LIKE A MIRACLE EMERGING FROM THE SEA. One-legged Arnel Aba hops off the water alongside a stunned Noy Jopson (middle) and Fred Uytengsu, two of the country’s best-known triathletes, at the end of the 1.5 km of the open sea swim, in the swim leg of the recent 5150 Triathlon event in Subic. Aba was one of 3 differently abled athletes who formed a relay team and placed second in their event.
The image was as dramatic as it was powerful: a one-legged athlete matching strides with two of the country’s best-known triathletes at the end of 1.5 kilometers of open-sea swim. The photo went viral on Facebook and the collective reaction from the ever-growing triathlon community and its sedentary suburbs was this: What’s our excuse?
The picture of Arnel Navales Aba hopping off the water tells just one-third of a compelling story, just as swimming is just one-third of the fastest growing sport in the world—the triathlon. Here’s the whole story.
When you’ve spent the most significant part of your life overcoming near-impossible obstacles, mountains start to look like molehills.
A case of cramps during a marathon? That’s nothing to the pain of watching a nurse reach into a gaping hole near your shoulder where your right arm used to be and scrape through raw flesh and muscle to remove deadly blood clots inside you. All the while you are conscious and unanesthesized.
One of the country’s top cyclists breathing down your neck in a race? That’s hardly any pressure when you’ve been chased by jeers all your life for a deformed leg and the fact that you grew up not knowing how to bike in a town that spawned a bronzed cycling god.
When you come within a razor blade of hitching a thrill ride with the Grim Reaper, what’s racing a bunch of muscled, spandex-wrapped able-bodied athletes 150 meters to the shore while hopping on one leg?
These obstacles mean as much to Aba as a right shoe. More importantly, they are obstacles that Aba, Godfrey Taberna and Isidro Vildosola challenge themselves to overcome if only to provide an example of hope for those who are like them.
“We want to be an inspiration to other disabled people,” said Aba, a former jeepney driver who lost his right leg in a vehicular accident.
The three join triathlons as a relay team and pit themselves against the best triathletes in the country to become an inspiration for both the disabled and the able-bodied. In the relay, Aba swims, Taberna bikes and Vildosola runs in that order.
For those who haven’t seen them yet, they can find hope in a snapshot: The one-legged Aba emerging from the open water alongside former Cobra Ironman 70.3 champion Noy Jopson and former national swimmer and Ironman triathlon organizer Fred Uytengsu in the Century Tuna 5150 Triathlon in Subic two weeks ago.
The photo, posted by triathlete Gregie Pamakid on Facebook showed Jopson apparently surprised and awestruck at the sight of Aba next to him and Uytengsu, the Alaska big boss. The trio clocked within three seconds of each other.
“Whattaguy!” Jopson would comment later on Facebook.
Aba, Taberna, a cyclist born with a clubbed right foot, and Vildosola, a runner who lost his right arm from a rice mill accident, finished second in the relay event, beaten only by a team that included a professional cyclist who had won the Philippines’ version of the Tour de France three times.
“We wanted to compete in a regular event to challenge ourselves,” said Aba. “We want to show we can do what regular people can do.”
Aba, Taberna and Vildosola, who compose the Wetshop Para Tri Team, completed the Olympic distance—1.5-kilometer swim, 40K bike and 10K run—with a time of 2 hours, 31 minutes and 30 seconds.
The only team to beat them was led by no less than three-time cycling Tour champion Santy Barnachea, who powered the Wetshop Tri Team to a winning time of 2:16.27.
Vildosola held on to second place with a run of 42 minutes and 34 seconds and was actually the 17th man to cross the finish line.
That achievement was made even more special by the fact that the three of them did not get special concessions from race organizers. For the swim, Aba had to ditch his crutches, tread in the water for several minutes before the start and fight it out in the massed start. He had to rely mostly on his arms and upper body since his lower body provided only half the propulsion and balance needed in freestyle swimming.
Coming out of the water at the end of the swim, Aba hopped and stumbled for 150 meters on the sand to his crutches and raced a couple of hundred meters more to the bike transition area, where Taberna waited to receive the team’s timing chip.
Aba fumbled with the chip, attempting to strap it on Taberna’s weak right leg.
“It was too loose, so we had to make adjustments,” said Aba.
After that, Taberna pedaled off, pushing his bike mostly with his left leg, up the dreaded hills of Subic that tested even the strongest and most able-bodied cyclists.
“I really don’t feel my [right] leg much, so it’s my other leg that’s really doing all the work,” said Taberna.
At the end of the cycling leg, Vildosola picked up the race for the trio, unmindful of the extra effort he had to put into maintaining proper balance without a right arm.
“I just simulate the swinging action of my other arm,” he said. “I just think positive, I run like I’m complete.”
Knowing real pain
To keep his balance on the run, he sometimes overcompensates on one leg, causing him to cramp up during crucial stages. He simply shakes off the pain and continues running.
After all, Vildosola, 36, knows what real pain means.
Back in 1989 in Koronadal, the then 14-year-old Vildosola rescued his cousin from a farm machinery accident. Heroism, sometimes, comes at a steep price and for Vildosola, it was his right arm, which got caught in the machine and was chewed right up to his shoulder.
