Mayor Rex Gerona and Tabuelan 226

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After five years of Tabuelan 111 — recognized as the country’s “Best Domestic Sports Event” last year during the 1st Philippine Sports Tourism Awards in Resorts World Manila — comes the same back-breaking event but with over twice the distance.

“Tabuelan 111 is considered as the best local triathlon race in our country. It has everything any triathlete would want,” Tabuelan Mayor Rex Gerona said. “Because of the success of the event, Tabuelan decided to level up by organizing the first-ever full distance triathlon race in Cebu.”

That’s a 3.8K swim, 180K bike and 42.2K run for a total of 226 kms. The date is September 16.

“We will be more focused since we are looking at a maximum of 200 participants only compared to almost 800 with Tabuelan 111,” said the mayor, who credits the volunteers composed of the Tabuelanons — the race marshals, water station personnel, medical teams and security — as the reason for the event’s success.

“We invested on training the organizing team. We spent time to make sure that the race would be unforgettable and checked every single detail. It has become Tabuelan’s pride!” he added. “With Tabuelan 226, we are counting on their support since this year’s cut-off is at 12 midnight.”

Tabuelan is not a large municipality. Of the Province of Cebu’s three million residents, Tabuelan is one of 44 municipalities and has a small population of less than 30,000. Despite that, Tabuelan is hugely popular in the triathlon community.

The reason: Mayor Rex Gerona. He used to weigh 230 lbs. and was pained with multiple health problems back in 2010. Mayor Rex lost 50 lbs. and transformed himself into a swim-bike-run athlete. To date, he has finished incredible feats: a 160K ultramarathon, the Ironman 70.3 for five years, the Giro d’ Luca cycling event in Bohol, the Cebu Marathon (thrice), the 10K Caramoan Island swim and a Full Ironman in Western Australia.

Thanks to triathlon, Tabuelan has achieved plenty. Said the mayor: “There is a considerable boost in our local tourism. Public recognition is achieved. We’ve created economic growth through filled resorts, home stays, restaurants, and have enhanced the positive image of Tabuelan. We’ve also built community relationships, strengthened corporate support and created youth opportunity.”

To top it all, Tabuelan 226 will do something extraordinary.

“All race kits and medals will be personalized,” Mayor Rex said. “This is a first in the triathlon world.”

Corazon’s heart

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ILOILO CITY — Last Friday was a day of mourning and celebration.

It was an afternoon of mourning because we laid to rest Mrs. Corazon Garabato Gayanilo, the grandmother of my wife Jasmin (the mom of my mother-in-law, Malu Mendez) in Guimbal, Iloilo. It was also a day of celebration because relatives from Atlanta, New Jersey, Florida and various places converged to pay their last respects to an outstanding person.

Lola Zon was born on June 21, 1911. She was born a decade after Emilio Aguinaldo stood as our first leader and lived through all 15 succeeding Philippine presidents from Manuel Quezon to her namesake Corazon Aquino to Rodrigo Duterte.

“Corazon” means heart and it’s fitting that such a loving and kindhearted person would leave this temporal place for eternity during this month of hearts. Our family is often asked, How did Lola Zon live so long?

“She was not a vegetarian,” my mother-in-law Malu Mendez, the eldest child, said during the necrological service. “She was carnivorous!”

So it wasn’t her diet. Lola Zon also did not swim or run daily — so we cannot attribute extreme fitness as the reason. So, what was her secret to long life?

“She had big ears!” my mother-in-law said. By that, she meant that Lola Zon always listened. She always had time to listen and always had time for others — especially to her family of four children (Malu, Virgilio, Sol and Rene), 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. She lived simply. She laughed. She laughed a lot. And we know how good a medicine laughter is.

Lola Zon was a teacher. “The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book,” a quote reads. Her students spoke of her firmness but compassion and patience as a teacher. She loved to serve and give of herself — to her students from the various public schools that she taught in Igbaras, Passi, Iloilo City High School, and in Guimbal. As one of her projects in Guimbal, she helped build a kindergarten right beside the church.

Lola Corazon’s life was devoted to God. In his homily last Friday, Fr. Albie Labaro spoke of how Lola Zon’s hands clasped a rosary as we paid our respects — and how she must have prayed the rosary for decades until her last breath. She was a grateful person. Contented. Humble. Generous. My wife Jasmin said that she was very, very kind.

As the saying goes, “A good teacher takes a hand, opens a mind and touches a heart.”

For 105 years, Corazon touched many, many hearts.

‘Heart for Soles’ by Kyle Kokseng

Given the thousands of running enthusiasts that pound our streets — including this Sunday’s awaited SM2SM Run — underneath each pair of legs is a pair of running shoes. We all have one, some two, others three or four pairs of running shoes.

This love month comes an excellent idea to share. As the saying goes, “There is no excercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” I paraphrase that by saying, “There is no better exercise than running.. and reaching down for a pair of running shoes to share.”

Kyle Kokseng is a runner. He has finished three 42Ks: In 2013, the Cebu Marathon; and last year, in Tokyo and Chicago. Kyle has conceptualized a big-hearted project.

“Heart for Soles is a passion project by an average guy who likes running a little too much,” Kyle said in the poster. “After cleaning out his closet, he found several pairs of shoes that were still useable and hard a lot of mileage left in them. So instead of throwing them out, he decided to donate them to athlete scholars from public schools in Cebu City who have the ability but no capacity for equipment and gear.

“Later on, he realized that there were a lot of people in Cebu with the same love for running and the same closet filled with shoes. So he decided to create a program that would allow all running enthusiasts to give back to the city’s athlete scholars. Here’s a reSHOElution for you. Your shoes have come a long way, it can go a little longer.”

