Sports is the Great Equalizer for the PADS Dragon Boat Team, Who Are PWDs
Arnold Balais may have lost his right leg when he was a teenager, but he’s been active in sports for a very long time.
Struck by chronic osteomyelitis at 14, his right leg was amputated early on in life. However, that hasn't stopped the 45-year-old from racking up international medals in weightlifting and swimming, including a gold model for 50m freestyle at the 4th ASEAN Para Games. He was also the first amputee to ever scale Mount Apo—a feat he accomplished in 2013.
But this time, things are a little different. From solo endeavors requiring feats of personal strength and will, he now finds himself leading a squad of fellow PWDs as team captain of the PADS Adaptive Dragon Boat Team.
Some rowers are amputees like himself, or suffer from other orthopedic disabilities, moving around on crutches or wheelchairs. Some are blind or deaf. But when they get on that boat, they are all equal. They are all champions.
Just this year, the Cebu-based crew bagged four gold medals at the International Dragon Boat Festival (IDBF) in Pattaya, Thailand, handily ruling the 200- and 500-meter races for both the Small Boat Paradragon Division 1 and Division 2. It was the first "paradragon" competition of the IDBF; a Division 1 race meant an all-PWD crew, while Division 2 allows for mixed abled and disabled rowers.
Balais remembers those wins clearly. "The experience in Thailand, the reception for us was exceptional," he said to SPIN Life. "Evertime we got off our boats, or when board it, you can really see the respect of other nations toward us."
After one race, one Chinese rower approached Balais and, in admiration, gave away his jersey. "Teams usually swap jerseys," Balais said. "He just gave it to us. That's considered a big honor."
Sportsmen of the Year PADS Dragonboat team at the Esquire Man at His Best 2019
It's a respect that they've worked hard to earn over the years. Their team philosophy? Whatever an able-bodied team can do, they have to do twice. As Balais said in his speech at the Esquire Man At His Best 2019, where they were awarded Sportsmen of the Year: "We compete against able-bodied paddlers. They train twice a week, we train four times a week."
Balais sees his role now as more of a mentor to the younger members of the team. Whatever lessons he's picked up from a lifetime of competition, he wants to pass on to the rest of the crew. "Kailangan lead by example ka," he said.
One of these young rowers is Kent Tumangan, who lost his right leg to sports.
Three years ago, an injury he got in a pick-up basketball game turned into an infection, which then metastasized into a tumor. "I failed to care for it," he recalled to SPIN Life. The doctors had to amputate.
But now, Tumangan is back in sports. Nearly two years ago, he saw a Facebook post about tryouts for a Cebu-based dragon boat team. "I sent them a message: 'May I join?' They said: 'Can you handle it?'" He showed up two hours early for a 5:00 a.m. call time, and he's been paddling for PADS Dragon Boat ever since.
PADS Dragon Boat coach Aileen Padrones
The PADS Dragon Boat coach, Aileen Padrones, on the other hand, is a longtime veteran. Since 1999, she's been part of several national dragon boat crews, and today coaches four rowing teams. This is her first time to work with PWDs.
"It's a big challenge for me," she said, "Especially for the deaf. I studied sign language, and learned it for commanding a boat." For those with orthopedic disability, she adapts her training—for the one-legged rowers, for example, she positions them at the side of the boat that will maximize their power.
It's this grit (and dare we say, diskarte) that overcomes even that all-too-familiar specter of a lack of resources. "We Filipinos, we're used to hardships. We lack support, we lack financing," Padrones shrugged. "But we do everything in our power to bring honor to our country."
At the during the awarding at the Esquire Man at His Best 2019, Balais gets misty-eyed when he remembered how far they'd gone. During the early days, they didn't have their own boat, they didn't have their own paddles, and they had to borrow all their equipment. "We were like a pitiful group in a corner," he said. But now, here they are, as a squad, commanding a record-making wave in Philippine sports.
Their journey is far from over. Next year, if they can get enough sponsors, they hope to compete at the 12th IDBF Club Crew World Championships at Aix-les-bains in France.
For Tumangan, though, it goes beyond the gold medals. It's about reclaiming what he felt he'd lost. "This is a life-changing na sport. Yung opponents are able bodied, and you are persons with disabilities. We couldn't believe we'd beat them. It restores your self-confidence. You have a goal in life, and you know what you have to do."
Balais agreed. No matter what your state in life, he believes, with a paddle in hand, "sports is the great equalizer."
This story originally appeared on Spin.ph. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.