I was 14 years old when I made the National Team in 1984 via a National record for the 200 meters backstroke. That was also under the Gintong Alay Program of then President Ferdinand Marcos and the Rizal Memorial Swimming Complex was our training venue.
A few months into the training, Gintong Alay big boss Mr. Michael Keon decided that we needed a foreign coach to train us for the SEA Games the following year. We were fortunate to get Coach John Van Meter who was from the University of Tennessee and was a standout in the early 1980s for the sprint freestyle events.
He was the coach who first saw in me the potential to do well in the 400 meters Individual Medley event. He soon shifted my focus away from the 200 meters backstroke.
After a few months under him, I broke the National record of William “Billy” Wilson in the 400 IM. But then a few weeks after, it was also broken by a fellow national team member Rene “Guy” Concepcion who was based in the United States at that time. All three of us made it to the SEA Games team in 1985, but I only qualified for one event – the 400 IM. That was it. I wasn’t part of any relay team or any other individual event.
Qualifying for my first SEA Games was really a dream come true. But training for the 400 IM was one of the hardest challenges I ever faced. I had to train with the distance swimmers most of the time because the 400 IM is an endurance event. Every stroke must be swum precisely as planned with all the pacing and, not to mention, the different breathing patterns from one stroke style to another.
As hard as the training was for the distance swimmers, I always managed to finish the sets given every time. If he wanted our group to do a 10,000 meters workout in one session, I would do my best to pace with our distance swimmers and finish each set as close to them as possible.
Coach John had a chlorine container painted over called “The Throne.” Every week he decided the hardest worker for the week to whom he awarded the throne. The throne was placed on the lane of the week’s best and that was his seat during team meetings. I wanted to win that throne so badly but in the months after, I noticed that everyone else had won the throne that I asked Coach John why he never saw me deserving of the throne.
He said I was an underachiever. It was a shock because all the while I thought I was giving my best day in and day out. He said he believed I could still give more. And so, I did.
After that, Coach John quickly raised the level of expectation from me and the level of intensity as well. I remember we were doing this set of 10 times 400 meters freestyle which was a very long set. The first five I was doing really well swimming neck and neck with our distance boys. But after that, I digressed a little bit. Then Coach John started shouting at me to pick up the pace and stick to the lead group. I guess he got frustrated at me that soon after I saw this monobloc chair splash a few meters in front of me. It brought me to a complete halt. When I raised my head, Coach John berated and even asked me if I still wanted to win the SEA Games or not. I said I wanted to win. He asked me to step out of the pool and go home and think hard about my answer.
The next day, I came back early in the morning at around 4:30 a.m. and apologized for my swim the day before. I looked at the pool with such fire that I not only paced with the distance boys but also tried my best to outlast them and win the sets. I was a different swimmer from that day forward. The distance swimmers were also pushed to perform better because now Coach John was on their case for allowing me to pace with and beat them.
When Coach John thought I was ready to move into the specifics of the 400-individual medley, he then asked me to do separate sets on the individual medley on my own. The pain level went up a few notches – that I can definitely say.
Coach John showed us that we have to be mentally tough to win.
A month before the Thailand SEA Games, Coach John decided to test the toughness of the team. challenging the sprinters to race him in a 100 meters freestyle time trial. The sprinters thinking that they could take the challenge of Coach John readily obliged. They thought the older coach would be easily beat. But Coach John ended winning the time trials to the shock of the team. We all didn’t realize how tough he was, a world class sprinter in college and was only three years out of retirement as a competitive swimmer.
I loved how he handled the team after that. He was very humble and he became more approachable to the team. The taper period was a team bonding time as well. We became really close to each other and we all looked forward to the SEA Games coming up soon.
As we arrived in Bangkok, I didn’t realize that the 400 individual medley was the very first day of the SEA Games. I thought to myself that after that day, I would become a “tourist” already since I wasn’t going to swim any other event after. I decided that I better make sure I win so that I could have the gold medal with me for the rest of the nine days in Thailand.
Guy and I didn’t want to disappoint the team especially Coach John. When we arrived at the swimming complex, a bunch of reporters asked Coach John what event was he looking forward to that first day and he answered the 400-individual medley. Both us felt really proud with what he said.
I qualified 7th for the finals that evening so I was in the outside lane while Guy was first qualifier and was in the middle lane. When the gun went off for the 400 IM, I went all out in the first 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke legs because I knew Guy had a stronger back half for the breaststroke and freestyle legs. My lane placement proved to be advantageous since nobody took notice of me being in the outside, I was already 10 meters ahead at the halfway point.
I just held on to dear life, while Guy chased me down stroke after stroke from then on. We ended up first and second that race with me winning by only a second over my teammate.
I won my first SEA Games Gold medal that fateful day and I kept it with me the whole next nine days. I slept with it on the first night of my victory.
It was the best feeling ever.
By Eric Buhain, www.tribune.net.ph