This PWD Dragon Boat Racing Team’s Story is the Stuff of Movies
“Bugsay hangtod mabuang! (Paddle until you lose yourself!)” This is the battle cry of the Philippine Accessible Disability Services Adaptive Dragon Boat Racing Team. Composed of amputees, Deaf, Blind, and polio survivors, they are the country’s first cross-disability adaptive team.
Of the seven competitions this year-old team has joined, they've won four gold medals—one in the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races, and three in the 1st Naga Invitational Dragon Boat Race. Their victories prove that disability is a matter of perception.
“If there is a disability, it is not manifested through the use of wheelchairs, sign language, or Braille. It is a society who cannot see their [PWDs’] competence, strength, and ability in a world that should know no barriers,” says JP Maunes, founder of PADS and manager of the dragon boat racing team.
PADS chose dragon boat racing for their adaptive sports program because as a seated sport, it put people with disabilities on an equal footing with regular athletes.
“Seated sports are dominated by people with disabilities. For example, the champion for kayaking is a polio survivor,” Maunes says. “A lot of people can participate [in dragon boat racing]. Twenty people can fit in one boat and it fits the culture of the Philippines since we are water people. Particularly in Cebu, the water is thirty minutes away from us so it’s very close to our hearts.”
Marvelous Jorda, 30, used to fish in Bohol with his grandparents when he was a child. While he has been blind in his left eye since birth, he had been able to see out of his right until he was nine years old. He clearly recalls the first time he set foot in a dragon boat. “Ito ang pinaka-asam-asam ko na makasakay ako ulit ng bangka. Noong time na sumakay ako sa dragon boat, naalala ko yung nakaraan ko, yung pinanggalingan ko so sabi ko sa sarili ko, ‘Ang bangka na ito ang nagrestore sa pagkatao ko,’” he says in a GMA Public Affairs Front Row interview.
That’s exactly why Maunes founded the adaptive sports program in the first place—to restore dignity to people with disabilities. “We saw that if we trained our paddlers well, there’s a good chance for us to excel in this sport. To develop winners out of athletes, we have to provide them with the best support we can get,” he says.
The PADS coaching team includes a dragon boat coach, sports performance and rehab specialists, physical therapists, and a nutritionist. “Anything is possible if you just use the right approach. Even if walang budget, the training and technology should be [supported by] research and evidence-based approaches to sports development. It should include psycho-social support and strength and conditioning,” Maunes explains.
The PADS athletes wake up as early as 4:30 a.m. and train five times a week. When preparing for a competition, they increase their sessions to at least twice a day. “When we started our intensive training, we told each other we have to prove to ourselves that we can do better, we can conquer our own disabilities. You can never tell who’s disabled and who’s not when you’re seated in a boat,” Maunes says.
In fact, using wheelchairs and crutches every day has helped some of the members develop their upper body strength, which is a big advantage when it comes to paddling. In this way, their disability has become their strength.
“They found a new ray of hope in sport,” Maunes says. “It’s good recreational rehab for them, particularly those who just acquired disability through an accident. They struggle with accepting their disability and when they see others with disabilities na angat na, they look up to them. They have new support system—it’s like a huge family.”
"You can never tell who’s disabled and who’s not when you’re seated in a boat.”
Twenty-year-old Brylle Samgel Arombo lost part of his right leg in a car accident—and now he is one of the team's youngest members. “Dati nanliliit ako sa sarili ko lalo na ’pag nasa public kasi tinitingnan ka. Pero simula nang makasakay ako ng boat, makasama ko sila, parang normal nalang. Lahat kami merong kapansanan. Naisip ko ang suwerte ko rin pala kasi mas maraming pang mas malala ang sitwasyon kaysa sa akin,” he told GMA Public Affairs Front Row. “’Yung dragon boat, parang rehab para sa mga may kapansanan,” Arombo continues. “Nawawala sa isip mo yung disability mo. ’Yung lahat ng stress mo, ’yung galit mo sa mundo, ’yung galit mo sa sarili mo, i-sagwan mo. Mawawala yung problema mo. Nagbago talaga yung tingin ko sa sarili ko simula ng pag-dragon boat ko.”
Within six months, videos of the PADS Adaptive Dragon Boat Racing Team spread like wildfire among the international community. It was then that the organizers of the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races invited them to compete. Their journey to the championships was a tough one, to say the least.
PADS had to borrow money to fund their tickets to Hong Kong, which they bought just two days before their departure. To make things worse, they ran out of funds within their first day in Hong Kong. They posted for help on their Facebook page, and went to the Philippine consulate.