How to join? Kyle explains: (1) Donate your old running shoes (running shoes only). Must be clean and in good condition. No tears, no holes. You wouldn’t want someone else wearing your smelly damaged shoes, right? (2) Tie the shoelaces of the pair so we won’t be searching for a missing shoes. (3) Attach an info card/sheet with the ff. details: size, men’s or women’s, inspirational message to the recipient. (4) You may or not put your name on the info card. (5) Drop off your old and preloved running shoes at the donation boxa at the main mall ground floor of Banilad Town Centre (BTC).

Since Kyle started last Feb. 1, he’s collected 14 pairs. “I want to see the running community grow by helping those who have the ability but no capacity,” he said. “Who knows, one of the recipients might be a future Olympian!”

For more details, check Instagram or FB: @heartforsolesph. And in advance for donating to our less fortunate runner-friends, Kyle says: SHOE-lamat!

Heart to heart talk

Bunny Pages, my father who literally (at 6-foot-tall) and figuratively (as head of our family and business) stands tall, had a serious affliction the past few weeks. He had recently been complaining of fatigue and shortness of breath. After a battery of examinations that included 2D Echo and blood tests, an ECG, a stress test, and eventually, an angiogram — he was scheduled for open heart surgery.

My dad was the epitome of strength and stamina. He had exercised all his life. From winning 3rd place in a body-building contest (there were only three contestants; sorry to reveal that, dad) to his almost daily basketball games with BAPRO in Bacolod, to his 6 a.m. singles tennis matches with Dodong Hermosisima and Henry See — my dad was fit, robust, possessed an endless reservoir of energy (he could negotiate deals or give speeches all day long) and was a positive force whose outlook in life, never mind the darkness or storms outside, was eternally sunny.

The news to the family was “heart-breaking.” After more deliberation and thanks to the advise of my best friend, Dr. Ronald Eullaran, we consulted top cardiologist Dr. Francisco “Jun” Chio, who recommended an angioplasty. Exactly one week today and after a complicated two-hour-long procedure with three stents inserted in his arteries, my dad Bunny is fine. He doesn’t need a bypass and he’s feeling, in his own words, “like a 20-year-old.”

Praise God!!!

Today, when the romantic heart is coddled and pampered, let’s ponder also on this muscular organ the size of our fist that’s lumped between our lungs which pumps blood through our veins.

We have to take good care of our heart. How? For one, our food intake is most important. A balanced diet with plenty of high-fiber vegetables and fruits and low in fats and sugar is universally suggested. Eat more fish. Regular check-ups is a must. An annual Executive Panel, preferably with a stress test and especially for those involved in triathlon and 90K bike rides is needed. Don’t run a marathon unless you’ve been checked. Reduce stress. Relax. Take deep breaths often. Monitor your BP and, when prescribed with medication, take them without miss. Finally.. Exercise. At least 45 minutes of daily sweating is recommended. Dr. Jun Chio told my dad that had he not been a regular exerciser, he could have succumbed to a heart attack.

This Valentine’s Day, let’s heed the words of Jose Mari Chan: Please be careful with your heart…

Buddy Andrada: Why, why, why?

I don’t understand this penchant for clinging on to power forever. Take the case of Col. Salvador Andrada. I’ve known him since 1986. That was the year when I started joining tennis tournaments. That was the year Andrada became president of the Philippine Tennis Association (Philta).

For 20 years until 2006, Andrada was Philta chieftain. Was that dynasty too long? Absolutely. It’s not like he produced a Pinoy version of Djokovic or Murray or Kerber. (Come to think of it, those three were not even born when Andrada headed Philta in ’86!)

If you find that two-decade-long overstaying tenure as ludicrous, wait till you hear this: Andrada is back. He reinstated himself last June. Unbelievable. As we say in Bisaya, baga ug nawong.

When Jean Henri Lhuillier (the main backer of the Davis Cup team and the CEO of Cebuana Lhuillier), and Philta VP Randy Villanueva (who helped bring the five Davis Cup sorties here in Plantation Bay Resort and Spa) questioned Andrada’s return, he vowed to step down. But, as the cliche goes, promises are meant to be broken. In a Philta board meeting last Wednesday — just after our Davis Cup team, led by Ruben Gonzales and Treat Huey, defeated Indonesia — the transfer of power was to have been effected.

Lhuillier, 47, would preside as the new Philta head and Andrada would gracefully exit. But like a stinging backhand that stabbed Jean Henri flatfooted, Andrada reversed his decision.

“We walked out of the meeting because we were made to understand during our last board meeting that Col. Andrada had decided to step down for health reasons,” Lhuillier said. “As it turned out, this was not the case.”

I know Jean Henri and you cannot find someone with more enthusiasm and passion for tennis. He is selfless, humble, approachable, has contributed tens of millions to the game, and whose only objective is for the upliftment of Philippine tennis.

I do not understand the Philta board members who voted for Andrada over Lhuillier, namely Romy Magat, Paranaque Mayor Edwin Olivarez, Dr. Pablo Olivarez (attending in behalf of daughter Edna Nguyen), and the father and son Manny and Martin Misa. They have plenty of explaining to do.

“We wanted to participate in this election properly,” said Randy Villanueva, “but they misled us and now we’ll look at our legal options.”

Andrada is a “trapo;” an 82-year-old career politician disguised as a sportsman. Power-hungry. Selfish. Old. Like his buddy Peping Cojuangco.

In the Super Bowl, Tom Brady is super

In this era of Michael Phelps, Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Roger Federer and (should I include him?) Floyd Mayweather, Jr., when we are all witnesses to the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) athletes, one man has enshrined himself as NFL’s best quarterback.

Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. is old at 39. In this merciless sport when a 314-lb. linebacker can bulldoze your body from behind, when injuries are ever-present and the banging and hammering of quarterbacks is the defense’s No. 1 goal, Tom Terrific is terrific.

