By Marc Jayson Cayabyab, VERA Files
When the pistol went off, three swimmers dived off the starting block and splashed into the water to best one another in the 50-meter freestyle competition.
The frontrunner was a teenage boy who swam with only an arm and a leg. Close behind him was another boy who had only one foot while the third swimmer was a girl with no arms.
They were the participants of the swimming competition for the orthopedically impaired in the special events category of the 2012 PalarongPambansa held at the DagupanPoolsite in Pangasinan from May 8 to 9. The special events were for persons with disabilities (PWDs) engaged in athletics and sports.
Clocking the fastest time was 15-year-old Gary Bejino representing the National Capital Region who made it in 46 seconds. He emerged from the water and headed for the bleachers toward a cheering audience,one hand holding his crutch and a foot balancing his walk.
Cris Natividad from the Ilocos Region, whose left foot had been amputated, missed first place by just 10 seconds. Bejino's teammate, 27-year-old MariellePolida who was born without arms, placed third.
It was a three-peat victory for Bejino, who also swam the fastest in two other swimming events — the 50-meter breast stroke and back stroke.
"Akala ko nga hindi ko matatapos ung backstroke eh. Nangalay ang pa ako (I thought I wouldn't finish the back stroke. My foot became numb)," Bejino said.
Yet, there almost was no 50-meter freestyle competition because Polida was technically ineligible to join the Palaro. The rules particularly state that PWD swimmers should have amputations below or above the knee. Polida does not have any amputation below or above the knee.
Polida was allowed to participate to compensate for the lack of PWD participants in the event. Excluding Polida, only the two other athletes with physical disability applied for this year's Palaro, said Dennis Esta, executive director of the Philippine Sports Association for the Differently Abled (PHILSPADA) that helped organize the Palaro.
The rules require at least three competitors. If there were only two contenders, the event would only become a "participatory" game, instead of a competition, said Esta.Last year, only one PWD swimmer joined the Palaro merely for participation, he added.
"Imbes na ma-disqualify, in-accommodate na rin natin (sila). Nandito na eh (Instead of disqualifying, we accommodated Polida. They were here already)," Esta said.
Apart from that, the organizers say PWD athletes were given equal treatment as the athletes of regular events to avoid the impression that PWDs were being belittled.
For one, scoring rules were applied to both special and regular games. The regular categories included in the special games are swimming and relay.
But Palaro special games co-chairperson Josefino Dela Paz admitted certain rules for the special games need to be modified to adjust to the needs of PWD athletes.
"We only modified the rules of the events to suit their needs," Dela Paz said, adding that the adjustments are intended to make the games PWD-friendly.
In swimming, for instance, the PWD athletes had the option to swim while in the water instead of diving. Dela Pazadded that the PWD athletes need only swim 50 meters, which is half what athletes swim in the regular games.
Despite the organizers' concerns, the athletes took to the water like the children of the sea that they are.
The son of a fisherman, Bejino used to help his father Demetrio catch fish. Growing up near the sea in Albay province gave Bejino an opportunity to spend his childhood swimming with his cousins.
When he was seven, however, Bejino got electrocuted after he climbed a coconut tree and accidentally touched an electric post. He fell down with a burnt leg and arm, both of which needed to be amputated.
Bejino saw himself as different since the incident. "Tingin ko sa sarili ko kakaibaako eh. Kahit hanggang ngayon nahihiya pa rin ako sa mga tao lalo na kapag maraming nakatingin sa akin (I think of myself as a different. Until now, I feel embarrassed when people stare at me)," he said.
He thought he would never be able to swim again until he tried it after being fully healed, swimming with just one arm and a leg. "Umaandar pa namanako (I was still able to move)," he said.
In 2007, he enrolled at the National Orthopedic Hospital School for Crippled Children in Quezon City with the help of the Father Monti Foundation. The foundation aids childrenwith physical disability like Bejino, so they can have access to special education.