“There were overseas dragon boat teams there and we asked them for help,” Maunes says. “They bought all of the souvenirs we brought just so we would have funds. The Filipino community cooked food for us and on the day of the race, the consulate sponsored our lunch. We felt the Filipino spirit of bayanihan and that really motivated the team to win. We have to win this race and make our country proud! A lot of people doubted us, but our combined disabilities are our greatest strength.”
Theirs was the only full disability team at the competition—the other teams were fifty to seventy percent composed of people with disabilities. And when they won the championship, the way the community congratulated them was something they would never forget.
Jorda says winning and participating in an international competiton has given the team a new sense of self-worth. "Isang malaking karangalan sa amin na kahit ganito kami, kaya naming magbigay ng karangalan sa bansa at kaya naming gawin yung kayang gawin ng iba. Nagkaroon kami ng kumpiyansa sa sarili namin. 'Yung dating mga mahiyain, hindi na mahiyain. Taas-noo na siyang humaharap sa mundo. 'Yung dati na nagmumukmok lang sa bahay, ngayon hindi na. Lumalabas na siya dahil mayroon siyang may mapagmamalaki sa sarili niya. Ito yung mga pagbabago na nangyayari talaga."
Their next great victory was at the 1st Naga Invitational Dragon Boat Race. “Last October we were able to win our first championship against non-disabled teams and it elevated us to level where disability is nothing in sports,” Maunes says. “We have proven to everyone that regardless of whether you have a disability, you can still conquer dragon boat racing, and race side by side with strong teams.”
These achievements have won them the esteem of other dragon boat teams in Cebu. “Most of the teams want to transfer to PADS because they want to be a winning team,” Maunes says. “We always remind them that this is a team of people with disabilities. Our paddlers who don’t have disabilities are husbands, brothers, or cousins of our paddlers with disabilities, because we need people who can help us carry the boat. But the team is composed mainly of PWDs.”
Between competitions, the PADS dragon boat team also offers teambuilding activities, in which their paddlers teach people how to properly row a dragon boat. Their teambuilding program has become something of an attraction, and sharing their skills with others has further boosted the paddlers’ confidence.
“Ang ganda ng feedback ng mga participants every time we conduct those teambuilding activities, and it helps the livelihood program of our athletes,” Maunes says. “It’s a good fundraising for us so we can prepare everything for our athletes. It develops their leadership skills. It’s nice to see those with disabilities training those without disabilities to become competitive.”
A few companies have even asked them for help in forming their own dragon boat teams. These training sessions and team building activities are extremely effective platforms spreading awareness about the capabilities and potential of PWDs.
“They see the ability of the team. They say it’s so refreshing and inspiring even if they get tired [out by the training],” Maunes says. “We don’t have to say anything, we don’t have to talk about disability or inclusion. We let the sport speak for itself. The people who participate say it for themselves. There’s a change of attitude and perspective when it comes to people with disability and that’s how sports is a platform for change and diplomacy. It’s bringing communities together. That’s one reason why we’re successful in this advocacy.”
At the same time, their experiences have empowered the paddlers to seek employment. Being part of a team has taught them values they can easily apply in the workplace. For example, Jorda says dragon boating has taught him how to better relate with others. "Kasi different disabilities kami. May Blind, may Deaf, merong ortho, tapos mayroon din kaming mga kasama na abled. So sa iba’t ibang disability, meron ding magkakaiba na pag-uugali, may iba-iba rin na kagustuhan, pero sa dragon boat, nagiging isa siya. Sa 100%, dapat 90% ikaw yung dapat umunawa at 10% lang yung ikaw ang uunawain."
“We connect them with companies and the approach is not to hire them because they are disabled, but to hire them because they are champion athletes and they would be a good addition to the company,” says Maunes. “They excel in their own work. They’re an asset to their company, not a liability like how most companies see employees with disabilities.”
After an immensely successful first year, the PADS Adaptive Dragon Boat Team looks forward to joining more races in 2018. They’ve been invited to compete in the USA, Hungary, and Canada. However, whether they’ll be able to join all of those international races is uncertain, since they lack sponsors.
Nevertheless, they're committed to competing as much as they can—not just to prove themselves, but to inspire people with disabilities and their families. They recognize that with every race they join, fellow PWDs see them, identify with them, and feel represented.
When the families of PWDs see the sense of pride and ownership the PADS team has, it makes them see the potential in their own relatives with disabilities. Little by little, the PADS dragon boat racing team is lifting the stigma surrounding PWDs. As Maunes says, "We're racing towards a disability-inclusive society one island at a time."
If you’re interested in sponsoring or donating, send a message to the PADS Adaptive Dragon Boat Racing Team Facebook page or contact JP Maunes at (+63 917) 701 4700.