“Brady is getting better with age,” said Lapu-Lapu City councilor Harry Radaza, a long-time football fan. “That cements Brady’s legacy. He went from ‘arguably’ the best QB to ‘definitively’ the best. I would love to see him retire but he still wants to play. That means we get to see the GOAT for another 4 years. Enjoy it while we can! And did you know he was the 199th pick? When the rookie met owner Robert Kraft, he told him, ‘I’m the best decision this organization has ever made.’”

With the Super Bowl, I did not get to watch the live telecast last Monday. It was only late that night when I switched on the Sports Illustrated channel 763 that I saw the important moments of SB LI: the Patriots were down 9-28 with 14 minutes left. No way they could mount a comeback. But they scored and scored — 25 unanswered points to zero for the Falcons — en route to a miraculous 34-28 victory in front of 70,807 fans in Houston.

The highlight was Julian Edelman’s catch with 2:03 left in the 4th. Surrounded by three Falcons defenders, Edelman was able to catch the throw of Brady with the ball floating inches from the ground.

Ping-J Villegas, writing from New Jersey, watched the game at home with his wife Jenn: “The game was one of the best since I moved to the U.S. 20 years ago. It was nerve-wrecking. At first, I thought the game would be lousy because of the score before the 2nd half. I guess Lady GaGa woke up Brady, hehe. I made a bet with my boss that the Patriots will win and now I have a free lunch to collect. It was dead at work at Bloomberg for a Monday morning. A lot of people called in sick or just worked from home.”

My wife’s cousin Richard Baluyot, who lives in Atlanta, said, “I’m watching the news and the city is in a somber state. The fans are heartbroken. When the Falcons returned, there was only a small crowd to greet them. Here it’s called Monday Mourning.”

Russell Westbrook as sub is a snub

After yesterday’s Super Bowl and Lady Gaga show, this weekend it’s the NBA All-Star Game with John Legend in Louisiana. It’s the 66th edition of this star-studded show, when 7-footers fly to dunk, when the defense is absent and nobody wants to foul, when last year, the West defeated the East, 196-173. Can you believe that offensive output? Are we about to see the league’s first-ever score exceeding 200? It’s possible.

This 2017 All-Star Game has been controversial. Let’s talk about Russell Westbrook. Last year and the year before, he was named the All-Star MVP. Thus far this season, the 6-foot-3 OKC Thunder guard has been averaging incredible numbers: 31 PPG, 10.3 APG and 10.4 RPG. Against Memphis last Friday, he recorded his 25th triple-double. If he continues at this pace, he’ll become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1962 to achieve double-figure in rebounds, assists and points. Consider this: Westbrook is achieving triple-double stats while averaging 31 points per game.

“Such a feat (is) a remarkable achievement.. if not the greatest individual season in NBA history,” said Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo Sports.

So what’s the controversy with Westbrook? It’s this: While he’s en route to possibly winning the year’s MVP trophy — Westbrook was not picked to start for the West in the All-Star Game. He’ll be a reserve, waiting in the bench, clapping for the First 5 to jump ball.

“It is what it is,” Westbrook said. “That’s the nature of the business, the game. I just play. I don’t play for All-Star bids. I play to win championships and every night I compete at a high level, and it’ll work out. I just continue doing what I’m doing and play the game the right way, and everything else will work out.”

Here’s what happened: For the first time, the NBA changed the rules on how the All-Star players get selected. The voting system this season is comprised of the media (25%), the players (25%) and the fans (50%).

In summary, James Harden and Steph Curry were picked and Westbrook was dislodged. Understandably, this issue is debatable; Harden and Curry are top-notch. Still, given Westbrook’s outlandish start, he deserves to be a starter.

“His absence from the starting lineup,” said Nicholas Goss of NESN, “is arguably the worst snub in All-Star game history (in any sport).”

Agree. I’ve never been a Westbrook fan. But how can you deny someone who’s achieved triple-double in 25 of OKC’s 52 games?

Super Bowl LI in the Land of Trump

If you’re wondering what “LI” stands for, that’s the Roman numeral for 51. Tomorrow (9:30 a.m., Phil. time), it’s the 51st Super Bowl. An estimated 110 million TV viewers will watch “Super Bowl Sunday” in what’s unofficially billed as American’s national holiday. It’s the single most watched television broadcast in the U.S.

“Football is perfect for TV,” said Dan Mastous, my long-time tennis friend who resides in New Hampshire and was in Cebu recently with wife Julie to swim with the butandings and trek to Tops. “The games are played once a week, so there is plenty of time for discussion and build up. The excitement grows as the game approaches. Even the commercials have become ‘must see TV.’ Sometimes the commercials are better than the game.”

How much does a 30-second ad cost? During the first Super Bowl in 1967, it cost $42,000. Expensive, yes. But here’s the mind-boggling figure from last year: $5 million. That’s $166,666 or PhP8.3 million per second.

On the game of American football, it’s thrilling. Back in Dec. of 2014, my CIS schoolmate and now New York resident Ping-J Villegas picked me up in his BMW Boxster convertible to watch the New York Giants and Washington Redskins in MetLife Stadium. Drinking beer and devouring hotdogs in the freezing cold while watching Eli Manning pass to Odell Beckham was an unforgettable two-hour experience.

With Super Bowl LI, this is the finals of the National Football League (NFL). When the season started four months ago, 32 teams competed. The New England Patriots amassed a 14-2 regular season record while the Atlanta Falcons scored 11-5. Both teams clash tomorrow in Houston.

What’s electrifying is the clash of the quarterbacks. The Patriots have Tom Brady, the 39-year-old four-time Super Bowl champ who stands 6-foot-4 and is married to Gisele Bundchen. At the opposite end is the Falcon’s Matt Ryan. Though they’re of the same height and weight (around 220 lbs.), Ryan’s credentials do not match Brady’s but he might have a better prize: Ryan is slated to be this season’s MVP.

Oddsmakers tilt the betting on the Patriots. Understandable because they’ve won four times during the Brady-Belichick era. 

