Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Bleachers' Brew #89 Stand & Deliver

(This appears in the Monday January 7, 2008 issue of Business Mirror.)

by rick olivares

She’s fractured her left arm more times than she can remember. She’s trained with members of the opposite sex who give no quarter (she asks for none as well). She’s endured two controversial losses including one that would have put her on the path towards Olympic gold; a goal for the Filipino athlete that is as elusive as the hunt for the most wanted leader of Al-Qaeda.

Marie Antoinette Rivero remains undeterred and unfettered. She keeps on coming. “I knew the risks of getting into taekwondo,” she says with a gentle softness that you suddenly realize that she’s only a teenager albeit one who has given sixteen of her almost 20 years of life to the sport. “I was warned about getting hurt and its demanding regimen if you want to be serious about it. For me it’s a challenge about not just winning a match but conquering myself.”

If you’re looking for some Zen Buddhism in here, I assure you that there’s none. If other people saw a world of hurt in taekwondo, Toni saw adventure and fun. She thought that ballet was nice but taekwondo seemed exciting. Her older brothers, Mark and JR, practitioners of the sport inspired her. Watching those Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies solidified the sport in her heart.

And she was a natural.

One day at the gym, a group of young jins were a man short and the coach asked young Toni if she was willing to take part and learn a lesson or two. Instead, her older sparring partner was on the receiving end of some powerful kicks. She learned from simply watching her brothers spar. Even her form was good.

And she displayed good form too on a beautiful Monday afternoon on the 30th of August in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. Bruised and battered, all she needed was one more win to barge into the medal round. As expected, a hostile Greek crowd awaited the then-16 year old. The Greeks’ Sydney Games medal winner Michailis Mouroutsos lost in the under 58 kg category and that left Elizavet Mystakidou (like Rivero) their medal hopeful in the women’s under 67 kg event.

Even at that age, she had learned to block out the external sounds and focus on the match. And despite a thigh and hand injury, she was outpointing Mystakidou. “I was getting some good hits but the judges were not scoring them,” she remembers like it was only yesterday. “But it was clearly a home court decision.”

Toni finished fourth and couldn’t contain her disappointment. She left Athens in tears but came back stronger with some great performances in the SEA and Asian Games. Mystakidou on the other hand, has never won in a major competition since.

“Everyone loses at one time or another,” she says. “It’s bouncing back that matters.”

When she was only 13 years old, she competed in an international tournament in Jordan where she was up against senior jins from Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and other countries. Technically she was underage for the fight but her coaches wrote a letter to the tournament committee and said that she was ready in both mind and body to tackle the tougher competition. She lost her second fight but in return, she came away with a world of knowledge and valuable international experience. “That left me more determined to make it,” she recalls with a laugh. “Kulang kulang pa talaga.”

The coach of the Philippine Taekwondo National Team is former Olympian Stephen Fernandez. He’s seen a lot of good fighters come and go, but Toni he says, “is special. She gets better every year.” Jobet Morales, her other coach in the national team and in Ateneo where she’s a freshman taking up Interdisciplinary Studies believes that if she can keep up with her progress, she can go down as one of our country’s all-time greats.

But that is far from Toni’s mind. She’s looking forward to the three-month grind of even tougher training in Korea prior to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. She likewise grateful to the sport that has allowed her to travel to other countries and meet a lot of people. And despite her young years, she has built a reservoir of good memories.

In the 2005 Manila SEA Games, she received the final torch relay from fellow Olympian Toni Leviste and lit the cauldron that signaled the start of the biennial games. If that was a honor, she fulfilled part of her dream her a few days later when she found herself competing for her second SEA Games gold. “The pressure was mounting. Donnie Geisler and Tshomlee Go had picked up their gold medals earlier and I was in the last match of the day. It was like the Cuneta Astrodome was going to explode from the tension and anticipation. I wasn’t afraid of my opponent, I was just afraid of disappointing everyone. When I was announced as the winner it was such a huge relief. There’s nothing like winning in front of your countrymen that’s why losing the chance to win a gold medal in Athens was a major disappointment. The victory isn’t just for the athlete but for everyone.”

But history has a strange way of sneaking up on you gain. In the just concluded Nakhon Ratchasima SEA Games in Thailand, Rivero (who also won a silver medal in the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar) once more found herself in the gold medal match against the home crown favorite. This time is was Thailand’s Cassandra Haller. Rivero was leading by three points in the early goings of the third round when she was repeatedly warned by the referee for phantom violations that eventually resulted in a points deduction. It was Athens all over again. Even more mysteriously, she knocked down Haller not once, but twice yet it was Haller who amassing points. Sensing biased officiating for the home team, even the Indonesians and Vietnamese began cheering for Rivero and Team Philippines. But sadly, the gold went to Haller. A disbelieving Rivero fell to the mat in tears as Fernandez had angry words for the officials. “The only way to win and not let anyone take away points from you is to knock your opponent out,” said a disgruntled Fernandez who has also experienced being on the receiving end of some poor officiating. “You have to expect bad calls and scoring if you or any other athlete from another country is up against the home team.”

The loss still leaves an ache in Rivero’s heart, but it’s not as bad anymore. Time after all, tends to heal certain things. But she’s confident. After all, every time she’s lost, she’s bounced back in a big time way.

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