ESQUIRE: How long have you been bowling?
PAENG NEPOMUCENO: I’ve been playing since 1970.
ESQ: And your Guinness World Records are still unbroken? (Ed’s Note: Paeng’s World Records include: the youngest to win the World Cup, the most world titles across three decades, and the most world titles in a career.)
PN: Yes, the three are unbroken, and various Presidents have given me awards: Marcos gave me the Presidential Medal of Merit. That’s the highest award given to a civilian. Erap, the Philippine Legion of Honor. Gloria, the Order of Lakandula with the Class of Champion for Life. Cory gave me a Presidential citation.
ESQ: Do you remember what Marcos was like?
PN: He gave me a sports car.
ESQ: Really? What kind?
PN: A white 230CE Benz.
ESQ: Did he say anything to you when he gave it?
PN: He told me privately, “Don’t let the girls spoil you with these keys.” Siyempre, it’s a sports car. And I was only 19.
ESQ: Who taught you how to bowl?
PN: My dad. I was initially into golf [when I was] 10 years old. My dad was a golfer. One time, we went up to Baguio to golf, then it started to rain. We had to look for shelter, which turned out to be the Mile High Bowling Center. I liked the game. If not for the rain, I might not have discovered it. When we went down to Manila, there was this organized Junior League in Coronado Lanes. I asked my dad to enroll me. Every Saturday, a group of kids played as a team for three months. That’s how my career started. I wanted to be the best. I was good in the league. The next step was to be the best among the youth of the Philippines. I accomplished that after two years. Another two years later, I won the Philippine International Open. It’s the most prestigious Philippine tournament, and I won it at 17, the youngest person to ever win that.
ESQ: And then at 19, you had won the World Cup?
PN: I made a rare grand slam. First I won the Philippine International Open, then I became Asian champion, and then I won the eliminations for the Bowling World Cup, and then I won the World Cup. So I became a Philippine, Asian, and World champion all in a span of five months in 1976.
ESQ: You always just wanted to keep surpassing yourself?
PN: Step by step. Goal-setting.
ESQ: When you won the World Cup, do you remember what that feeling was like?
PN: Siyempre, happy. I think, more than happy. I was in shock. I had a hero’s welcome when I came home. At the [airport] tarmac there was a band, and ticker tape! May ticker tape na ako even before Pacquiao, eh (laughs).
ESQ: What keeps you going?
PN: The challenge. These days, I want to prove that I can still go on as long as I feel competitive. My biggest challenge now is to keep up with the younger ones. I want to prove that [I’m not] a fluke, na hindi ako tsamba. I worked hard. I became the first two-time World Cup champion in 1980. Okay, I thought, what’s the next level? Then I got my third World Cup. Then the challenge became about keeping up with the changes in technology—the bowling balls and the lanes started changing. You have to reinvent yourself because the style that worked for you before won’t work anymore. Reinvention was my goal. And that’s how I reached three Guinness World Records.
ESQ: So, what’s next for you now?
PN: Now? Wala, just… the goal of every athlete is to be in the Hall of Fame. I achieved that more than 20 years ago.
ESQ: Your dad was also your coach?
PN: Yes, he started reading books about bowling because there weren’t bowling coaches in the Philippines. Self-study siya and he learned how to teach. From then on, he became a good coach. He was my coach for all my World Cup wins.
ESQ: Was your relationship with him as a coach different from him as a father?
PN: Yeah, that’s a good question. One thing with my dad as a coach, once we’re done, his role is finished. He becomes a father again. With training, he was strict, but I trusted that he knew my game like the palm of his hand.
ESQ: What was the best thing you learned from him as a coach?
PN: He was a good mental coach. Take two athletes with the same skill—but the athlete who does not get nervous easily during crunch time is a better one. In sports, it’s about controlling your nerves. So he taught me how to be calm and in control during crucial times. He taught me how to try hard, but not too hard so as not to ruin your disposition. And he was always pokerfaced when things weren’t going well. He would not show it. He would not panic. Many coaches panic.
ESQ: What kind of man was he?
PN: He was a businessman. Mild-mannered, but he didn’t like the limelight. After the game, he’d disappear. He’d just let me handle everything.
ESQ: What was he like as your father?
PN: Siyempre dedicated… my parents gave up so many things to stay focused on me. I have a brother and five sisters. We were a big family. And all their focus was on me growing up.
ESQ: What has bowling taught you?
PN: To be disciplined because discipline is the foundation of every athlete. Without that, you cannot be a champion.
ESQ: Now that you’ve achieved so many things, do you even still feel victorious?
PN: Siyempre. My opponents now are half my age eh. Hanggang kaya pa. I’m at the highest level of coaching now. There are only 25 of us around the world with a Gold Coach Certification [from the United States Bowling Congress]. Gold is like the PhD of bowling. We’re only 25 in the world, and I’m the only Asian.
ESQ: Have you ever experienced failure?
PN: Yes, many times. Now, that 130 games [in the Guinness World Records for most 10-pin games consecutively won as champion], I’ve lost maybe double that. I’m not perfect. Like any sport. I was also disappointed when I had surgery and I lost flexibility in my bowling hand. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to bowl again. Although I was at the Hall of Fame na, it was disappointing because I lost my grip, and I knew it would not be the same. I had to modify my bowling style. If you X-ray my hand, you’ll see that only half of my hand is connected to the wrist, the other side wala na.
ESQ: How do athletes deal with ordeals like that when their body is their main tool?
PN: Injuries in sports are normal but it depends—are you willing to come back, or call it quits?
ESQ: Do you believe in God?
PN: Yes, I’m a prayerful person. I believe in prayers. My dad always says, “God’s will be done.” No matter how good you are, if it’s not God’s will, you won’t win. It lessens the pressure, I like that, “Oh, I should have won ah, what happened?” God’s will be done, he always tells me.
ESQ: What is your definition of risk?
PN: When you’re willing to take chances and succeed. I like taking risks. I like changes—I don’t know if this will work but I’m going to risk it and see. If you fail, you have to work on whatever you were willing to risk.
ESQ: How do you achieve the level of accomplishment that someone like you has?
PN: Nobody’s born to be a champion. My first bowling score was 67. What makes a champion is one who’s willing to persevere, willing to make sacrifices. There are days when you wake up, and you don’t feel like training. But you have to go on. That’s the life of an athlete. It’s an investment.
This article was originally published in our April 2016 issue.