Category Archives: JP Azcueta

Digging Deep

I felt tense watching from the stands. Perhaps it was due to the cold early evening air or the glare of the floodlights. Sheltered from the steadily falling rain by my trusty umbrella, I waited for the men’s 4x400m relay to start.

The grueling event has been the waterloo of Ateneo athletics. Ever since the Ateneo joined the UAAP, it has only won two bronzes – in the mid-80’s and the mid-2000’s – amidst a slew of heartbreaking close shaves with the podium. Despite the resurgence in Ateneo sprinting, the other schools stamped its dominance in the quarter-mile.

Read John Aguilar’s “The Blue Paint”

Maki de Jesus, a bemedalled former juniors standout, had a gutsy start. Running in the seventh lane, the rookie overtook the athlete in lane eight by a good five meters, as the first runner from powerhouse FEU streaked to an early lead. From then on, it was a battle for second place behind the dominant Morayta quartet.

The first baton exchange was executed with fine precision. Joel Magturo, another greenhorn, timed his take-off perfectly with the visibly exhausted de Jesus. The young Joel, a finalist in the 100m dash, held on to fourth place. Three schools – DLSU, UE, UST and Ateneo – were locked in a fierce tactical battle.

Carlos Soriano ran a gutsy third leg. He positioned himself well in the first 200m, conserving precious speed and strength by lurking behind the leading sprinters. As soon as the four-man peleton hit the last bend, Soriano turned on his afterburners. The back-to-back 100m dash champion overtook the early leaders to snatch second place coming into the final lap.

I screamed like a man possessed at Soy’s final burst of speed. Never has an Ateneo team won silver in the 4x400m relay. There and then, I felt my eyes blur as I cheered my lungs out.

Then came JP Azcueta’s anchor leg. From the stands, I saw the determined expression on his face. He took off life a bullet, maintaining the team’s second place position. Coming into the homestretch, I could feel the silver medal coming into fruition.

The dream silver wasn’t meant to be.

DLSU’s Patrick Unso, a bum stomach notwithstanding, ran a superb final 50m to snatch second place. UE’s last runner came hurtling towards the finish, threatening to overtake the decelerating Azcueta. But JP clung on to Ateneo’s first 4x400m medal in six years. After missing out on the 4x100m relay podium; Maki, Joel, Soy and JP struck back with a hard fought, well-deserved bronze. It was an exhilarating race – a scintillating, nerve-wracking experience for the spectator and an unforgettable experience to those who were victorious.

As soon as the JP crossed the finish line, he fell on his knees, burying his face in his hands. In the four days that I’ve watched my former teammate compete, he always seemed to linger at that very spot after every race. This time around, there wasn’t a single trace of disappointment on the grizzled veteran’s rain-soaked face. Instead, JP cried tears of joy, as he took in the wondrously triumphant moment.

There’s a line from “Chariots of Fire” aptly describing the quarter-miler as someone who digs deep. Those four young men ran their hearts out, mustering every strand of willpower possible. Years from now, people probably won’t remember who won the medals, much less the actual results. In the long run, what endures is the experience of giving it your all and leaving everything on the playing field.

Maki, JP, Joel and Soy posing with their medals (Photo from JP Azcueta)

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Afterword

My most eloquent moments seem to come at the heels of heartbreak. I wrote the following piece days after my final UAAP. My confidence was shattered; I was aimless. A months-long period of emotional erosion – then healing – took place.

Now that I’m older (and wiser, hopefully), looking back at these turbulent yet formative chapters evokes fond feelings of nostalgia.

11 February 2008

Ah the race.

That race.

I tried to stay with the leaders during the first part of my relay leg, but decided against it after the 180m mark. I disengaged and coasted for about 50m, stayed in position for another 70m, but as I prepared for the final burst my legs simply could not go faster. We were in 5th place when I passed the baton to Mike Mendoza. Even though Mike and JP Azcueta overtook DLSU to get 4th place, we simply could not meet the targets that were set. I put the blame entirely on myself. If I only stayed with the race leaders all throughout. If only I had more speed endurance – more heart.

It was like February 2006 again, when the team failed to win 3rd place by a measly 4.5 points behind UE. Only this time, we lost a bigger prize, the 1st-runner up trophy by the infinitesimal amount of 3.5 points.

Again, there are a variety of “what-if” scenarios, with the aforementioned 4x400m race included. It’s a Pandora’s Box of situations that hardly does any good. But hey, we scored the highest ever aggregate score among all the Ateneo Men’s Track & Field teams that have competed through the years. So many people rose to the occasion and excelled.

I remember writing something several years back, about giving it your all and owing it to yourself in the end. The sun has set and I’m preparing to go down from the hill. In this momentary calm, I recollect my thoughts; put them in order amidst the chaos of these nightmares.

I feel really bad, but it could have been a lot worse. I didn’t meet my goals, but it sure as hell was a great season. I seem to forget that only a year ago, I was struggling to recover from a broken arm. I did break 15 seconds, even if it was only hand-timed, and had an almost forgettable string of low-15 second races. In the UAAP, I clocked a measly 15.52s in the heats and 15.75s in the final. I could have done much better, but the start, the sprint-in-between and the clearing simply didn’t have its usual spring. It could have been psychological; my collapse – my being outclassed – baffles me.

February 7 (and the 10th as well) simply wasn’t my day.

After the relay, which was the last event of the four-day meet, I took my time going back to the bleachers. Ashamed of my performance, I didn’t want to face my teammates. While I was sulking at one of the benches – “wallowing in self-pity” is a more creative and apt term – Orlando Soriano came to me to give his jersey. For a moment, I forgot the negative things and realized that sport did go beyond winning medals and scoring points. For all of track & field’s simplicity – those who throw and leap the farthest, those who run the fastest, wins – it really goes beyond beating the “7 nameless and faceless guys standing in my way.”**

One of the most relevant sports-related quotes out there are the ones by Martina Navratilova, the many-time Wimbledon champion; and Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics. Navratilova’s words are truthfully blunt: “Whoever said ‘It’s not whether you win or lose that counts’ probably lost.” For Baron de Coubertin, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”* At first glance, the two seem to lie on opposite poles, with the former viewing winning and losing from a black & white lens, and the latter, being more universal and philosophical.

If you made me chose between the two quotes a year ago, I would have chosen Navratilova’s. Now that I’ve been bitten by defeat’s rabid fangs, her words seem like virulent, bestial jaws devouring my skin – reminding me of the simple truth, that oh so painful of facts, that I’ve lost.

Through the excruciating pangs of failure, I had an epiphany – that these two quotes are not paradoxical. Each one complements the other; the latter builds upon the former: Indeed, sport is about winning; there can only be one winner, one gold medalist – one champion. But sport goes beyond winning and losing. Sport is beyond making a string of excuses that debunks sport’s very essence. Sport is about making goals and meeting them. Sport is facing adversity head on. Sport is about commitment, a wholehearted devotion to something that you love doing.

Sport is about winning yet it goes beyond winning.

In the end, I threw away all those notions of shame and negativity. I mustered enough courage to speak in front of the team – that fine collection of young men who had stood together, fought together, suffered and laughed together – to thank them for a lifetime’s worth of memories.

* – The Olympic creed actually came from a sermon by an American Bishop, Ethelbert Talbot, according to this BBC feature.

** – Quoted from Michael Johnson

*** – For a year after UAAP 70, I was unable to look at these video clips. It was pure agony at that time.

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