“I tried to stand up but I saw my bones crushed, I saw my joints,” recalled Vildosola. “It happened around 7 p.m., we were in a barrio and there were no vehicles. I had to wait until 9 p.m. before they were able to bring me to the hospital. I was operated on only at 4 a.m. the next day. I was almost dead. They had no choice but to amputate my arm.”
To cleanse his insides of blood clots that were forming near his shoulder blades, nurses reached into the gaping hole near his armpit. In doing so, they scraped so much flesh that until now, Vildosola cannot build muscles on his right shoulder. There’s not enough tissue there.
His only anaesthetic during the whole procedure?
“I just bit my lips hard until they bled,” he recalled.
Disowned by father
His ordeal did not end there. His own father disowned him after the incident.
“I’m the eldest and it was like he lost hope,” shared Vildosola. “He told me that he’ll just think that he had lost a son, then he left. My mother was the one who kept my spirit alive. But what my father said, it’s still in my head. Until now, we still have that gap.”
Vildosola rebuilt his life, starting with the basics.
“I was right-handed and I had to learn everything using my left hand,” said Vildosola. “I practiced writing again, it was like I was going back to Grade 1.”
And then he discovered running. During a school meet, Vildosola beat able-bodied students even while running barefoot. His high school varsity stint led to an athletic scholarship at the University of Southern Mindanao.
Taberna, born with a clubbed foot, was lucky his family was more supportive of his condition. But growing up in Nueva Vizcaya, specifically in the town of Bagabag, had its challenges.
Bagabag, after all, is home to Carlo Guieb, one of the unforgettable champions of the old cycling tour. In Bagabag, some 20 kilometers from the capital of Bayombong, kids are expected to know how to ride a bike.
By the time he was 14, Taberna still didn’t know how to ride one. And it wasn’t exactly a morale boost for a shy teenager already conscious of a congenital deformity where the foot appears internally rotated at the ankle.
“I started cycling only in high school, I had no sport,” said Taberna. “I got challenged because I was growing tall but I couldn’t even balance a bike. I just learned on my own. When my father saw that I was enjoying it, he bought me a mountain bike.”
Aba got into sports even much later, carelessly wasting his life on several vices. He smoked, he drank, he gambled and did drugs. He worked as a jeepney driver but there were times when he could not even spare P20 for his mother when she needed it.
And then eight years ago, when he was 20, Aba got involved in a vehicular accident in his hometown of Iligan City. The accident left him with one leg.
For someone used to living on the edge, the immobility left him depressed. He wanted to take his own life.
“I tried to slash my wrist but it hurt,” he said laughing. “I tried to hang myself but the tree branch broke. I tried to get hit by a bus but I got scared.”
When Aba tried to put himself in front of a moving pickup truck, the driver stopped and talked him out of it. The man encouraged him to try take up swimming, offering his resort as a training venue.
But Aba didn’t know how to swim. Worse, he was scared of the water.
“I didn’t know how to swim. I even had a phobia because I almost drowned when I was eight years old,” he said. But coincidentally, swimming was recommended as therapy by the doctor who cut his leg.
“I just took on the challenge of the water,” said Aba. “I really tried hard even when I felt like I was drowning. Eventually, I just got it—the stroke correction, the technique.”
Eventually, too, the paths of the three athletes crossed.
They all made the Philippine team for the differently abled. After picking up golds in several editions of the Southeast Asian Games and other international meets, all three got together again in the 2010 Asian Para Games in Guangzhou, China, where they hatched their triathlon plans.
“When we tried to register for our first competition, we were told that the registration fee was P4,000-plus. We didn’t have that much money. We were poor,” Aba recounted. “So we walked out of the office and were about to give up.”
A team is born
As it turned out, Vince Garcia, vice president of Holofer Marketing, overheard Aba inquiring about the event. He got Aba’s number and asked him to round up his teammates. And the Wetshop Para Tri Team was formed.
“It’s not just luck,” said Garcia, who now manages the trio. “These guys really have skills. They really train hard. They’re more motivated.”
And then there were the other challenges they faced in the Subic race.
“There was no rule for handicaps,” said Garcia. “There’s no special category for them. So they (organizers) decided they should go by the rules of the able-bodied. We just made arrangements for them so it won’t be hard during the transition.”
After the race, the enormity of their second-place feat hit them. When the trio took the podium, they were given rock-star treatment by the other participants.
“It’s like we were the one who won the championship,” said Vildosola. “Everyone stood up, they were all clapping and cheering.”
“All the foreigners were approaching us and congratulating us,” added Aba.
No more excuses
“It’s really a blessing. It opened the gates for challenged athletes in this sport,” said Garcia. “But the more common response [among able athletes] was they have no more excuses now. Some people would say I can’t train because I’m aching here and there. Now you can’t say it because how can a person with a missing leg, a missing arm or a clubbed foot do things you say you can’t?”
And so they continue to seek out races to join. Because they were trying to qualify for the London Paralympics, they failed to make the early entry list for the Cobra Ironman 70.3 Triathlon in Cebu next month. As a result, they are on the waitlist.
“We’re hoping they get the chance to race,” said Garcia, adding that he wants their story to encourage other differently abled people to go into triathlon.
“We can help them get equipped with what they need,” he said.
For now, though, Aba, Taberna and Vildosola continue challenging themselves.
“As much as possible, we want to keep this team,” said Aba. “As long as there’s no one taking our place, we want to keep on doing this.”