Enter the dragon
His hands numbed with cold, Mark John Frias furiously stabbed the icy waters as he stole a look at the crew of the Russian dragon boat. He knew it would take more than strength to fend off the mighty hosts.
On his right, the skipper of the Philippine dragon boat team caught a smirk on the face of the veteran Thai drummer, the air of bravado about him a taunt to the confidence of less-seasoned crews.
The sleek and colorful boats sliced through the water, neck and neck, as the 200-meter race passed the halfway mark and cheering Muscovites in the stands rose in unison to goad their team.
The final 100 meters was war. With every sinew in their bodies taut, the underdog Filipinos conspired for a last-gasp burst of speed, an all-or-nothing shot to reel in their rivals.
At the imaginary finish line of Moscow’s Krylatskoe Olympic Racing Course, the Filipinos exploded in jubilation, their paddles raised in triumph. Incredibly, they finished the race a full boat ahead of everybody else.
The happy scene was the ICF Dragon Boat World Championships last month. The victory—scored in the 20-seater senior mixed team 200-meter event—a perfect cap to an inspiring campaign that finally installed the Filipinos as world champions again with three gold medals in the sport.
“Our only weapon out there was our absolute desire to win,” said Len Escollante, the Philippine team’s head coach. “The Russians were taller and stronger while the Thais had the maturity and experience that no team in that race could equal.”
In victory, the squad registered a world-record clocking of 43.6 seconds on the venue’s giant LED board—quicker than Russia’s golden feat of 44 seconds in the 20-seater all-men race.
With half the team 18 years old and younger, the Filipinos outdid themselves. They had earlier snared victories in the 20-seater senior mixed team 500m and 10-seater mixed junior 200m races.
They also grabbed a silver in the 10-seater junior mixed 500m, behind Russia, and bronze medals in the senior mixed 500m and senior mixed 200m for small boats.
“We are world champions again because we believed in ourselves in Moscow,” said Escollante. “We were tired from the long trip from Manila, and the 10-degree weather made it even harder for us. But we had an unbeatable goal, and that was to win.”
The gold medals were ample reward for the motley Filipino crew which had trained two times a day, six days a week in the mucky waters of the Manggahan Floodway, near the team’s home base in Taytay, Rizal.
“We thought about the difficult times that we had in training,” said team veteran Hermie Macaranas, a canoeing bronze medalist in the Southeast Asian Games. “We didn’t want that to go to waste. That kind of motivated us.”
The shining performance augurs well for the Filipinos who will see action anew in the 2016 Asian Dragon Boat Championships in Puerto Princesa City on Nov. 11 to 13. The country is hosting the continental meet for the first time.
“We’re looking to win at least three gold medals in the Asian event,” said Escollante. “We know, there will be more pressure when we compete in front of our countrymen, but we will be ready to shine anew.”
“We’re preparing early so that we can peak in time for the races,” said national coach Diomedes Manalo. “In every race, we tell our teams that their sacrifices and hardwork will go to waste if they don’t win. Funny, but that’s how we motivate them. So far they’re doing very well.”
Right after the 10-event Asian championships, teams from at least 14 countries, including those from Europe, will compete in an international club crew championships organized by the Philippine Canoe Kayak Federation and the city of Puerto Princesa, led by Mayor Lucilo Bayron.
“We want to show them that the Philippines is one of the best places to race,” said PCKF president Jonne Go.
Added Escollante: “Now that we have proven we can be competitive on the world stage, let’s show them that we can be the best in Asia, too.”
Team stalwarts Frias, Macaranas and Ojay Fuentes head the national squad now training for the twin events. The rest of the world champion crew are steersman Norwell Cajes, Alex Generalo, Oliver Manaig, Reymart Nevado, Robin Santos, Daniel Ortega, Jonathan Ruiz, Christian Urzo, siblings Paul and Michael Silencio, Jordan de Guiao, Maribeth Caranto, Fernan Dungan, Franc Feliciano, Roger Masbate, women’s team captain and drummer Patricia Bustamante, Sheryl Caang, Rosalyn Esguerra, Glaiza Liwag, Angela Avanila, steersman Maribeth Caranto, Rea Glore, Fe Niuda and Rhea Roa.
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