This is a two-year old piece I wrote about Philippine Decathlon record holder, Fidel “Toto” Gallenero. The durable Gallenero was a mainstay of the resurgent Philippine National Track & Field squad in the late 90′s and early 2000′s. After coaching stints in San Beda and Ateneo, Gallenero is now in Brunei, training the oil-rich sultanate’s athletics team.
I have had quite a few mentors in track. Among my teammates, I consider Xave Medina, Carlo Ricohermoso and Khole dela Cruz as worthy role models. My high school coach, Ed Sediego, taught the me the rudiments of track & field. Mick Perez, my college coach for five years, instilled the value of discipline and refined my understanding of sport and my place in it. Among all my mentors, I consider Coach Toto Gallenero as the one who made the most pivotal impact.
Coach Toto as an Athlete
Coach Toto was not the child prodigy athlete. He pretty much started from the bottom rungs of the sport hierarchy and certainly was not at the same caliber as Jose Renato Unso, Mike Mendoza and Bryan Sutingco when he was at the same age. He came from the humblest of towns, from the province of Capiz. His childhood was not as comfortable as mine, or any other privileged member of the middle and upper classes, for that matter. It was a Spartan life. I recall him telling stories about how he had to cross a couple of hills and a few rivers just to get to school. Gallenero did not put much emphasis on his studies. In fact, he often told me how he regretted not having finished his college degree and constantly reiterated to us, his athletes, the value of education.
Gallenero was originally a national class rower. For some reason, he started to attend track and field practice with the guys in Rizal Memorial. “Saling-pusa lang ako,” (I just tagged along) were how he described himself. “Hindi ako nahihiya, sinubukan ko lahat ng events. Laban lang!” (I wasn’t shy at all. I tried all events. I faced it all head on) He has experienced the most primitive of coaches and training approaches throughout his tenure in the sport; hence, the feeling of rancor against such coaches he encountered in his later, more athletically prestigious years. He considered Coach Dario de Rosas as a definitive influence in terms of proper, scientific training. For his part, Gallenero has undergone a few IAAF-accredited seminars to further his track & field know-how. More importantly, the years that he have spent as an international class competitor are priceless.
As the national record holder for the decathlon (6978 points), Coach Toto has had a storied track & field career, winning medals in international events, particularly the SEA Games. Gallenero first came into limelight by beating the then National Record Holder, the celebrity athlete David Bunevacz, at the 1997 National Open in Manila. His first SEA games medals were two bronzes in the 1999 Brunei edition, one in the Decathlon and the other in the 4x400m relay. In 2001 in Kuala Lumpur, he emerged the sole victor in the grueling, 2-day event. In 2003, he won the bronze in the same event again, a basketball injury sustained ruining his chances for a back-to-back gold.
One wonders what stellar heights Coach Toto would have reached if he had been exposed to scientific training at an early age, or if he had specialized in the sprints, since he was a prolific sprinter (with a hand-timed personal best of 10.4). Nevertheless, he made the most out of his situation; hence, the accolades.
Coach Toto (circa 2002)
I first took notice of Coach Toto during the 2003 National Open. Since my teammate Khole dela Cruz was entered in the same event, we watched the Decathlon religiously. Coach Toto injured himself in that meet and was unable to finish the Decathlon, which Khole won, by the way. During one of those PATAFA weekly relays in freshman year in college, I had just run the 100m dash and was on my way back from the finish line to get my stuff. My vantage point was perfect. As the gun fired, I saw first hand the proper way to start a sprint race. All the muscles in his body were contracting and expanding in a symphony of speed, and yet his face remain relaxed all thoughout.
Coach Toto as my Mentor
Days before the 67th Season of UAAP track was about to start, Mick Perez – the Ateneo Track & Field Program Head and Head Coach - hired Gallenero as an assistant trainer. His inputs, of course, were far too late to have made a significant impact in my hurdling. Naturally, I faltered a few days later, despite clocking a new personal best, 16.67s. I was in ninth place and narrowly missed a spot in the final. I was jaded, of course. I can still remember that particular afternoon. My teammates and I were huddled around our new coach, asking whatever track & field question came into mind.
When it was my turn, I asked, “Coach, ano kayang time ko next year? kaya ba 16 flat?” (Coach, what time could I possibly run next year? A 16 flat, perhaps?)
“15.5 seconds,” he replied without batting an eyelash.
“Oh? talaga” (Really?)
“Oo, job,” (Short for Joboy, my very Filipino-sounding nickname) he said in his confident manner. “Basta ako lang hahawak sa’yo.” (So long as you’ll train under me)
Breaking 16 Seconds
Suddenly, I felt the disappointment of missing the finals disappear. I couldn’t wait to start training already the moment I heard his words. My third year was an eye-opener. Gallenero taught me the basics of hurdling.