“It’s a gladiator sport which has plenty of explosive action and precision that at times is difficult to understand for the layman,” Dan Mastous said. True. And, apart from Brady vs. Ryan and those $5 million ads, there’s the halftime show featuring Lady Gaga.

Haide Acuña: marathoner turned dragon boat paddler

Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a boat of a traditional Chinese design, typically decorated to resemble a dragon, propelled with paddles by a large crew and used for racing.”

More than 2,000 years ago, dragon-boating started in China. It originated from superstitious beliefs that racing boats would bring bountiful crops. Today, the sport of dragon boat in the country is “making waves.” Last August, the Phil. Navy Dragon Boat team was the winner in the Ordos International Nadam Dragon in Inner Mongolia. Last Sept., it was the Filipino paddlers who harvested six medals in Moscow.

Here in Cebu from April 28 to 30, we will all be witnesses to the 2017 Cebu Dragon Boat Fiesta. I can’t wait to watch that event and I’ll write more in future columns.

Atty. Haide Acuña, a celebrated ultramarathoner, has since hopped from running on the road to paddling at sea.

“I’m very new at this sport,” Acuña said, starting only last June and admitting, “Hadlok ang bawod sa Mactan Channel at first but you get used to it,” opting to wear a PFD (personal flotation device).

“Unlike running where you can be very independent or train like a lone wolf on your own,” she said, “in DB you have to rely on and trust your teammates to show the same dedication, commitment, discipline and work ethic as you. It can be frustrating at times. It challenges your patience and people skills. That’s why DB is a great tool for teambuilding in the corporate setting kay kung dili synchronized inyo bugsay, pildi jud mo.”

DB is also ideal as cross-training for endurance athletes. Acuña cites Gruppo Habagat, whose members include triathletes, runners, adventure races and mountain climbers.

“It is by no means an easy sport (even for an endurance athlete) because paddling demands that you learn a specific skill set,” she said. “It is a sport that rewards consistency, diligence, discipline, dedication and teamwork. Even those who are not naturally athletic to begin with can try this sport.”

Dragon boat in the country has been around for 25 years. “But in Cebu, we only started in 2015 with teams like Kugtong Paddlers, Gruppo Habagat, Lexmark (now disbanded), Bogo DB Team. This year, 3 to 4 teams are being formed including a possible team composed of cancer survivors and the team by Niño Abarquez, whose base will be at the SRP,” Acuña said. “Our topography, climate and natural affinity to the sea and rivers for inland paddlers make for perfect conditions for this sport.”

Roger the Brave

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(Credit: Rex Features)

Down 3-1 in the fifth after emerging from the dugout for a medical timeout and with Rafael Nadal looping that high-bouncing topspin, who’d have predicted that Roger Federer would break Rafa’s serve twice, slam that backhand crosscourt for winners and win five straight games to hoist No. 18?

“I told myself to play free,” Roger said. “Be free in your head, be free in your shots, go for it. The brave will be rewarded here.”

Roger the Brave. Standing inside the baseline and not waiting for Rafa’s spin-loaded shots to bounce roof high, Roger pounced for half-volley unreturnables, scoring 73 winners to Rafa’s 35 and pounding 20 aces to Nadal’s four.

“He put a lot of balls in, and taking a lot of risks,” Rafa said. “And taking the ball very early, playing very fast.”

The first four sets were unexciting. Like appetizers to the entree or prelimaries to the main bout, they were designed to whet our appetite for what would be one of the most thrilling endings in tennis history.

In the final set of the whole Oz Open, Roger had plenty of chances early but failed. “I could have left disappointed there and accepted that fact,” Roger said. “I kept on fighting. I kept on believing, like I did all match long today, that there was a possibility that I could win this.”

Positive. Hungry. Inspired. At the brink of losing a painful one to his nemesis, Roger found a way. As Rafa emerged from the 4th set all-confident, the Spaniard looked destined for another one of those endings we’ve seen before. “Oh, no, not again!” we all screamed. But Roger, like the Roger of 10 years past, or even better, found a way.

Rafa did not lose. Roger won.

Never mind his high-risk brand of tennis where his flat balls would clear the net by an inch, he went for it. “Bahala na,” if we were to say it. If I lose, I’ll lose dying, bloodied, red like my Swiss flag. But if I win…

And win he did. For RF fans, the script couldn’t have been written any better. Against Nadal. Down in the 5th. Not winning a Grand Slam since 2012. Six months out injured. Aged 35, same as the ladies’ winner. Rod Laver presenting the trophy inside his home. Lights out, spotlights blazing, Mirka smiling. An 18th major, tying him with golf’s Jack Nicklaus.

“I would have said a great event would be quarters,” Roger said. “Fourth round would be nice.”

God is good. God is good to those who are good. Last Sunday night, Roger was too good.

Maestro or Matador? We, the tennis fans, win

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Few rivalries in sport can rival the one of Federer-Nadal. Swiss vs. Spaniard. Single-handed backhand utilizing the right arm against a two-fisted lefty. GQ’s “Most Stylish Man of 2016” vs. the underwear model of Tommy Hilfiger. Wimbledon grass maestro vs. French Open clay-courter.

But as contrasting as their playing styles are, you cannot find two future Hall of Famers (with a combined 31 majors) who are more humble, genuine and courteous — the perfect role models off and on the court in this era of trash-talking Trump and Duterte. (Or Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.)

Who will win tonight? Ha-ha. It’s like asking me if I prefer biking or running, or tennis over a steak dinner. Crazy comparison, I know, but that’s the offering in tonight’s menu.

Tennis is like boxing. It’s mano-a-mano. But what makes a five-hour marathon played inside that rectangle even more challenging is this: you’re alone. Split in between by a 3-foot-tall net while swatting that bouncing yellow ball, there’s nothing else that will separate Roger and Rafa.

