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    Unsung heroes on dragon boats continue to paddle the Philippines to glory 

    Jun 16, 2014

    IT's just a little after sunrise, and while most people are either snoozing in bed or on their way home from an alcohol-filled night, this side of the metro — specifically, that sketchy-looking strip of water between Manila Ocean Park and the Manila Hotel, with a small dock that holds five to six boats — is fast getting filled with singlet-wearing buffs, all business at this early hour. It’s easy to see that the nippy smell of the Manila Bay has fully awakened these early risers. Any other person would probably be anticipating the aroma of coffee, fried eggs, and longganisa. But doing regular heavy training before breakfast, focusing on winning, and not sweating the small stuff have always been part of being a dragon-boat paddler.

    Picking Up the Pace

    Dragon-boat racing started in the Philippines in the late nineties; Richard Gomez’s Bench ad could be the closest thing the sport has gotten to the spotlight. But even at the time, our dragon-boat teams were already quite competitive. “Nanalo na rin tayo sa competitions decades ago, pero mga silver and bronze medals pa lang,” says Philippine Dragon Boat Federation (PDBF) president and former national team paddler Marcia Cristobal.

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    Up until the early part of the last decade, the PDBF team continued to bag bronze medals, specifically in the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) Games held in China and Germany in 2003 and 2005, respectively. But it was in 2007, at the IDBF World Championship in Sydney, Australia, when our paddlers made a historic breakthrough. The team broke a world record en route to winning the men’s 200-meter event in 42.16 seconds.

    Two years later, during another World championship in Prague, Czech Republic, they established their dominance. “We did not only set a new world record, but we beat our previous [one], too,” shares Cristobal. The men’s team clocked 40.02 seconds for the world record in the 200-meter event, on top of bagging gold in the mixed 200-meter event.

    Their competence and hunger for victory earned them a big-ticket corporate sponsor as well. “We’ve been breaking records and setting new ones since 2007. Fortunately in 2009, Cobra Energy Drink saw our potential and has sponsored us since,” Cristobal says.

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    Playing the Heat

    Members of the PDBF hail from different walks of life. The majority are from the Philippine Military — the Navy, the Army, the Air Force — and even from the national police, while a good number of them are civilian athletes. Scouting is open for all the paddlers of club teams under the federation. According to Cristobal, there is no specific weight and height requirement, but “it would be advisable [to] have a background in paddling.” For these national athletes, regular training and skills development are no easy commitments, but they’re necessary ones in light of the fierce competition.

    Cristobal, however, reveals that the toughest opposition they’ve faced so far was from home. “Tinanggal kami ng Philippine Olympic Committee as a recognized national sports association (NSA),” she rues. “They made a recommendation addressed to the Philippine Sports Commission, which was in turn approved by the International Olympic Committee.”

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    Because of that, the PDBF paddlers are no longer able to bear the title of “Philippine Team” or “Team Pilipinas” despite their international success. The federation has gone through rigorous Senate and Congressional hearings to fight for its spot as an NSA, but you know what happens at those congressional hearings, right?

    The lowest point probably came in 2011, a few months before the 10th IDBF World Championship in Florida. After being stripped of NSA recognition, the PDBF team members were left to train using a busted boat when the Philippine Sports Commission took away their privilege to use the training boats. “What we used was an old, [beat-up] boat,” recalls Cristobal. “Pinagtagpi-tagpi lang namin yung bangka.”

    But they saw training with heavy and unbalanced boats as just another hurdle that must be overcome. “Swerte na rin kami na mabigat ang boat namin nung training,” Cristobal muses. “Pagdating sa competition sa Florida, ang gaan na lang para sa amin nung mga dragon boats doon.” The result: five gold and two silver medals, and world records in two categories.

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    Going Against the Tide

    In a press conference held last July for the Cobra-PDBF team, Cristobal admitted they’d only undergone two months of training for the 11th IDBF World Championship in Szeged, Hungary. It was obviously a very short preparation for an international competition.

    Ill-prepared yet optimistic, the team had only hoped for a place in the small boat event. But they’re used to “never say die” battles, and despite their disadvantages, our paddlers were able to score podium finishes. “Swerte kami na makapag-uwi ng two silver and two bronze medals, kasi wala kaming substitution system,” Cristobal proudly says. “Pagod na pagod ang paddlers namin compared with paddlers from other countries.”

    Lurking in their minds, though, is the thought that they could have done better — brought home the gold, even — if only they had the budget to train for at least six months prior to a competition, or if they could sustain a larger membership with a promise of monthly allowances, athletes’ quarters, and provision of equipment. These are the benefits of being an accredited NSA, which they’re still fighting for to this day.

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    But political obstacles aside, retired Philippine Navy Chief Petty Officer Ruperto Sabijon, the team’s head coach, believes our paddlers possess a strong will to win and a sense of patriotism. He says these things compel them to get out of bed every morning and give their all for a country that’s seemingly ignoring them. “We improvise training equipment. Naghahatak kami ng gulong for muscle endurance. Wala man tayong high-tech na kagamitan, meron naman tayong puso at gigil para manalo,” he emphasizes.

    Backing down from a challenge has never been a part of the PDBF’s code. As far as Sabijon and the team are concerned, defying the odds has always been second nature to them. “[kasi tayong] mga Pilipino, natural fighters,” Sabihon asserts. “Kahit walang makain, bira pa rin nang bira.”

    How to train Your Dragon-Boat Paddler

    Scheming to develop a paddler’s physique? Improve your upper-body strength and get handy with a paddle via a training session with PDBF’s assistant coach, Philippine Air Force Staff Sergeant Ailene Padrones

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    This sport, involves a lot of dynamic muscle stretching to avoid strains and injuries. The PDBF members then jog for at least 15 minutes before loading the boat. Padrones says that a quarter of an hour is enough to warm up the body without getting too exhausted.


    For beginners, break a sweat by paddling for 1 kilometer. Rowers of the PDBF, though, are required to paddle 10 kilometers before taking an hour-long break.


    Muscles contract during strenuous workouts. Padrones leads the team in another round of stretching and brisk walking to cool down and loosen their muscles.

    Extra rice? Yes, please

    PDBF team captain and Philippine Army Staff Sergeant Usman Anterola believes that an athlete can’t excel in competition with training alone. “Ang atleta, hindi dapat puro exercise lang—dapat balanced din ang diet,” he stresses. Dig in on his pre-training eating tips.

    1. Load up on carbohydrates for better and faster nutrition absorption. The traditional Pinoy breakfast of ulam, kanin, and itlog is ideal for a complete power meal with a heap of protein, fats, and carbs.

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    2. Eat potassium-rich food to avoids muscle cramps. An average-sized banana has about 360 milligrams of potassium, which is a good dose to replenish minerals for the muscles. Sweet potatoes are also a good source of potassium, with 542 milligrams per 100 grams.

    3. Avoid drinking alcohol to lower your risk of dehydration. Aside from leaving you with a bad hangover, drinking alcohol decreases your bodily fluids because of its diuretic properties. You don’t want to piss away your performance.

    4. Junk the junk food to improve your physical performance. Monosodium glutamate—better known as MSG—is a common ingredient in processed foods. It could lead to muscle weakness and poor nutrient absorption.

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