A mom’s leap of faith
An athlete for more than two decades now, Asia’s former long jump queen Marestella Torres-Sunang is used to the pressure of competing under the bright lights on the world stage.
Her three stints in the Olympics, four gold medals in the Southeast Asian Games and former No. 1 ranking in the continent are proof of Marestella’s impressive athletic gifts. At 36, she has little else to prove. Still, these days, there’s been no shortage of motivation for the native of San Jose, Negros Oriental, who remains in fine shape and primed for battle.
Nearing the twilight of her career, Marestella hardly feels the burnout that most athletes her age experience. In husband Eliezar and three-year-old son, Eliemar Matvie, she has found another source of inspiration as she presses her quest for international glory.
“Before it was just me, and I only compete for myself and for the country,” she says. “It’s different now. I’m more inspired because I have a family. Everything I do is for them.”
Marestella has been one of the darlings of Philippine athletics ever since she burst onto the scene as the star of the 1998 Centennial Palaro in Bacolod City and earned a place in the national training pool. She blossomed into an elite athlete, collecting her first SEA Games gold medal in 2005, when the biennial meet was held in Manila.
But her career took a backseat close to four years ago when she got pregnant with Eliemar Matvie following her whirlwind romance with Eliezar, a fellow national athlete. Marestella already had a couple of Olympic stints tucked under her belt, but nothing could have prepared her for motherhood and the challenges that came with it.
“I was anxious,” she says in Filipino. “I’d been an athlete for 20 years and all of a sudden I got pregnant. I’ve been very independent. I knew how to take care of my body, but how do I take care of my child. I mean, I’ve never carried a baby before. Can I still continue my athletic career after giving birth? At that time, I thought my career was finished. There were lots of questions.”
She still considers giving birth to Eliemar Matvie as one of the most incredible moments of her life. “I was just overwhelmed,” says Marestella, who started training again close to two months after giving birth in hopes of making it to the 2016 Rio Olympics.
With support from her Eliezar and sponsor James Lafferty, she prepared for a series of international competitions aimed at bracing her for an Olympic push. “Getting back to shape and losing the weight I gained from pregnancy was probably the toughest part of it all,” she says. “I had to lose more than 10 kilos. There were times I cried because my diet was really strict.”
Despite her schedule, Marestella is a hands-on mom, looking after her son when she’s done with training. “It’s always difficult being away from my son, even if it’s just for a few hours.” she says.
Her motherly instincts kick in even during training. A few days ago, she skipped her morning workout because her son wasn’t feeling well. “She’s very protective of our son,” Eliezar says.
For Marestella the hardest part was being away from her family when she competes overseas. But even when she’s away, Eliezar says his wife makes sure that their son has what he needs.
“Before she goes away, she does the groceries. She buys the milk, she buys the diapers and soap,” says Eliezar. “We’re proud of her. These are simple things but it means a lot to us. Being a former athlete myself, I know that it’s not easy when you have so many things to think of when competing overseas.”
In her loneliest moments abroad, Marestella says she turns to her family to lift her spirits. With only a month before the Rio Olympics, she went on a 21-day journey in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan chasing a Games berth. It was in the Kazakhstan Open where she set the Philippine record of 6.72 meters and beat the 6.70 qualifying mark for Rio.
“Those video calls made during that time meant a lot to me as I competed,” she says. “It got very lonely and I looked forward to coming home.”
She says she’s more at ease now that her son understands when she leaves the house each morning for her daily training. And she tries to make up for it as soon as she comes home.
“She gets bullied playfully by her son whenever she’s home,” laughs Eliezar. “There are days when she needs a nap to recover, but she has no choice but to play with our son.”
These are exactly the moments that complete Marestella now. “Being an athlete helped me become a better mother to my son,” she says. “The situations are different. As an athlete you want to win. But as a mother, you also want what’s best for your son.”