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.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bleachers' Brew #99 Iron Hearts. Iron Men (and Woman).

(I am posting this in advance. This will come out in my column in the sports section of the Business Mirror on Monday, March 17, 2008. The interviews were done at Manila Polo Club last Saturday, March 8. Photos by Miggy Mendoza Story by Rick.)

It was dated 1982, but for all intents and purposes it could have happened just yesterday. It was one of those “holy shit” moments for Jay Jay De Ocampo who was already with a chip on his shoulder the size of a mountain. He was never the athletic sort but he always tried. Not everyone has an athletic bone anyway. It was more of being overweight. “Let’s call it for what I was… fat,” he says with a modicum of pride as he fishes out an old identification card where he looked like he even ate the refrigerator. Today, he resembles nothing like that person in the photo.

The picture might be of recent vintage, but 1982 is like decades ago. But through the video magic of youtube, De Ocampo who works for an investment holding company, watched American triathlete Julie Moss crawl towards the finish line during an Iron Man competition. Severely dehydrated, Moss’s body shut down and it was only through her sheer force of will that she finished. "I tell people that their first Ironman should be their best one, because finishing should be their only expectation," Moss said afterwards as she joined the race for her physiology thesis. Moss’ epic demonstration of determination is largely credited for the growth of triathlon as a sport.

And for De Ocampo it meant no more reading books on how to swim in zip locks while getting a tan on the steps of the shallow portion of a swimming pool. It represented an opportunity for him to find out who he really was. And the great thing about taking up triathlon is that he also reversed his diabetic condition without the intake of medicines. “Just finishing a triathlon is a feat in itself because the body isn’t meant to endure long hours of pain,” he concurs with Moss’s benediction for one of the most grueling sports ever. “But as (Polo Tri co-founding father) Rune Stroem says, “When you cross that finish line – no matter what place you’re in – hold your head up high. But... the best compliment I guess came from my son who said, 'Dad, you're no longer fat.'"

For George Carag, triathlon is more than finding out how tough you are, it’s also about conquering one’s fears. Carag, who is a cabin attendant on Philippine Airlines’ international flights, wasn’t into sports like De Ocampo because he was a sickly child. “My concept of health,” he reveals, “was body building.”

Through his savings, he put up a bicycle shop and he gravitated towards cycling as a hobby. And through cycling, he met up with several members of Polo Tri (the group that was formed out of Manila Polo Club) and began to take on triathlon. “There’s a misconception about triathlon or trying it out… where it makes one fit. It’s the other way around, you have to get in shape and be fit to compete because it is never easy.”

Aside from the grueling race, Carag suffers from aqua phobia. “That’s strange, isn’t it since you have to swim quite a distance,” he says as his eyes make contact with me to impart just how serious a problem this is. “Even when bathing, I make sure that I immediately wipe the water from my eyes or else a little panic sets in.”

During one triathlon, Carag found himself freezing up in the ocean. None of the lifeguards could immediately get to him because of the choppy waters leaving Carag no choice but to swim out of his predicament. “It’s something that I have to deal with during every competition,” he admits. “I’d say for me, 50% of my effort is overcoming the anxieties of the race. I make a mental checklist of things I need to go over prior to the starting gun and that helps me to focus more intently.”

“When I look back at my first ever competition – a half Iron Man (a 1.9 km swim, a 90 km bike ride, and a 30 km run) in Matabungkay, Batangas in 1998, I’d say that was my best because I was able to finish it.”

Franchesca Carpo, a winsome sprite of an architect, looks at competing as a challenge and an opportunity “to savor and enjoy life more.” In 2004, while hiking with her sister Amanda at Pico De Loro, the highest mountain in Cavite area, the freelance architect slipped and fell a harrowing 80 feet down. Carpo fell in a treacherous crevice and cracked her skull. Her head was a mass of hematoma from the multiple injuries. With the hiking party unable to rescue her, a call was placed to the Philippine Marine base located in nearby Ternate for help. It took more than half a day but the marines and some other hikers eventually were able to rescue a cold and damp Carpo who drifted in and out of consciousness throughout the ordeal.

Chesca, as the 31-year old is called for short, now looks at her “second life” with a different set of eyes. “I’m more appreciative of things,” she disarms with an easy smile. “Before I was active in fitness activities more for leisure and exercise. Now I use triathlon as a means for benchmarking; for setting goals for myself.”

As one of the newest members of Polo Tri, Chesca is oft praised by Stroem, the expatriate Norwegian who has made the Philippines his home for the last 20 years, for her courage. “You’d think that an accident like that would keep her from more challenges, but I think it has made her even stronger and more confident.”

“Triathlon is more demanding than mere leisurely exercise,” says Chesca. “But it does help with discipline and time management. I actually am able to apply that to my work, isn’t that great?”

“Oh, yeah,” she concludes. “I’m fitter now.”

Jay Jay De Ocampo, George Carag, and Francesca Carpo will be joining their Polo Tri teammates when they compete in the ITU Subic Bay International Triathlon from May 10-11, 2008. Thanks for the great interviews and especially to Rune Stroem for that fab triathlon in the Philippines history lesson. Bet the Nomads miss you playing football with them!

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