Nobody expected this. Not even these two legends who’ll trade 19-shot blows, slice drop volleys, and pump fists while respectfully staring the other. Tonight, blood in the form of sweat will flood Rod Laver Arena. Passing shots will wow the Aussies as 205-kph aces will fly; Roger fans will paint their faces red while Rafa’s followers will hoist bandera Española.

In this era of boring backhands by Murray and Djokovic, an endless pingpong of counterpunches, who’d have expected the 17th and 9th seeds to meet? Destiny.

For Roger, expect him to cry if he wins No. 18; nobody is more gifted than RF (even his baby-making skills are incomparable: he has two sets of twins, girls then boys, with wife Mirka).

For Rafa, tired after a five-hour slugfest with Dimitrov and unfairly given only 39 hours of rest compared to Fed’s three days, it’s all about his heart. No one gives 1,001 percent, screams louder, punishes his body more than the Mallorcan. Roger fans hate Rafa but they honor his doggedness and grit. But as ferocious and Spanish bullfighter-like as he is, Rafa is polite and gracious.

In defeat or in triumph, he and Roger exhibit this outstanding humility — not just as athletes but as human beings. Consider ourselves blessed. This is it. I’m doubtful if this boxing slugfest — their 35th fight — will ever happen again. Go, Roger! Vamos!

A Swiss watches the Swiss

Dr. Fritz Strolz was born in Switzerland and graduated in ETH Zurich — the same university where Albert Einstein studied. When we visited two summers ago, Uncle Fritz drove his trusted Alfa Romeo and toured us. We inspected the artifacts inside the IOC Museum in Lausanne and climbed Mt. Rigi, gazing at the Swiss Alps. Dr. Strolz also brought us to the Tennis Club Old Boys — historic because a young kid learned to hit forehands there. That child was Roger Federer.

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With Dr. Fritz Strolz at the IOC Museum

Dr. Strolz and his beautiful wife Pearle are in Australia this week and he sent me this message two days ago: “We are headed to the Rod Laver Arena to watch the Maestro against Stanimal! The Swiss fans have the torture of choice. We are in a dilemma. To whom do the hearts fly? Roger, the biggest player in the tennis circus, who inspired the world with his comeback? Or Stan, the tireless fighter, who also gave us a lot of great sport hours?”

The Strolz couple had good seats. They sat in Row 20 with each ticket priced at Aus$296 (P11,250). “The tournament is world-class,” he said. “Great stadiums, excellent infrastructure, helpful and friendly staff.” That day — Jan. 26 — was special not only for Switzerland but also because it was Australia Day.

“For us, it was a crazy game,” Dr. Strolz said. “There were all ingredients for a tennis fire. Stan or Roger, Roger or Stan? The answer kept waiting long. As Roger fans, we trembled. Stan had advantages in the 5th set before he gave Roger the decisive break. Roger was supported loudly during the whole game.”

The Federer vs. Wawrinka battle was a seesaw fight. Roger won the first two sets. Stan took the next two and gained the momentum. In the decider, Stan had two break points that could have sealed the match. He missed those and lost an error-prone service game to hand his doubles partner (Jasmin and I watched them win the Olympic gold in Beijing) and Davis Cup teammate the victory.

Among the 18,644 tennis fans who watched were plenty of Swiss. “There were spectators who painted their faces with the Swiss flag,” Dr. Strolz said. “All RF fan articles were sold out.”

Why, I asked the man who lives in the same city (Basel), is Roger so loved and respected?

“It is certainly his record,” Dr. Strolz said. “On the other side, his style: elegant, stylish and light-footed. In addition, his restraint and humility, on and off the court. He always sports good behavior.”

Mon Fernandez: an athlete fighting for athletes

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(Photo from Spin.ph/Jerome Ascano)

I spoke to the man often called “The greatest Filipino ballplayer” last Friday. In a freewheeling exchange that touched on topics like the Phil. Sports Institute and Batang Pinoy and how he’s grown taller and now stands 6-foot-7, Ramon Fernandez is one of us. He’s Bisaya. Born in Leyte and now residing in Cebu, his goal is to extend the reach of sports beyond Metro Manila.

“I’ll be visiting more cities around the Visayas in February,” said the 63-year-old PSC Commissioner. “Under my responsibility are the Phil. National Games (PNG), the University Games, collegiate games like the UAAP and CESAFI, and more.”

He wants to institutionalize the Batang Pinoy. “Last year, it included the 17-and-under category but we’re bringing it back to purely 15 and below,” Fernandez said. “PNG is for 18 and above. For those between 15 to 18, we’ll have a tertiary league.”

Mon and I talked about the PSC and POC. They had a gathering early this month in Tagaytay where the functions of each sports body was clarified.

“We now have a clear delineation of roles,” he said. “We made it clear that the National Sports Associaitons (NSAs) are the ones responsible for preparing the athletes for international competition: the SEA Games, Asian Games, Olympics. The role of the POC is to accredit these athletes chosen by the NSAs. Finally, for us at the PSC, we are tasked to supply the funding for the training of the athletes. We have no say with regards to the choosing of the players and coaches. But we help in sending them abroad and with their incentives.”

Part of POC’s role, Fernandez added, is to help in athlete development and in the training of coaches. “Visit the IOC website and check the Olympic Solidarity Committee,” he said, noting the 2015 report for each NOC and how other nations have availed of these progams.

“We never knew that. What’s sad is the POC availed of only one program called ‘Sports For All’ that had a small budget. There are various other programs that the POC could have availed of with millions of dollars as budget,” he said.

“We just had a meeting with the Leyte Sports Academy officers and they told us of their visit to Peping Cojuangco after Yolanda. And instead of getting assistance, they were scolded by Peping. I got mad. You guys better tell me all of this! I’m setting up a media bureau so that complaints of athletes can be heard.”

Can the 17th seed with 17 majors win in ’17?

