Then we paraded, I thought I was actually Daniel Padilla. I am not used to these kinds of things. I get shy. But then I said I should just enjoy it because this is my moment.)
For Toledo, he believes that his achievement was not just for himself, but for all those who had supported him in Nueva Ecija. The province struggled with a lack of talent in the field of sports, but it was Aries Toledo who made Nueva Ecija known again in Philippine sports, specifically in Track and Field.
“Ipinarangalan ako [doon], talagang bayani daw ako tapos isa rin akong alamat. Ngayon lang daw nakapag-produce sa Nueva Ecija at sa Cuyapo ng isang katulad ko at muling nakikilala ulit ang Nueva Ecija at ang Cuyapo,” said Toledo.
(They honored me there, I was really a hero and I am also a legend. It is just now that Nueva Ecija and Cuyapo was able to produce someone like me and Nueva Ecija and Cuyapo was made known again.)
Toledo may be renowned for his achievements now, but he had come a long way to stand where he is now.
Toledo is naturally fit to train and compete for the decathlon, but unknown to many is that his talent bloomed later than most bemedalled athletes in the national team. It was only when Toledo met the one he owed his development to, the Philippine Athletics head coach Sean Guevarra, that he was able to work towards the goal of becoming a national athlete.
Before meeting Guevarra, Toledo’s talent was already above average, but it was mostly just his speed that caught the eye of the national coach. Toledo only competed in the sprint events – 100m, 200m and 400m dash – and the long jump, where he fared better than the other athletes.
Under Guevarra’s guidance, Toledo’s skills and techiniques were fine-tuned, and the decathlon medalist was able to carry his speed and strength to training for the endurance, hurdles, jumps and pole vault events that also comprise the decathlon. As a result, Toledo garnered more medals in national track and field competitions, which helped him win a spot in the national team in 2015.
“Nagsimula ako mahina palang ako noong time na bata pa lang ako. Di ko alam yung mga technique, tapos meron akong nakilala ng isang coach [Sean Guevarra] na may marunong sa pagiging athlete. Tinrain niya ako nang mabuti. Nakapag-medal din ako na maraming beses na gold medal. Tapos noong 2015, nakapagmedal ako dito sa ULTRA, Pasig sa national team,” explained Toledo.
(I started weak when I was young. I didn’t know the techniques, then I met coach Sean Guevarra, who knows how to train athletes. He trained me well. I was able to earn a lot of gold medals. Then in 2015, I was able to medal in ULTRA, Pasig in the national team.)
Struggles reaped rewards
Earning a slot on the national team came with huge responsibilities and pressure for Toledo to continue improving and bring home medals from international competitions.
There were nights when Toledo would feel the burn of the grind, as he could not go home from training or was not even allowed to return home. It came to a point where the rigor got the better of Toledo and he almost succumbed to giving up on his athletics career. Toledo left training with Guevarra, but returned to him a few days after with more mature realizations and apologized for what he had done.
“Ma-rerealize mo at maiisip mo na mali ka sa ginawa mo sa oras na nag-give up ka. Sa oras sa mga ganun bagay, parang pinakita mo na talo ka na kaagad, parang ang hina-hina mo,” said Toledo.
(You will realize and think that you are wrong at the time you gave up. In those times, it is like you showed that you already lost, that you are weak.)
“Humingi ako ng paumanhin sa coach ko, sa mga kaibigan ko, sa mga nasaktan ko, humingi ako ng tawad para masuportahan nila ako sa mga laban ko. Kasi ang hirap lumaban kapag may kagalit ka. Kasi iisipin mo na hindi ka maka-focus sa mga game mo.”
(I asked for forgiveness from my coach, my friends, all that I have hurt and I asked for forgiveness so that they could support me in my events because it is really hard to compete if you are angry with someone. You will think that you cannot focus in the games.)
Aside from his admirable mentality, Toledo had also garnered the respect of most of his teammates over the years with his attitude towards training. Former Ateneo blue trackster JB Capinpin had trained with Toledo under Coach Guevarra, and he affirmed that Toledo’s focus and eagerness in the SEA Games are the same qualities he exhibits during training.
“When he trains, he likes to set targets for himself, so he can gauge his performance for that session. He'll give his all each and every rep or set to meet or exceed his target, but you won't hear him make any excuse when he fails to meet them. He recognizes his shortcomings and tries to understand them with the help of coach Sean. It's this mentality which got him to where he is now,” said Capinpin regarding Toledo’s attitude in training.
Capinpin also described Toledo as a supportive training partner. His bubbly personality helps lighten the mood, as he can be seen cheering and cracking jokes around his teammates whenever training gets tough.
His teammates look up to Toledo, but Toledo believes the feeling is mutual as they motivate during training also. Toledo mentions decathlon specialists Capinpin, former SEA Games medalist Jesson Ramil Cid and current Ateneo blue trackster Henry Gonzalez as his inspirations in training for the 10 events.
“Nakikita ko mga kasama ko na nahihirapan, patuloy pa rin sila lumalaban. Kaya sabi ko: Kung kaya nila, kaya ko rin kasi parehas lang kami nag-trtraining,” said Toledo.
(I see them having a difficult time, but then they continue to persevere even though it’s hard. This is why I said: If they can do it, I can also do it because we are training for the same thing.)
This is how a humble lad from Nueva Ecija rose from the ranks to bring glory to his his country and province. – Rappler.com
More commonly known as “Bee”, Beatrice is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Phillippine sports governance, national teams, football and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.