SINGAPORE - Unike a Manny Pacquiao fight or a UFC card, the Southeast Asian Games aren’t noted for drawing a ton of Filipino celebrities.
One notable exception in the 28th SEA Games in Singapore is popular running coach Rio de la Cruz, who flew in to the island-state to show his support for the Philippine track and field team.
Shortly after he arrived Wednesday afternoon with his wife Nicole and 15-month old son, Eisner Freedom, De la Cruz immediately went to Singapore's elegant National Stadium to catch several medal events.
“Lahat sila sinusupport natin pero we have close friends (on the team) dahil nakakasabay ko sila sa training,” said the amiable founder of RunRio, considered as the Philippines’ top running events company.
He cited runners Mervin Guarte, Willie Maulas, (3000m steeplechase gold medalist) Christopher Ulboc and steeplechaser Rene Herrera, who he trained with in Baguio City.
Positioning himself near the finish line, De la Cruz shared several selfies, videos and results on his social media feed of the athletes’ exploits.
“First time ko manuod ng SEA Games. I was very happy kasi pagdating na pagdating ko doon awarding ng 400m hurdles (for Eric Cray) and then kasabay ‘yung long jump nina Marestella Torres. Ok naman,” said de la Cruz who brought along his family to take in the events in the huge stadium.
Even though he was a mere spectator, the man who has helped make running a national pastime in his country, felt a personal stake in the proceedings.
“Actually yung gusto ko na mapanood yung 800m (of friend Guarte) so pumunta ako sa may finish line just to cheer talaga yung kababayan natin and bago mag-start, habang tumatakbo and ‘tsaka pagkatapos kinakabahan ako,” he said laughing.
Rio even asked the coaches if he should bring out the flag as Duarte and the runners approached the finish line. He had wanted to arrive earlier to cheer for the marathon event where the Philippines won a silver in the women’s finals.
“Kapag kaibigan mo 'yung chini-cheer mo personal para sa iyo. Tapos 'pag nakita mo yung photo finish sila na nanghihinayang ka para sa kanya pero alam ko naman binigay nila 'yung makakaya and nakita ko yung hirap nila during training. Talagang dedicated so happy and proud ako na kakilala ko sila,” he said after the race.
The afro-haired running coach regularly joins the members of the national team train at the Philsports Arena (formerly ULTRA) which is near where he lives.
“Sa hapon, minsan umaga. Talagang dedicated sila. Everyday, every morning except Sunday. Minsan sa UP may long runs sila. Sometimes I invite them on long runs with me inside Diliman,”Rio said, adding he saw some of them during the last part of their training before they left for the biennial showcase.
The soft-spoken runner-endorser admitted the experience made him think of ‘what ifs’ had he chosen a different path in his younger days.
“Parang bumabalik ako sa… hindi naman pagsisisi pero parang nasasabi ko, ‘Sayang.’”
The native of Bato, Camarines Sur said he was in college taking up physical education when he found himself choosing between an athletic career as part of the national team or placing his studies as his priority.
By then, the former UAAP track star had already won several awards for the University of the Philippines and was training with the national team in the 5,000m and 10,000m running categories.
He chose to focus on his education.
“Yung training namin dati sa Baguio, so inisip ko kung itutuloy ko ba yung pagiging athlete o tapusin ko pag-aaral ko? My original goal was to finish my education so later on na lang (yung athletic pursuits),” he shared.
Watching his friends compete, de la Cruz said, “Nung nakita ko (sila), ansarap pala ng feeling kahit nanunuod ka lang,” he admitted.
Now Rio helps out the national team by other means. He sheepishly admits providing what he describes as ‘little assistance’ to national team members in track and field in terms of an allowance and help with their uniforms.
“Iniisip ko, ‘ano pa kaya ang puwede kong gawin para makatulong tayo sa future?’ Siyempre ayaw naman nating masagasaan diyan so in the little ways na magagawa ko, kahit papaano makatulong sana,” he said.
The 32-year old coach, who is currently training for the New York City Marathon set for November, said had he decided to have been a national athlete, he would have competed as as middle and long distance runner.
With the country’s medal performances in running events in these Games, de la Cruz hopes the momentum could create a ‘second wind’ for the sport. He hopes for the same in triathlon where the Philippines completed a golden double.
“That is what I wish for, katulad ng magandang exposure ng nakuha ng triathlon kasi men’s and women’s na talagang makikita na … front page sila so 'yung mga kabataan natin I hope would be encouraged to join any sports. Ako sa running, happy ako na nakikita natin na maganda dito. Piling-pili talaga yung napapunta nila dito.”
On the possibility of the Philippines hosting the next SEA Games in 2019 and of his possible role in helping our runners: “Ok naman ako. Happy ako na makatulong ako sa kanila. 'Yung gusto nilang ipagawa sa akin tatangapin natin na maluwag. Lalung lalo na doon sa kaya kong ma-support sa track and field.”
There is also another reason close to home why de la Cruz is in Singapore.
“Every time na may competition sa Manila, hindi man maka-support (directly) I support by watching and drawing attention to the events. Gusto kong sinasama family ko, lalo na 'yung anak ko - habang lumalaki siya nakikita niya 'yung sports, magkaroon siya ng drive and I can encourage him to participate.”
The proud dad said his 15-month old son learned to walk before he could crawl.
Asked if he wishes his son to have a sports background growing up, he said, “Oo naman! Kahit anong sport okay sa akin pero I prefer yung track and field mas masusupport ko siya with personal experience and knowledge pero if basketball or football medyo mahihirapan akong ma-guide siya. Pero siyempre hindi tayo makikialam if merong coach, igagalang natin yun, pero I will support as a parent.”