Roger Federer has not lifted a Grand Slam trophy since Wimbledon 2012. Aged 35 in a sport where you start playing at five, the almost-never-injured Roger succumbed to knee injury (and surgery) last year. He was out for six months. This, despite a previous record where he appeared in 65 consecutive majors.

This 2017, the 17-major titlist is the lowly 17th seed. Can he or his compatriot Rafael Nadal — both a combined age of 65 — triumph in Melbourne? Do the old dogs still have the dog-fight to clash in the finals? I hope. I wish.

Rafa beat Sasha Zverez last Saturday in five sets. Same with Roger. Against Kei Nishikori, RF finished with 24 aces and 83 winners.

“The last shot, when it didn’t come back, it was an enormous joy,” Roger said, after an exhausting 3 hours and 24 minutes. “I think I’m playing better and better. I felt great in the fifth (set). Great energy.”

How about those Zverev brothers? The younger German (Sascha, only 19) pushed Nadal to nearly fall down in Down Under. The older one (Misha, 29) will play Federer in today’s quarterfinals.

Tennis fan or not, if you have cable TV, watch the Oz Open finale this week. Or, with internet connection, go to YouTube and choose from a myriad of 15-minute summarized contests.

NICK TORRES. A former Class A netter whom I exchanged volleys with at the defunct Cebu Tennis Club, Mr. Torres sent me this message last Sunday:

“When I saw Aleksandr (for the first time) beat RF last month, I was so impressed by his maturity and demeanor that I told my friends that he was a sure bet for top 10. I only saw his elder bro today. I was saddened that Mischa didn’t come into his full potential earlier. Unbelievable how he dismantled one of the best returners and defensive specialists of the game with the almost-extinct serve and volley game. Best of all, if you appreciate humility, grace, and magnanimity in victory, ya gotta see his match with Murray.”

Then, yesterday morning, this SMS from him: “Now that he has the best chance in a very long time to win another slam, my love for RF got the better of me. I’m rooting for him again. Zverev or no Zverev! A 17th seed winning a Slam? Only one man could do that. The G.O.A.T.!”

El Presidente the Commissioner

When I asked Ramon Fernandez — possibly the greatest player our basketball-crazy nation has ever produced — if he still follows the PBA or watches Durant or Westbrook, the answer was as swift as Mon’s famous one-handed running shot: No.

Apart from Manny Pacquiao and Robert Jaworkski, and maybe Efren Reyes and James Yap, there is no sportsman in our 7,107 islands who is more recognizable than Mon.

Just revisit with me his PBA statistics: four MVP awards and 19 championship trophies that saw him don the uniforms for San Miguel, Purefoods, Tanduay, Manila Beer and Toyota. He is the PBA’s all-time leading scorer with 18,996 points and his 8,652 rebounds is No. 1 in the league’s 41-year-old history. He is the all-time leader in blocks and minutes played, and ranks second in assists (to Jaworski) and in steals (to Johnny Abarrientos). In a PBA career that spanned 22 years, his statistics are akin to combining the records of Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.

But when I attempted to talk basketball with him in our 20-minute conversation the other night, he pivoted and dribbled way. The reason: El President is now PSC Commissioner. His game encompases all of Philippine sports.

When Pres. Duterte assembled his team to lead PHL sports last July, at the top of his list was Butch Ramirez, his long-time friend and the former head of Davao sports (and the PSC). Next, he recommended a sports giant whom he’s idolized since the 1970s.

Mon Fernandez is one of four Phil. Sports Commission (PSC) commisioners that include Charles Maxey, Celia Kiram and Arnold Agustin.

“For the last six months,” Mon said, “we have been busy cleaning house, putting the PSC house in order. We have been meeting with various stakeholders: the Local Govt. Units (LGUs), the National Sports Associations (NSAs), schools, athletes.”

The commissioner has been part of a listening tour, collecting inputs from everyone. And the good news is, led by a Davaoeño president and a Davaoeño PSC head in Butch Ramirez, our national sports programs are no longer limited to the secluded gates of Imperial Manila. That was the complaint before; everything’s in Manila: the money, facilities, coaches. And the Maasin, Leyte-born Fernandez, who has called Cebu home for the past many years, especially after his marriage to the dynamic Karla Kintanar, is one reason for this change. Said Mon: “We are decentralizing sports.” 

Coral Tee and a rainful of blessings

Cebu Country Club hosts dozens of tournaments each year; but nothing compares to the Coral Tee — a member-guest invitational held every Sinulog week (Wednesday to Saturday) that’s now on its 36th year.

Atty. Jovi Neri, one of CCC’s top golfers, said that the 36th Coral Invitational, next to Manila Golf’s Golden Tee, is the second oldest member-guest invitational in the country.

But last week may have been one of the most challenging.

“While we assumed that we would have a wet Coral Tee as early as two months ago, we did not expect it to be this wet,” said CCC board director and golf chairman Julius “Jayjay” Neri, Jr. “We were very nervous on opening day (Wednesday) as it was raining most of the morning. Thursday had the least rain and gave us hope that conditions would improve.”

After the 430 participants completed the first two days, it poured heavily again on Friday and the forecast on Saturday was more rain.

“It was crucial that the tournament would not be stopped due to the weather or the Calcutta bets as well as the ‘Palusotan’ would have to be cancelled because these were based on the 2nd day scores,” said Jayjay. “And half of the field were playing on that rainy Saturday.”

To make things more problematic, there was no mobile signal. “I got to the club at 9:30 a.m. and did not leave until after the awarding ceremony,” said Jayjay. “Twice on Saturday morning, I was on the verge of declaring the course unplayable. But just as I was about to do so, the rain would slow down.”

Jayjay Neri, who is also the general manager of SunStar, considers being able to finish the 36th Coral Tee despite the torrential rain (and having no major accidents apart from a few who slipped due to the muddy conditions) as a major blessing.

