Jaja Santiago finally breaks into world stage, three years after shunning UCLA offer
Jaja Santiago savours her golden ticket to the FIVB Grand Prix. Mei-Lin Lozada

MANY have already written off Jaja Santiago from ever playing in the US since she turned down the opportunity to play for University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) three years ago.

But no one ever predicted that bigger things were in store for the National University stalwart beyond the US NCAA.

On Friday afternoon during the announcement of the Foton Pilipinas team competing in the Asian Women’s Club Championship, Philippine Super Liga president Tats Suzara awarded Santiago with a 'golden ticket' to the FIVB World Grand Prix.

Cheers filled the ballroom of Crimson Hotel as the shy 20-year-old middle blocker covered her face with her hands.

“Syempre sobrang laking responsibility nito sa akin and for the Philippines na sa dalawang tournament na ‘yun (ako maglalaro) and I hope na mabigay ko ang best ko sa both tournaments,” she said.

“And alam ko maraming maitutulong itong dalawang tournaments na ito sa career ko and sa paglalaro ko. Basta it’s a great opportunity para sa akin,” Santiago added.

The younger sister of on-leave Petron star and soon-to-be-mom Dindin could not help but look back to her roots as she’s about to finally break into the world stage.

This may be hard to believe but in her youth, towering as she already was by then, Santiago never imagined that she would be a volleyball player unlike her siblings.

Dindin was already a player for University of Santo Tomas girls’ volleyball team under Francis Vicente. Jaja was just tagging along at the time, but stood out as she was obviously tall for her age.

“School-oriented nga lang ako as in pag-aaral lang ang focus ko dati,” said Santiago, who was then a lanky 5-foot-11 13-year-old grade school graduate at Amaya Elementary School in Cavite.

“And then dinala ako ni Ate Dindin sa UST, then doon nag-start ang paglalaro ko sa volleyball. Hindi ko naman pinangarap dati na maging volleyball player, [lalo] na umabot sa tournament na ganito.”

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Victorio Antonio Jr., the doting grandfather of the two volleybelles, shared that Jaja was supposed to be playing another sport, putting the ball in a hoop than over a net.

The Santiago sisters got their towering height from their parents. Their mother Alma Antonio, who was a former volleyball player, stands 5-foot-10, while their father Jojo Santiago, who used to be a basketball player, was 6-foot-6.

“Actually kasi noong elementary sila dito, mayroong team na volleyball pero hindi siya kasama kasi hindi active ang sports activities nila dito,” revealed Lolo Victorio.

“Tamang tama naman si Dindin nasa UST na then noong kinukuha siyang basketball player sa school niya sa Amaya School of Home Industry, parang vocational high school dito, sabi namin, ‘Wag na lang, dalhin na lang kay Dindin.”

“So ayun nakita niya si Dindin nagpa-practice sa UST. Noong nakita siya ni coach Vince [at] nakita ang height, sabi niya dito niyo na lang papasukin si Jaja at mag-training siya one year muna, tapos kukunin na namin siya,” he added.

Lolo Victorio knows as much because both Jaja and Dindin grew up with their grandparents. Their celebrated volleyball careers perhaps make up for the pain of growing up in a broken family. Soon as Jaja was born, their parents got separated and the five siblings lived with Lolo Victorio and Lola Luz.

“After kong ipanganak, naghiwalay na sila (parents namin),” said Jaja.

“Alam mo naman na naghiwalay ang mother at father niya. ‘Yung mother nila pagka-resign sa Pagcor, nag-abroad so halos lahat sila magkakapatid, mga elementary pa ang mga ‘yan, kami na ang nag-alaga sa kanila,” said Lolo Victorio, 70, a retired government employee.

More tragic news came on March 2014, when the family learned that their father died in the line of duty.

The Santiago patriarch was last seen in public supporting his children during the semifinals of the UAAP Season 75 women’s volleyball tournament. But Jaja herself barely knew what her father died for.

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“Hindi ko alam actually eh kung ano ang trabaho niya, kasi hindi kami nagkakasama,” said Jaja. “Ang alam ko lang naging driver siya tapos naging body guard ng mayor yata or basta politico.”

The road kept twisting for the younger Santiago, yet she held on and kept on going, drawing strength and inspiration from her family — especially her father and another sibling who also passed away.

“Syempre (si Papa ang guardian angel ko) at ‘yung kapatid kong namatay sila ‘yung alam kong tumutulong sa akin na magkaroon ng blessing everyday,” she said.

“Never ko nakausap ‘yung tatay ko about sa ganto kasi ito ko lang siya nakasama eh wala pang isang taon, tapos parang ang napag-uusapan lang namin noong magkasama kami is gusto niya sa akin sumama noong merong opportunity sa akin sa ibang bansa. Sabi niya kahit alalay ko nga lang daw siya, siya pa ‘yung mas excited sa akin.”

“Kaya nang dumating itong World (Club Women’s Championship), syempre para sa kanya and sa family ko na thankful ako na nakasama ako dito,” she added. “Lagi ko naman sinasabi ‘yun na every game and every league na sinasalihan ko na sana nandito siya nanonood sa akin.”

Looking back, Lolo Victorio admitted that he thought UCLA was never meant for his granddaughter. During that time, he had so many considerations, weighing every option, before he finally made up his mind.

“Noong lumabas ang UCLA, pina-contact ko ang kapatid ko na nasa California. Ngayon ang pamangkin ko nag-aaral sa UCLA, pinapa-verify namin kung totoo nga na nasa UCLA ‘yun. Ayun nakausap daw nila na may isang Pilipina player ng beach volley at hindi indoor,” he said.

“At the same time naman noon, medyo may lumalapit from La Salle and nalaman din ng NU, kinausap din siya siguro [at ang] bata nalilito, at saka nag-aalala pag pumunta siya doon,” he added.

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“At saka tinatanong din namin ano magiging benefits, scholar na libre pero ang benefits ata na financial, after the contract na pagkatapos, kunwari 3-4 years saka lang pagbalik sa Pilipinas saka lang siya bibigyan. At saka at that time minor pa siya noon hindi pa pwedeng bitawan.”

But whatever reasons the family had in turning down the UCLA offer, Lolo Victorio is glad to see Jaja make the world stage via another route.

“Naniniwala naman ako na lahat ng pinagdadaanan ko ngayon and lahat ng pinaghihirapan ko lahat worth it so ‘yung pag-stay ko dito sobrang worth it talaga,” said Santiago.

“Hindi ako nagsisisi sa desisyon niya. Tingnan mo si Kobe Paras, kaya no regrets,” said Lolo Victorio, who was very proud of Jaja’s achievements. “Kasi alam mo bilang tatay o lolo, ang tingin ko sa kanya talagang proud na proud ako mataas ang pride ko sa ganyan na kinalabasan niya.”

Follow the writer on Twitter: @meilinlozada