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Sen. Miguel Zubiri Turned to Arnis to Cope With Bouts With COVID

Arnis kept him sane during isolation.
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At the media premiere of a new arnis documentary, Senator Miguel Zubiri poked a little fun at his sparse, spiky, all-white hairdo, complete with beard.

It’s a big change (at least appearance-wise) from the Zubiri interviewed in the documentary, sporting a full head of black hair as he cheered the national arnis team from the sidelines of the 2019 SEA Games.

“That’s what happens when you have COVID twice,” he said.

In March 16, Zubiri announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 — one of the highest officials in the land to have been hit by the coronavirus. After recovering in April, he tested positive again in late July.

To help him stay healthy during quarantine and recovery, he turned to an old, familiar sport.

“That’s what helped me survive and keep my sanity. In my own room, I would be training with arnis, twirling the stick and hitting a target inside the room to keep me physically fit,” he said.

In previous interviews with the Manila Times, Zubiri had said he would stay away from television and instead practice 30 minutes a day, using a hung towel as a target for forms and strikes.

Zubiri is the current president of the Philippine Eskrima Kali Arnis Federation (PEKAF). A practitioner since he was 16, he also won gold at the first arnis world championships held in 1989, besting his American opponent Jeff Finder by split decision in the light heavyweight category. 

Throughout his legislative career, he’s been an advocate of the Filipino martial art, authoring a bill to have it declared the national sport back in 2010.

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At the grassroots level, arnis is thriving. “When it comes to Palarong Pambansa, we’re the most popular sport,” said the veteran legislator, revealing that almost 600 kids competed in arnis in the last Palaro. “We also have the Batang Pinoy, the Philippine Sports Commission-led games for kids — it’s also one of the most popular sports [there] as well.”

But what Zubiri wants to do is to take Filipino participation in the sport to the worldwide stage, especially since its popularity is growing in Hollywood as well as in military and police forces around the world.

Over the past year, PEKAF has lobbied hard for arnis to be included in the 2021 SEA Games in Vietnam. It is perhaps a long shot, as the host country calls dibs on which sports to put in the roster outside of the required athletics and aquatics. Arnis has only appeared as a medal sport twice in the regional meet — when the Philippines was the host.

“But you know, strikingly enough, Vietnam is our biggest rival in Southeast Asia,” revealed the 51-year-old senator. “They’re the best. That’s why we got in touch with them again, saying, it boggles the mind. You guys are the best rivals of the Filipinos, and you should have [arnis] in Vietnam because there’s a chance [you] can be overall champions!”

Meanwhile, our own national arnis team — stars of a 14-medal gold rush in the last SEA Games — have been preparing for upcoming competitions during lockdown.

“We all had to resort to online training, much like all the other international teams and sports teams out there,” said the squad’s strength and conditioning coach RJ Garcia.

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He added: “We send them a weekly program, then we get updates on their home training via Viber, via online. A lot of our members are in the provinces right now, and some of them have a hard time getting a consistent signal for data. So we opted not to do synchronous classes.”

The national crew’s coaching team also revealed that they’re preparing for a bout of online competitions this December. Forms only, of course. “[It’s] a big adjustment lang din for the people who joined the national team as sparring or as a fighting sport,” Garcia admitted, as current IATF regulations still preclude martial arts.

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