Talking of blessing, two others received major surprises. The first was Rolando Casing of Cagayan de Oro. Last Friday on the 3rd hole of CCC, he used a 7 Iron Titleist 762 club and swung. The ball flew high above the Banilad trees, bounced on the green, rolled and disappeared for a hole in one. Witnessing the rare occurence were Richard Hong, Benedict Uy and Hisashi Miyashita. As reward, Mr. Casing took home a Jeep Wrangler. 

Another blessing happened to my good friend Alvin Alazas, a former CCC club champion. At the conclusion of the Coral Tee, the most awaited moment is the grand raffle.

“In the past, I always bought the tickets numbered 118 and 318,” said Alvin, in our phone conversation yesterday. “The number 118 is my civil wedding date (Jan. 18) and 318 is our church wedding date (March 18).”

But as fate would have it, these numbers were taken. Alvin had to choose another raffle number and picked “018.”

“The first number called was ‘0,’” he said. “In our table were Jiji Gullas, Manolet Heredia, Hector Almario, Armando Serafin and Peter Mancao. We have one ticket, they said, referring to our consortium (we bought tickets as a group). When the next number ‘1’ was called, the others, said, sorry, we didn’t win.”

It turns out, Alvin bought his own ticket. Finally, when the number “8” was called and Alvin’s name was announced, all his friends jumped.

“It was exactly 25 years ago that I first joined Coral Tee,” said Alvin. “That was in 1992 and I’ll never forget that tournament because the first day was my wedding day!”

Tomorrow, Alvin and Mimi celebrate their silver anniversary.  And as gift, a brandnew 3.6-liter V6 Jeep Wrangler.

Australian Open experience

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As we Cebuanos celebrate Sinulog today, fireworks will brighten the Down Under sky tomorrow as the year’s first tennis Grand Slam begins. It’s the Australian Open.

Last June, we had a chance to visit Melbourne  — adjudged by The Economist as “the most liveable city in the world” for six straight years. Is this “world’s best” distinction, based on my trip, valid and true? Absolutely.

My wife, daughter and I cycled along the Yarra River for two glorious hours. We parked our rented bike and smelled the flowers inside the Royal Botanic Gardens. We boarded the tram service and toured  — for free. (Yes, free city-wide transport.) We sojourned to Queen Victoria Market, disembarked at Flinders Street Station and strolled along their beautiful parks. No wonder it’s often called “Australia’s garden city.”

Best of all? If you’re a tennis fanatic… we got to play tennis inside the Australian Open court.

As soon as we landed in Tullamarine Airport from Sydney, our first objective was to hike the sanctum that I’ve long wanted to visit for years. Melbourne Park was nearly empty when we arrived past 5 p.m. The gift shop was still open and we bought a few souvenirs. Then, we made a reservation for our most important activity in the city: to play tennis.

Forty hours later, we entered Show Court No. 3 — their largest stadium after Rod Laver Arena, Hisense Arena and Margaret Court Arena. After renting Head and Wilson rackets (not our preferred Babolat brand) and borrowing six balls, our hearts pounded. We were ready. The stadium lights illuminated the stadium like it were 12 noon. Three thousand empty seats surrounded us with Jasmin as ballgirl and me and my daughter Jana swatting backhands. Our rubber shoes squeaked as we danced on the blue Plexicushion surface. Each smashing topspin reverberated upon impact. In my 30+ years of tennis-playing, that was one father-and-daughter experience that I’ll forever cherish.

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I revisit that memory because starting tomorrow until two Sundays from today, all tennis eyes will be transfixed on Melbourne. It might be Andy or Novak, although I’m praying for Rafa or Roger; it might be Angelique or Serena — regardless of the victor, the sport of tennis will be victorious because of the Oz Open.

An estimated 720,000 spectators will flood Melbourne Park — a venue that’s part of a 40-hectare greenland named Melbourne and Olympic Parks (the city hosted the 1956 Olympics).

With tennis, what makes the Australian Open different? Wimbledon is formal and classy, with the attendees wearing suits and dresses and snacking on strawberries in cream. The U.S. Open in New York is humongous. I recall the 23,771-seater Arthur Ashe Stadium. Fabby Borromeo and I sat at the uppermost seats watching Andre Agassi and it’s like looking down from the 7th floor of a building. Roland Garros in Paris is played on brown red clay.

Melbourne is hot. Literally. The sizzling heat in January — an oddity because the rest of the planet experiences winter — is often unbearable for the players. Imagine playing for five sets with 40C temperature? Spectators arrive wearing shorts and sleeveless tops. Melbourne is laid-back, unhurried and friendly.

Aldeguer looks ahead to 2017 and beyond

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Michael Aldeguer (center) receiving the award in the 2009 Cebu Sports Awards with (from left) Jun Migallen, John Pages, Manny Pacquiao, Jingo Quijano and Raffy Osumo

Pinoy Pride has become too big a show for the true boxing fans in the provinces, said Michael Pastrano Aldeguer, the president and CEO of ALA Promotions.

That’s quite a revelation. Having concluded its 39th edition last November, the “Pinoy Pride” brand has become synonymous with tremendous success. Why mess with it?

But Michael Aldeguer — the first Asian promoter to organize boxing events in the U.S. — is realistic and forthright.

“Pinoy Pride will be for the bigger fights in the bigger cities around the world,” he said.

Ever since the ALA gym was founded by Antonio Lopez Aldeguer in 1985 — whose mission then and now continues to be training aspiring boxers, including the out-of-school youth, to become the best that they can be (including becoming world champions) — the ALA group has continued to evolve and prosper.

NEW FOR 2017. “We are looking to launch different events all over the country and abroad,” Michael Aldeguer said. “We will continue to provide an avenue for prospects all over Philippines and the world as we are working on bringing back the smaller events to connect more to the fans.”

There’ll expand a new feature called “Fists of the Future,” which they launched in San Mateo, California last July. It will continue under the “ALA Stars on Tour” brand.

