Sofia’s choice: It’s triathlon over cancer for spunky girl, 9
Sofia Daniela Ildefonso looks at the huge red timer at the edge of the pool as it ticks to zero. She holds on to the gutter, one leg pushing against the wall like an explosive start waiting to happen. When zero hits, she tears off in an instant, sunburnt limbs knifing through water with boundless energy.
Her coach—who earlier sternly explained that he brought a large timer to training session because he wanted Sofia to learn to take note of her times—breaks into a wide smile and tells the girl’s father: “She’s good. She has the potential to be a champion.”
Danny Ildefonso nods proudly. The 1.96-meters-tall (6 feet 5 inches) father knows what makes a champion. He’s won eight titles with the San Miguel Beer/Petron franchise in the Philippine Basketball Association, six straight player-of-the-conference awards and two Most Valuable Player trophies. One of those trophies came just a year after the cutoff when all MVPs were automatic inclusions to the list of the league’s 25 greatest players.
For Danny, Sofia was already a champion long before she took up the grueling sport of triathlon.
“Just getting through what she went through, I’m really proud of her,” he said.
Battle with cancer
About three years ago when she was just six, Sofia began a one-on-one battle with a tumor that developed in her abdomen.
“The first thing we noticed was that she had no appetite. She would also complain that she had difficulty urinating,” said Danny.
The first pediatrician they consulted did not find anything wrong. They next took the child to a doctor recommended by basketball player Rommel Adducul, who was Danny’s teammate in the national youth program. Adducul is a throat cancer survivor.
That was when Sofia was diagnosed with embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. According to www.sarcomahelp.org, rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) is a malignant tumor or cancer that develops from a normal skeletal muscle cell. It is a very rare form of cancer with about 350 cases diagnosed each year in the United States in children under the age of 21. About four children per million healthy kids under the age of 15 will develop RMS each year.
RMS, according to www.cancer.org, makes up 3 percent of all childhood cancers, with embryonal RMS being the more common type. Sofia was in stage 2 of the disease when diagnosed, meaning the tumor had grown in an “unfavorable” location but hadn’t yet spread to other parts of the body.
A lot of spunk
“We were very lucky that we caught it while it was still localized and hadn’t latched on to any organ. When Sofia underwent surgery, the doctors had no difficulty taking out the tumor,” Danny recalled.
But that was only the first part of the battle. To ensure that the cancer would not return, Sofia had to undergo chemotherapy.
After every chemo session—Sofia underwent six in all—Danny noticed that his daughter still had a lot of spunk left in her.
“The other kids in the hospital would be a little weak from the sessions. But Sofia would be jumping around and would always play with her siblings when they got home. She was never tired,” he said.
Hooked on sports
And then Sofia started getting involved in sports.
“At first, she wanted to be a gymnast. And then she wanted to play basketball. I even enrolled her in basketball clinics,” Danny said.
It was as if Sofia was looking for an outlet to channel her energy. Danny and his wife, Ren, suggested swimming.
“We noticed how she would slide easily through water, that’s why we asked her to try swimming,” Danny said.
“At first, I would just walk around the pool. I wouldn’t paddle or anything like that,” Sofia said.
“Then swimming became my favorite sport,” she said.
But even after a swim, she would still have enough energy to horse around with her siblings. Then one day, Sofia got to talking about triathlon with a classmate at St. Paul’s College in Pasig, Tara Borlain. Borlain, as everyone in triathlon circles knows, is the country’s top young triathlete who not only dominates her own age group, she easily beats competitors considerably older.
That’s when Sofia got hooked.
Four months after trying out the sport, she joined the Alaska Ironkids, the most prestigious race for young triathletes in the country. Participants normally go through a 150-meter swim, 5-kilometer bike and 1-km run in these events. Organized by Wilfred Steven Uytengsu, the Ironkids runs in parallel with the prestigious Ironman race.
Aiming for Olympics
For a newbie who only two years before was undergoing chemotherapy and who still needs to go through regular medical checkups to make sure the cancer stays dead, Sofia acquitted herself well.
She was headed for a respectable finish but was disqualified in the end because of a technicality.
“She’s still very unfamiliar with the rules. She just wants to complete the course,” Danny said.
Borlain’s father, Ringo, immediately saw the potential in Sofia. He unselfishly offered to train her, even if it meant creating a rival for his own daughter.
“We are very thankful for the help extended by the Borlain family. They really helped Sofia a lot. Until now, Tara still serves as an inspiration to Sofia,” Danny said.
In fact, Sofia watches videos of Tara competing so she can learn from the champion.
“She’s a great triathlete,” said Sofia.
Sofia is already booked for another major competition in October. And she doesn’t want to stop.
“Sometimes, I ask her, why are you doing this? Are you sure you want to continue? If you want to quit, it’s really okay with me. And then she’ll say: ‘No, no, no, I want this,’” said Danny.
“I want to be in the Olympics someday,” said Sofia.
“I kid her that I’ve never been to the Olympics myself. Maybe through her, I finally will be able to watch the Olympics,” said Danny, who has represented the country in the Asian Games.
Sofia giggled when she was told that her tatay would be the one cheering for her if she makes it to the Olympics.
“I’d like that. When tatay watches me, he really follows the race. In Cebu, while I was running, he ran in the sidewalk also, following me. Even when we were in an uphill part of the course, he still ran to follow me and he was carrying a big bag that was filled with helmet and stuff,” she said.
“And then sometimes, I hear him cheering, ‘Go, Pia! Go, Pia!,’” she said with a laugh.
And it motivates the daughter to keep going. Danny has always been Sofia’s inspiration. She tries to watch all her dad’s games.
When Danny told Sofia he would retire to focus on her triathlon, Sofia protested vehemently. “Tatay promised me he’ll play three more years,” she said.
Danny always has in mind two snapshots of his daughter. The first is of the six-year-old Sofia, hair torched, teeth crooked and nails blackened by chemotherapy. She is wearing a face mask as he lifts her up during one PBA championship celebration. The other is of the nine-year-old Sofia in full battle gear, closing in on the finish line in an Ironkids race in Cebu.
“She’s very healthy. Her hair is flowing and her energy is overflowing. What more can I ask for? Every time we take her to the hospital for her regular checkup, I know there is the possibility that something wrong might happen. But I don’t worry anymore. Those are things that are beyond our control and we leave it all to God,” he said.
“What I can do is support her in her dreams,” he said.
Danny has taken up swimming so he can do triathlons himself with Sofia.
“It’d be cool if we could do triathlons together someday. I think I can beat him,” said Sofia.
Sofia’s twin 6-year-old sisters, Samantha and Symone, have also taken up triathlon. Their swimming coach, Macky Fradriquela, said the two have a big chance to their age-group next year, especially Samantha.
Wants to be a doctor
Sofia also dreams of becoming a doctor one day. She wants to train to be a pediatrician so she can help those who have the same disease that she had.
“If a kid comes to me and he’s scared, I’ll tell him first to pray to God. Then I’ll tell him that chemotherapy will help him and if he doesn’t have chemo, he’ll only get weaker,” said Sofia.
“Then I’ll also tell him that after six months of chemotherapy, if he doesn’t like sports, he should try it because it helps keep you healthy,” she said.