Tuesday, May 20, 2008

RP water polo squad set for big splash

By Tina Arceo-Dumlao
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Posted date: May 17, 2008

MACTAN, CEBU -- THEY POSSESS a buffed, well-defined build that even competitive swimmers gaze at with envy.
With their above-average height, broad shoulders, slim waist, trim hips, washboard abdomen and strong legs, they finished the 1st Olango Challenge: Swim for a Cause event held here last May 10 looking more like underwear models than athletes.

But the members of the Philippine water polo team are bona fide, elite athletes with legitimate achievements tucked under their elastic waistbands.

The national squad finished with a bronze medal during the 2003 Southeast Asian Games and silver medals during the next two meets in Manila in 2005 and Thailand last year.

Coach Ed San Pedro told the Inquirer that the team is confident it would eventually get its hands on the elusive gold as the current roster is one of the strongest ever assembled.

The 13-man team came from all over the Philippines and from different backgrounds, said San Pedro.

The oldest is 32-year-old Fraser Alamara from the Air Force and the youngest is 18-year-old Juancho Abejo of the University of the Philippines.

But they are all strong swimmers—some, like San Pedro, are former medalists in individual events—with the endurance and the strength required to hold their own against their opponents, who will kick, grab and pound them during the often brutal competitions.

Similar to football, the objective of water polo is to get the ball—a little bigger than a volleyball and with traction—past the opposing goalie and into the net. The playing field measures 25 x 30 meters.

There are seven players to a side, one goalie and six players—wingmen who set up the play, center forward and center back who are the main defenders and the drivers who are like strikers in football.

A game is divided into four quarters lasting eight minutes each. There is a two-minute break in between quarters and a five-minute rest at halftime.

It sounds like a short game, but it feels like an eternity to the players who jostle and fight for ball possession while treading water in the pool about seven meters deep.

“Any longer than eight minutes a quarter and we’ll die,” San Pedro said in jest.

The training routine is equally unforgiving.

San Pedro said that the water polo players start practice as early as 5 in the morning at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum. They start off with stretching and running before they dive into the swimming pool and do laps for about an hour and a half.

Then they move on to ball handling skills—like throwing and juggling—and running through plays, which will take them another hour and a half. They cap off their routine with practice games until they knock off at 9 a.m.

The team—composed of 16 main players with eight in the training pool—is deep into practice sessions these days as they are preparing for a competition in Hong Kong and a friendly competition with the team from Romania later this year.

San Pedro said participating in the Olango Challenge—a five-kilometer open water swim across the Gilutongan Channel from Olango Island to Mactan Island—is part of the training.

It’s a big bonus that the team also helped raise funds to continue the sustainable efforts of the Philippine Business for Social Progress in Olango.

Olango is an island on the eastern side of Cebu province that is a vital component of the East Asian Migratory Flyway route of migratory birds, such as the Chinese egret, Asian dowticher and Eurasian curley.

For two months every year, tens of thousands of these birds make a pit stop in the Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary and funds from the swim would be used to enhance the sanctuary and provide the residents with additional income.

“We are happy to take part in the program to test our endurance,” San Pedro said, “We are also glad to help in the program to raise funds for Olango.”

He is even more happy because one of the members of his team—23-year-old Raphael Evan Grabador—came in fourth with a time of one hour, nine minutes and 30 seconds, qualifying him and the three top placers to represent the Philippines in the marathon swimming event at the 1st Asian Beach Games in Bali, Indonesia on Oct. 18-26 this year.

San Pedro said the Philippines has actually been competing in international water polo competitions for more than two decades, but hardly anyone outside Metro Manila even know that the sport exists.

Popularity somehow picked up in 2005 when the water polo team bagged the first medal for the Philippines during the SEA Games, but San Pedro said that the team still has a long way to go in terms of recall.

“My vision is for the sport to be known outside the national capital region, for more universities to have a school team because it is really an enjoyable sport. It is challenging, both physically and mentally,” San Pedro said.

Not to mention that it sculpts bodies, too.