“The Blue Paint” by John Aguilar (January 2002)

Most people probably didn’t know the real reason why the four of us wept a few moments after we placed third in the UAAP 4X100 meter relay. It would have been easy to assume that we felt miserable and defeated in a world where nobody really remembers who placed second, much less third. The truth was actually the opposite. We wept because we came so close. It was never supposed to happen. Somehow because we believed in something so impossible, so improbable, so unlikely, it did happen.

The Ateneo college team was never known to be a track and field superpower. The fact of the matter is, we suck. The team has been comfortably perched in last place in the UAAP for millennia. Folklore has it that Ateneo College tracksters once won numerous medals in the UAAP, but those are just stories coaches say to keep their jobs.

We wanted this year to be different (something we say every year, though in hushed tones), we wanted to win. So we hired the best coach in the country, set up a bad-ass training program and sacrificed what people refer to as a summer vacation to get our act together.

Our coach, Dari de Rosas, was responsible for straightening up our lousy excuse for a team. I can only smile now as I recall the moment he first laid eyes on the team. A nervous smile betrayed his words, “May potential sila.”

Having coached the team’s sprinters for two years, I was asked (more like coerced) by track and field head honcho Mick Perez to give sprinting one more try. After a few days in the “hole” coupled with some good old Chinese water torture, I finally relented. What the hell – what’s one more run for the good old alma mater?

One of our goals was to put up a formidable relay team, since the relay was one of the most important events in track and field. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out our policy for forming the team. The four fastest make it. We had a few people in mind, though killer long tests and complicated love lives cost us a few casualties. In the end, we had four ready and able runners who, as Coach Dari would say, would have something closely resembling the words “May potential sila.”

The Fab Four

First on the lineup was freshman Tim Robles, high school gold medalist in the 200 meters, and arguably the quietest person I have ever met. He will probably say sorry if you step on his feet (while you’re wearing your track and field spikes). Make him sprint, however, and you’ve got yourself the equivalent of Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde.

Next is Paolo Blasco. He was never really supposed to be included in the relay, with his lanky frame and unorthodox running style. We all thought all he could do was jump, until he ran a time in the 200 meters that made our jaws drop to the track. His frame betrayed his true talents. At times during training, his legs would turn over so fast; it was like watching a hummingbird, with legs for wings. He was like a raw gem, waiting to be discovered and polished.

Then there’s the flamboyant Niño Mendoza. A black man trapped in a Pinoy’s body, Niño was a skinny, underachieving, arrogant undergrad who, after graduating from college, decided to redeem himself in the sport he took for granted. He trained until he bled, and his skinny figure metamorphosized into that of an action figure’s. The team’s self-proclaimed “weakest link,” Niño proved in a little under a year that nothing is impossible to someone with a big heart and a huge ego.

The last guy on the relay team was me, John Aguilar, two years retired from the sport and struggling to make a name for myself in the world of media. More than anything, I wanted to show the young guys that if you really want something so badly, you will do everything in your power to achieve it (yes, I shaved my legs to be more aerodynamic). I’ve had my moments during my running career, but ended with a string of injuries and bad luck. I wanted another stab at glory, but more importantly, I wanted to share the journey with people who shared the same aspirations that I had.

For months, we trained six days a week under a training program specifically designed to make us faster and stronger. We squatted twice our body weight, sprinted faster than we ever had, and underwent some drastic hair reduction procedures. In the end, we were a lean, mean, and sleek (literally) relay machine.

The night before the relay, Niño sent me a text message saying, “Gusto kong magmedal sa 4X100 bukas.” I couldn’t agree more. It was time for Ateneo to shine.

The Blue Paint

The next day, I gathered the three an hour before the race in the bleachers below and told them a story. I took out some blue face paint from my jacket pocket, and told then how we used that very same face paint when I was college freshman, and won the silver in the relay.

Their eyes were gazed at the little blue Zinc face paint as if it were the Holy Grail. As I slowly marked my face with the paint, I told them that they would have to do the same. As they obliged my request, I saw a transformation right before my very eyes. We looked like warriors. Never mind if we put up an appearance that made us look more like we were out to avenge the burning of our sacred tribe because, to some extent, we were. Ateneo pride was so battered for so many years that losing has become a habit. We were out to make a statement. We were going out there to win a medal.

Finishing third in the relay came at a time when everyone was just starting to believe that we could really make a difference. There the four of us stood, locked in a tight circle, all the emotion just exploding from the deepest recesses of our souls. We had just run the race of our lives, and it took every stride and leap and heave and cramp and muscle pull and experience and bead of sweat to reach the speed that took us to that amazing bronze medal. It was never supposed to happen to a team that always placed last, but it did. I lied to them about the face paint (we actually used blue eyeliner when we won the silver during my freshman year), though I was never in doubt that they believed everything I said. Sometimes, all we need is someone we trust who can look us straight in the eyes and tell us we can do it. Nothing is impossible. Even to a team that sucks.

That night, Niño sent me another text message: “Coach, maraming salamat. Di ko malilimutan itong araw na ito. See you tomorrow sa medal stand.”

Aguilar, Blasco, Mendoza and Robles. Bronze medalists, 4x100m relay, UAAP 64. (Photo from Carlo Ricohermoso)

Since UAAP 68, the Ateneo de Manila Men’s Track & Field Team had not gone below the top two in the 4x100m relay. In UAAP 71 and UAAP 72, the Ateneo quartet won back-to-back golds.

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One response to ““The Blue Paint” by John Aguilar (January 2002)

  1. Pingback: Digging Deep « hurdler49: Hurdling the Real World.

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