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On the bench

By Salve Villarosa Published Feb 25, 2021 4:00 pm

There’s no “I” in “team,” but unfortunately, there’s one in “pandemic.” For the last year, our sports stadiums and covered courts have stood empty. It was inevitable for the 2020 UAAP season to be cancelled, but things aren’t looking too great for this year’s season either. Two seasons — half a college athlete’s career — gone, just like that.

So what have these players been up to since last March? Those students who juggled school and sports for years, just for a shot at the UAAP gold? Who bet their futures on their athletic careers? How have they been faring, now that the pandemic has benched them indefinitely?

Young STAR sat down with Iñigo Torres (Ateneo SHS, Great Oak Manor Football Club), Iñaki Lorbes (DLSU Green Tankers), Shaira Rivera (ADMU Women’s Lawn Tennis) and Milcah Mina (DLSU Green Tankers) and asked them what life as a student athlete in lockdown is like.

YOUNG STAR: How did you get into your respective sport? Has it always been a big part of your life?

IÑIGO TORRES: I got into soccer when I was five years old. My parents enrolled me in the Ateneo Football Center. When I was in Grade 2, I tried out for the varsity team. Since then, I’ve always been part of a football team. I feel incomplete without it.

IÑAKI LORBES: I got into competitive swimming when I watched my older brother training. I was inspired, so I asked my mom if I could join his team so I could swim, too. Basically, I grew up in the pool; but triathlons, on the other hand, are starting to be a big part of my life now.

MILCAH MINA: My mom enrolled me in lessons at the Bert Lozada Swim School so I could learn how to swim. As time went by, my learn-to-swim coach, Coach Smith Guibani, pushed me to do competitive swimming. Since then (I’ve been) in love with the sport.

SHAIRA RIVERA: My dad loves tennis. He always took me to the court to watch him play. At first I was just a “pulot girl” in Pines, Oroquieta City. When I started playing tennis, everything changed.

 Shaira Rivera

What was ​the ​highlight of your athletic career — a moment you replay in your head over and over again?

IÑIGO: For me, the highlight of my athletic career was when I went to Europe in 2015. I was only 11 years old but it was such an honor to represent our country in Cup No. 1 in Denmark. What made it very special was that our team won the gold!

IÑAKI: It was the recent UAAP when I won gold for the 50m breaststroke. For three years, I had been targeting the top spot, and in my last UAAP representing De La Salle Zobel, I got the spot that I’d been striving for.

MILCAH: In 2018, I qualified to represent the country in the Southeast Asian Age Group and got a new personal best time. I also broke a 20-year-old record of Jenny Guerrero in the 100m breaststroke for UAAP Season 81. All of my hard work paid off, I got to give back to my school, and I also made my loved ones proud. It was the best feeling ever!

 Milcah Mina

SHAIRA: The Fed Cup held in New Zealand last year is the highlight of my career. It was my very first Fed Cup, and even though we fell short (in bringing home the gold), we were able to show the world that we can compete at the highest level.

What did a typical school day for you look like pre-pandemic?

IÑIGO: It was a bit hectic. I played left defense for Ateneo, while I played goalkeeper for Great Oak Manor. I had to make sure I was able to go to training (with the Ateneo team) and with the club within the week so I could train for both positions.

SHAIRA: Being a student athlete is really hard — especially serving both the school and the national team. I had class from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and training from 1 to 6 p.m. Basically, my everyday life was all about hardwood.

MILCAH: As a graduating (high school) student, I had to manage my time wisely. (I either had) swim training after school or physical therapy (I had surgery for my right knee around December 2019). Luckily, I graduated, despite being behind the first months of my senior year because I had a hard time recovering from my first knee operation.

In comparison, what does your day look like now in quarantine?

IÑAKI: There weren’t any pools open, so we bought this DIY swimming pool, and I would just tie myself to a pole so it’d feel like I’m swimming normally. For triathlon training, I have a bike trainer that allows me to train indoors. What kept me going was the desire to get back in shape as soon as possible. It gave me a chance to work on things that I overlooked when I was training pre-pandemic.

 Iñaki Lorbes

MILCAH: I was three months post-op during that time, so I contacted my physical therapist for rehab workouts, so that even if I couldn’t go to therapy, I could still do it on my own. Since the rules of GCQ are lighter now, I get to do swim training in the morning and attend my classes in the afternoon.

With athletics on hold in quarantine, did you pick up any new hobbies? What kept you busy?

IÑIGO: I started playing online chess. Chess was my first sport in school. I also went back to fencing. Since my dad is a fencing coach, he encouraged me and my brother to go back while we had a lot of free time. We train with him regularly with the goal of becoming members of the UAAP Junior Team.

MILCAH: Running at 4 a.m. every day is one of the things that keeps me physically active during this pandemic. Waking up early reminds me so much of how my day used to go (during swimming season). I always ask myself if what I am doing today will get me closer to where I want to be.

SHAIRA: I enjoyed participating in motorcycle road trips. It served as my stress reliever.

How has it made you feel, not being able to compete in your given sport in almost a year? How have you dealt with this huge life change — mentally and physically?

IÑIGO: I miss being on the soccer field so much! I’ve dealt with this by telling myself that I just need to keep in shape, and somehow it works. I now exercise regularly and eat more to gain weight. Hopefully by the time we can play again, I will be ready to get back on the pitch and give the team a better version of my pre-quarantine self.

IÑAKI: It is mentally challenging knowing that there are no upcoming races — you could get lost in your training, then everything that you have built up will be wasted and your consistency in training will be done for. I knew I needed to be disciplined and responsible. No matter what, I needed to keep on training.

MILCAH: It saddens me. I had to constantly remind myself to be positive, and focus on making this time a season of recovery, to be better and stronger than before. I know that circumstances will be so much harder if I focus on the negative side of things, so as much as possible, I try to avoid the negativity and attract the good things instead. This season helped me so much with growth, especially with how I think during hard times.

This pandemic has certainly made things more uncertain — especially for student athletes. Do you have any regrets or anything you wish you’d done differently in your athletic career?

IÑIGO: I don’t have any regrets at all. Through the years, I’ve met a lot of teammates who are like my brothers, coaches who are my mentors, and opponents who became friends. I’ve experienced victories that taught me humility, and defeats that made me stronger. Football has taught me things that I cannot learn in the classroom.

 Iñigo Torres

MILCAH: Joining the world of competitive swimming was one of the best decisions that I have ever made. I got a scholarship in high school, I made a lot of friends, I got to swim for my school for UAAP… I have always been thankful for all the opportunities and I would not want it any other way.

IÑAKI: I don’t have any regrets. Even though this pandemic happened, I still strive to be the best athlete that I can be.

SHAIRA: I have no regrets at all. Tennis changed my life tremendously. Who would have thought that a young girl from Monkayo, Davao de Oro would be an Atenista and an athlete who raises and represents the Philippine flag?

Do you have any nuggets of wisdom that you’d like to pass on to those who are just now starting their athletic careers?

IÑIGO: Everything starts with believing in yourself — it gives you the motivation to start a new journey and overcome any obstacle you face.

IÑAKI: Enjoy what you’re doing! Always set goals for yourself so that you’ll have motivation to strive for more. And always remember: take your time, don’t rush yourself.

MILCAH: Winning does not happen overnight. It takes training, patience, self-discipline and so much more. But once it pays off, the sacrifices you made to reach your goals are all worth it.

SHAIRA: As Jackie Joyner-Kersee said, “The only person who can stop you from reaching your goals is you,” because no one can stop you from working hard. You have to discipline yourself because, without it, success is impossible.