In order to be a good hurdler, he said, one must master the simplest of hurdle drills. After demonstrating the correct way of doing it and assigning a specific technical workout, I immediately set out to master everything he had taught. For two grueling months, I spent my Tuesdays and Thursdays doing endless hurdle drills. I arrived at Moro (Moro Lorenzo Sports Center, the home of Ateneo Track & Field) at about 12nn, warmed up a little and did a few running and starting drills. I did hurdle drills for about an hour and a half, then did the prescribed workout for that day. I was so engrossed in mastering the basics that I did the exercises even as I dreamt and slept.
It was one of the hardest experiences of my track career. I never felt so much pain in training. When I got home, I could barely lift my legs, much less lift the pages of a book. I was so tired that I sometimes cried my heart out.
As I mastered the drills, Coach Toto began to teach more advanced facets of sprint hurdling – the actual clearing, the trail leg action, lead leg action, arm action and of course, the 8-step approach to the first hurdle. By August of 2005, I was ripe for competition and eager to strut my new wares. The first race of the season was good enough, a hand timed 16.4s, which was much better than previous season’s best time of 16.9s.
I can vaguely remember that Saturday morning, but I remember feeling overly pumped up at the starting line. As soon as the gun fired, I got out of the blocks as fast as I can. Everything was a blur since then, but I recall overtaking two or three athletes on my way to the tape. Even if I had not seen my time yet, I knew for a fact that that was the best race I had run in my career, so far. After the race, I went to the timers to get my time.
I can still remember that moment. One of the officials showed me the actual stopwatch used to time my sprint – I ran a 15.62 (but for some reason, they rounded it up to 15.8). Nevertheless, I was ecstatic! I had just broken the 16 second barrier! I was so excited to tell my teammates that I literally jogged to where they were situated.
Coach Mick and Coach Toto (circa 2006)
The rest was history. That particular Saturday morning started it all. I was on an exponential rise to the top, culminating with my unexpected UAAP bridesmaid finish in my third year.
Coach Toto and I (circa 2006)
I felt a sense of pride whenever I was in Rizal or Ultra with Coach Toto at my side. Here I was standing side by side with a Philippine Track legend as my mentor. Even after Ateneo Track & Field and Coach Toto parted ways, Gallenero did his utmost best to watch some of my races and provide some much-needed inputs. Even if he wasn’t officially my coach, I still valued his words of wisdom.
Gallenero did more than teach hurdling technique. He taught me the importance of proper track attire and its relationship to one’s performance (I took it a couple of steps further though by adding the word “fashion”). When I competed, I have different sets of clothing for different weather conditions. He was instrumental in molding the kind of athlete I am today – fearless, hardworking and disciplined. I remember how he used to chide me for being a “nerbyoso” (nervous) on the track with the way I paced up and down like a nervous wreck before a race. “Tapang lang,” (Be fearless) were his favorite words. “Malakas naman kayo, kulang lang kayo sa tapang.” (You guys are strong. You just have to be dauntless) He taught me how to be smart through his patented “gulang”* methods learned throughout his career. And by Jove, I absorbed all these like a sponge.
In the latter months of my UAAP career, not once did I heard him utter “nerbyoso” to my face again. Perhaps, I earned his respect. He sure as hell has earned mine.
I remember the last time Coach Toto actually trained me. It was during the sembreak in the latter parts of October. The core of the team was competing in the Bacolod Unigames, while I chose to remain here in Manila to be with the other members of the young team. In those three days of training camp, we focused on my start. He explained the basics again and fine-tuned my starting technique. When my teammates came back, they were suprised at the obvious improvement.
Whenever Coach Toto and I sit down and talk, I never fail to stress the fact that he made me strong. “Coach, ikaw nagpalakas sa akin,” (Coach, you taught me how to be strong in my event) I always say. He would always reply by saying, “Ikaw ang nagpalakas sa sarili mo Job, tinulungan lang kita.” (You made yourself fast. I just helped you along the way).
Coach Toto, together with fellow Filipino track & field icons Dario de Rosas and Isidro del Prado (the Philippine record holder for the 400m dash), is now handling the national athletics team of the oil-rich sultanate of Brunei. Although the departure of three of the best coaches and former athletes is a loss to the mother country (and a gain to the Bruneians!) going overseas for the proverbial greener pasture is part of the reality that is the Filipino diaspora. I’m glad that my former coach is on track to financial stability.
Read: “SEA Games champ Gallenero wants to inspire Bruneians”
I shall remain eternally grateful for Coach Toto’s effort, patience and wise words. I will never forget his faith in me, how he egged me to do better. Not once, did he express doubt at my abilities – not once.
We had a great relationship as athlete and coach. My only regret, of course, is that we did not have the chance to compete against one another.
*- A Filipino trait. Akin to being knowledgeable about the inner workings of something, being street smart and wordly