Like Bejino, Polida grew up in a fishing village. Born without arms, Polida used to help her fisherman father in their village in Carrascal, Surigaodel Sur. Her task was to pull the net of fish back up the boat using her two feet.
She was seven when she saw an island of sand far out at sea. It was this island that motivated Polida to learn how to swim. "Sabi ko sa isip ko gusto kong puntahan yun…Hanggang sa natuto akong lumangoy (I said to myself, I wanted to go to that island…Until I eventually learned how to swim)," Polida said.
Aside from swimming, Polida can sing while swimming in the middle of the sea. "Sa dagat po kumakanta kanta ako hanggang sa leeg ko (I sing in the sea with the water until my neck)," she said.
Polida did not consider her disability a hindrance to achieving an education. At 16 years old, she personally asked the Catholic church in Carrascalfor aid for her to study in Metro Manila.
She was eventually accepted into Tahanang Walang Hagdanan, where she was taught by the instructors of the NOH School for the Crippled Children. Tahanang Walang Hagdanan, which is based in Cainta, Rizal, is a nonprofit rehabilitation and skills training center "that aims to uplift the lives" of orthopedically impaired persons.
Without her arms, Polida rides on the waves and uses the strength of her feet to propel her through the water. Normally, non-PWD swimmers would balance their body using their arms, but Polida would only use her upper body strength to keep her afloat.
Predictably, Polida does not like freestyle swimming because the absence of arms makes it difficult for her to lift her head to breathe.
"Di tulad ng may mga kamay na (naba-balance) po nila yung paglangoy…Wala akong pam-balance sa kamay (Unlike athletes who have complete arms, I cannot balance my body while swimming)," Polida said.
It was no easy task for swimming coach Shielo Montorio to train his NCR delegates, particularly Polida. His technique, he said, is to try to swim the way they do—by showing his athletes how to do swimming strokes without arms and legs.
"I have to perform kung ano yung disability nila (I have swim as if I had their physical disability)," Montorio said, citing the case of Polida.
Before the competition proper, the NCR swimming team practiced in the Dagupan Poolsite for everyone to see. But Polida was too shy to show off her skills in public.
"Ang daming tao," observed Polida during that training."So sabi ko kay sir (Montorio) nahihiya ako.Sabi ni sir: 'Wag ka mahiya. Ipakita mo sa mga tao na kaya mong gawin ang ginagawa nila (There were many people during the training. I told sir Montorio I was shy. He told me, 'Don't be shy. Show others that you can do what they can do).'"
The trick for swimmers with physical disability—use what is left of their bodies, said Montorio. The coach matched skills training with encouragement, especially for his athletes who are usually shy to show off their skills.
For the NCR delegates, joining the Palarong Pambansa 2012 enables them to finally show to the country that even those with physical disability are just as capable as non-PWDs.
"Mahalaga po (ang pagsali sa Palaro) ng mga taong may kapansanan tulad namin kasi dun namin naipapakita yung kakayahan ng taong may disability na kayang gawin kahit na… may kapansanan kami (It is important for us persons with disabilities to join the Palaro for us to show our skills even with our disabilities)," Bejino said.
The participation of swimmers with physical disability in the Palaro is in accordance with the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
According to Article 30 of the international agreement: "With a view to enabling persons with disabilities to participate on an equal basis with others in recreational, leisure and sporting activities, States Parties shall…encourage and promote the participation, to the fullest extent possible, of (PWDs) in mainstream sporting activities at all levels; (and) to ensure that (PWDs) have an opportunity to organize, develop and participate in disability-specific sporting and recreational activities and, to this end, encourage the provision, on an equal basis with others, of appropriate instruction, training and resources."
(VERA Files is a partner of the "Fully Abled Nation" campaign that seeks to increase participation of PWDs in the 2013 elections and other democratic process. Fully Abled Nation is supported by The Asia Foundation and the Australian Agency for International Development.)