To say that the present state of Philippine swimming is in a rut is pretty much an understatement.
In the recent SEA Age Group Championships, 40 of our best junior tankers took to the pool to battle it out with the best junior swimmers of the ASEAN region. Out of around 105 gold medals at stake, the Philippines cornered a paltry 1 gold medal, courtesy of 13 year old Bhay Maitland Newberry. We landed a disappointing 6th place in the overall standings.
In the SEA Games, the Philippines has not won a single gold medal for the past 3 editions. In numerical terms, that’s zero golds out of 38 possible golds. In any angle you look at it, that’s a very dismal performance for the country. No wonder the Philippines has been mired at the bottom of the overall medal table at the SEA Games for the last 3 SEA games as well.
In the Olympics, the Philippines has to make do with token athletes who have breached the QTB time standards. In recent memory, the country has not produced an Olympic representative by virtue of reaching the QTA standards.
To be fair, the state of Philippine swimming has not always been this bad. In fact, we had more than our fair share of successes in the past.
We had plenty of swimming greats who became sports celebrities in their own right, such as swimming sensations Eric Buhain, Akiko Thompson and Miguel Molina, to name a few. The SEA Games used to be our playground and we often compete toe to toe before against the Asian giants starring the likes of Billy Wilson, even Philippine Swimming Inc.’s (PSI’s) Mark Joseph and our last Asian Games medalist, Ryan Papa. And way before Schooling landed a gold in Rio in this year’s Olympic games, we already have a couple of Olympic swimming medals courtesy of the great Teofilo Yldefonso.
Unfortunately, as we have been so used to in Philippine sports, due to numerous factors, foremost of which is politics, those successes were not sustained. Hence, the present dismal state of Philippine swimming.
Philippine swimming badly needs a good shot in the arm in order to revive the glory days of past Philippine swimming teams. Without a doubt, the Philippines, being an archipelago and surrounded by bodies of water, is rich in swimming talent. We still have the material to duplicate if not surpass our past achievements, but alas, it is becoming evident that in this age of highly scientific approach and training, our local training programs seem to fall short and fail to produce high caliber swimmers who can deliver in the international arena.
To be sure, the country’s present crop of swimmers still continue to improve on the senior and junior records on a regular basis. We see more and more talented swimmers coming out of the woodwork. Thanks in great part to the very commendable grassroots programs (G-leagues etc.) of PSI and its forerunner PASA. In fact, there seems to be no problem with the overall grassroots program of Philippine swimming. Coupled with the Batang Pinoy program, the Palarong Pambansa, the UAAP and NCAA programs, PSI has enough meets and competitions to identify budding swimming talents from all over the archipelago.
With the year round competitions, our swimmers have enough local exposure to improve on their times. To this date, we regularly see improvements in the times not only of our junior swimmers but even our elite swimmers. As further evidence, except for Ryan Papa’s backstroke records, practically all existing senior records are held by present and active elite swimmers.
However, considering that the Philippines is coming from a relatively slow base of swimming record times, the time improvements are too insignificant to make a dent in the international meets, even at the SEA level. By contrast, countries such as Singapore and even Vietnam have been improving by leaps and bounds and are now way ahead of the Philippines in terms of records and performances of their swimmers, from senior elite swimmers to even junior swimmers. Whatever improvements we are making, are mere baby steps and pale in comparison to the Godzilla-like steps of these other countries. As such, in order for Philippine swimming to be relevant again in terms of international competition, PSI really needs to level up big time to at least match the successes of our SEA neighbors.
Ray of Hope
Just recently, in sports articles published in leading broadsheets, the Secretary General of PSI, Ms. Lailani Velasco, painted a very positive outlook on the future state of Philippine swimming. She was quoted as saying that “PSI aims to elevate Philippine swimming not just to the level of its Southeast Asian (SEA) counterparts but even at the global level.”
Well, at present, elevating Philippine swimming to the SEA level alone should already be tantamount to reaching the global level, considering that Singapore’s Joseph Schooling is a reigning Olympic champion and Vietnam’s Vien Nguyen almost barged into the 400IM Olympic finals, placing a very close 9th place. That’s how SEA swimming has vastly improved for the last couple of years. And if PSI aims to elevate Philippine swimming to the SEA level, then surely Philippine swimming will not be far in terms of world class competition as well.
It is thus our fervent hope that PSI will be able to come up with concrete and well thought out programs to indeed improve the present sorry state of Philippine swimming. To be sure, and I believe the present PSI management is aware of this, continuing the present PSI programs will not be sufficient as it will not provide the changes that are needed to jumpstart the flagging Philippine swimming program. PSI should be able to make some drastic changes and/or improvements to ensure that the country will reach world class levels. No ifs and buts about that.
Perhaps PSI will hire a world class foreign coach in the caliber of Coach Sergio Lopez who was hired by Singapore last year and who was instrumental to Schooling’s achieving the Olympic gold. Philippine swimming badly needs a transfer of technology and know-how on a long term basis. Hiring a world class coach or even a world class consultant, who can work with our national coach, on a long term basis will hopefully improve the training programs of our local coaches at all levels, and more importantly, improve the performances of our swimmers.
Perhaps PSI will also set up an exclusive aquatic training center, similar to Trace Aquatic Center but complete with nutritionists and all the latest amenities to spur scientific training for our swimmers. Crucial equipment such as underwater videos may help in improving strokes and other movements that may result in improved times of our swimmers.
Perhaps PSI will conduct training camps outside of the country. This may be similar to the China training camp PASA conducted a couple of years back. PSI, in conjunction with the PSC, may take advantage of sports pacts with other countries and send select swimmers for long term training in those countries.
Whatever these programs and improvements will be, we only hope it materializes as early as possible to arrest our continued decline in the international competitions.
And lest we forget, all these will entail huge costs. As such, we also hope that PSI will be able to find the funding (from several sponsors perhaps) sufficient to implement these changes on a long term basis for the benefit of Philippine swimming.
Also, in this age of globalization, it is but expected to have a continued influx of exceptional Fil-foreign swimmers into the team. To be fair, the influx is not only in swimming but is evident across all sports in the country. If our most loved sport, basketball, which already has a considerable local talent base, still has its fair share of Fil-foreign talents, then what more in swimming? We have a huge community of Filipinos outside of the country, especially in North America and it would be but logical to tap into Pinoy swimming talents based abroad, who are willing to represent the country. However, it behooves PSI to ensure that proper and clear selection processes are observed so that local talents do not feel discriminated upon.
Change is coming
With an indefatigable Secretary General in Ms. Lailani Velasco at the helm, we can only hope her persistence and industry will produce the positive results in Philippine swimming that we all have been waiting for.
Like what President Duterte’s campaign slogan and administration mantra states: “Change is Coming”. For the sake of all swimming stakeholders, especially our hardworking swimmers, we only hope that the same will be true for Philippine swimming.
by Joey Santosi, a PH Sports fan