“It will be smaller than Pinoy Pride and will be held in smaller cities around the Philippines and the U.S.,” he said. “We saw the potential of growing our U.S. events in the coming years; but the plan for 2017 is to go more to the provinces around the Philippines as there are a lot of talents that need to be showcased.”

ALA Boxing’s “IDOL” will also remain. “IDOL will be our grassroots program that will provide young fighters an avenue to fight and develop their potential,” Aldeguer said. “The TV show Pinoy Pride is consistently one of the top Sunday shows. This proves that our market is growing. Filipinos will always have a healthy appetite for boxing. As long as ALA Promotions and ABS-CBN continue to do its part, Phil. boxing will soar.”

To Michael Aldeguer, today is the best era for boxing.

“Manny (Pacquiao) is back as world champion and looking great,” he said. “Philippine boxing has four world champions and one interim world champion. It could have been six if Donnie Nietes didn’t vacate his title to move up in weight but he will be fighting for a world title this year.”

MMA FOR ALA? “ALA Promotions is officially ALA Sports Promotions International, Inc. (ASPI),” Aldeguer said. “We’re not an exclusive promoter of boxing, however focused we are to the sport. It will always be our top priority but this does not mean we are not open to expanding and supporting other fields. I believe the upsurge of MMA helps people appreciate the athletes and sports, in general, including boxing, therefore raising awareness leading to the respect that these unique professionals deserve.”

INSPIRATION. “Boxing is a part of the life of every Filipino since the time of Pancho Villa to Flash Elorde to Manny Pacquiao,” he said. “From the beginning, it has been ALA Boxing’s commitment to help sustain and grow the sport as a means of helping underprivileged kids achieve their dreams. While it’s true that not all who go into boxing succeed the way Pacquiao and Nietes have, ALA Boxing believes that there is a future for the sport.”

Aldeguer spoke about the beginnings of both Pacman and Ahas.

“We can draw inspiration from their stories. Boxing has helped improve their lives and their families. Pacquiao left home and turned to boxing at the young age of 14 because of poverty. Nietes came to Cebu to work as a janitor for ALA Gym before he turned to boxing,” he said.

“We hope to continue working towards supporting the stability and growth of boxing. We can do this by creating more avenues for both the new and experienced fighters; this will bring their dreams closer to reality and build a stronger future for Philippine boxing.”

Michael Aldeguer looks back at 2016

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Of the three sons of Antonio and Lou Aldeguer, it’s the middle child Michael who took after his dad in pursuing a life that’s dedicated to sports.

As president of ALA Promotions, Michael has been an aggressor. If he were a boxer, he’s not a counterpuncher but one who’s offense-minded, always moving forward, jabbing and attacking. To date, ALA Promotions is now on its 39th edition of the Pinoy Pride series.

I’ve known Michael since we were in high school. He studied in Sacred Heart and I dribbled as CIS point guard and we faced each other many times on the parquet floor. As the year ended last week, I asked Michael to revisit 2016 and to look forward to 2017 (Part 2 will appear on Sunday).

“The year 2016 was a successful year for ALA Promotions,” said Michael. “We partnered with the biggest promoters in the industry, Top Rank and Mexico’s Zanfer, and worked with a new sponsor, Tecate.”

While tracing its roots in Cebu and contuining their tradition of holding promotions at home (in April, it was an overflowing crowd at the Cebu City Sports Center and, last Nov., at the Cebu Coliseum), the ALA brand has gone international. Michael is proudest of the impact the fighters have accomplished in America.

“We staged more shows that our fellow Filipinos, especially those abroad, could be proud of,” he said, citing the partnership with TV giant ABS-CBN and TFC (including their top-rated Sunday show) as essential to the growth of Phil. boxing.

I asked Michael about his appraisal of the ALA fighters.

“In boxing, it’s always difficult to assess a fighter,” he said. “Evaluating the opponent’s caliber is just as important as looking at each fight’s outcome.”

That’s true. In any sport, it’s easy to look good when your opponent is weak; but when you’re up against the best in the world, the scorecard changes.

The best example is Albert Pagara. Prior to fighting Cesar Juarez, the WBO #1, he was undefeated in 26 fights and could have continued this no-loss streak by taking the easier route.

“He could have fought a lower level opponent but you will never know if a fighter is ready or not until they are tested,” said Michael, of Pagara’s 8th round KO loss in California last July. “It was a good performance for Albert but he got hit. It’s all part of a learning process, to see if a fighter can come back after a knock out loss.”

The ALA boxing gym has dozens of fighters. Michael talked about two of the most promising.

Jeo Santisima, only 20, hails from Masbate. He entered the ring four times in 2016 and knocked-out every one of this opponents, including former Phil. super bantamweight champ Jerry Nardo and former Phil. superfly and bantamweight champ Marco Demecillo.

“Santisima concluded this year’s performance with yet another sensational win over multi-international champion Rex Wao last Nov. in Pinoy Pride 39,” said Michael. 

“Santino” is his nickname and Michael says that he has shown two of the most important factors in becoming a star and a world champion — “great power and heart” — and believes Santisima is one of the hardest punchers in Philippine boxing today.

He also cited the undefeated WBO International Featherweight champ Mark “Magnifico” Magsayo. Against veteran and world title challenger Chris “The Hitman” Avalos last April at the CCSC, the 21-year-old from Bohol wowed the 25,000 fans in attendance.

“Magsayo’s performance this year secured him the No. 1 spot in Mark Butcher’s ‘Five rising Asia stars of boxing to watch in 2017,’ released online via Asia Times,” said Michael. “Butcher called the fight a ‘bona fide Fight of The Year contender’ and stated that Magsayo ‘gatecrashed the world rankings with that stirring victory and illustrated he has the heart and spirit to overcome adversity.’”

Santino and Magnifico will have a busy 2017, said Michael, adding, “We will build them up and will work with different fighters from other stables all over the Philippines and abroad to support the steadfast growth of Philippine boxing.”