Pinoy swimmers relish chance to make history

By Camille B. Naredo,

Posted at Feb 04 2014 05:28 PM | Updated as of Feb 05 2014 05:50 AM

Filipino triathletes Betsy Medalla (L) and Julian Valencia. Medalla is attempting to become the first Filipina to complete the 7.2-km Robben Island swim in Cape Town, South Africa, while Valencia is her back-up. Photo by Camille B. Naredo,

MANILA, Philippines – Two Filipino triathletes have a chance to make history when they attempt to complete the Robben Island Swim in Cape Town, South Africa this weekend -- a feat that has not been achieved by any Asian.

Triathletes Betsy Medalla and Julian Valencia will take on the 7.2-kilometer challenge at the invitation of Buddy Cunanan, the consul of Georgia in the Philippines.

The 44-year-old Medalla will be the primary swimmer, with 40-year-old Valencia serving as her back-up.

“We were invited by Mr. Buddy Cunanan, who is the one who organized everything,” Valencia told “It was Betsy who was invited, and she is the main swimmer, anyway. Betsy gave me a call because she wants to have a back-up swimmer.”

Medalla and Valencia both swam for the University of the Philippines (UP) varsity team in the early 1990s, and later started joining triathlons in what they both called a “natural progression” of their athletic careers.

Now, they are taking on a new challenge when they plunge into the cold waters of Robben Island and swim at least 7.2 kilometers to the suburb of Bloubergstrand in Cape Town. The water’s temperature range from 20° to 15° Celsius, and is also infested by sharks and seals.

All this will be done to commemorate the friendship between South Africa and the Philippines, and to give thanks to the South Africans for their help during the relief operations in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda late last year.

The swim will also serve to honor the memory of the late South African President Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5.

Success rate for foreigners is 16%

Both Medalla and Valencia have done open water swims, but Robben Island presents a unique challenge because of the cold temperature, the creatures in the water, and the waves that can force a swimmer to adjust course several times.

“This is a first for both of us,” said Valencia, who flew to Cape Town with Medalla yesterday. “It will also be a record for both of us.”

Many South Africans have successfully completed the swim, but for foreigners, the success rate is considerably lower.

“Of all the foreigners who tried crossing that one, only 16% made it,” said Valencia. “We don’t know the exact number, pero 16% ang nakikita namin na (statistic) in terms of non-South Africans. Usually, they withdraw because of hypothermia.”

Medalla has actually swum longer routes – she has completed 8-km. open water swims, but the freezing waters of Robben Island gave her pause.

“I’ve done 8-km swims before, in Philippine waters,” she said. “In warm Philippine waters.”

To prepare for the swim, Medalla and Valencia trained in Baguio, where they swam in a pool with a temperature of 13°C.

“The cold, that was a first for us. I’ve never been in water that cold, ever,” said Medalla. “As soon as you dive into the water, it’s like you’re being burnt alive.”

Valencia compared the sensation to getting sunburn, but Medalla said it was worse because the pain “doesn’t stop.”

“It’s just all over you. You can’t think about anything else. All you can think of is how much it hurts, so of course, you have to swim. If you stop, the cold starts getting deeper than just skin,” she said.

“You’re hoping that your body starts to warm up and level you out, but it never does. You’re just cold.”

Medalla said she swam some 2,500-meters the first time she plunged into the pool, but both she and Valencia had to get out and then proceeded to shiver for an hour afterwards.

Sharks, kelp forests

The cold – and the possibility of hypothermia – is not the only risk that Medalla will be taking when she swims. In the first hundred meters, she will also have to navigate a kelp forest, and then hope the seals that populate the waters are not feeling particularly curious that day.

“First you have to swim through a kelp forest to get away from the island. You have to clear that, and the rocky bottom (of the sea), you have to clear 100 meters of that,” said Medalla, who admits that the seaweed can be a distraction for her.

“And then there are seals. The water seals, they play around the kelp forest and the male seals are known to be territorial,” she added. “They’re actually more aggressive than sharks.”

The sharks are always a concern, but Valencia said there are ways to keep them off.

“We were assured that there will be a boat with a medical team, and the boat will be equipped with a sonar device that will ward off the sharks,” he said.

Medalla will only be wearing a standard-issue suit, as full body suits are not allowed in the open water swim. She is also not allowed to hold on to the boat at any point, although Valencia and their team can throw her water or energy drinks.

And if, at any point, Medalla feels that she can no longer continue, Valencia will be there to take her place.

Primary swimmer

Although both Medalla and Valencia are undergoing physical and mental preparations for the swim, it is really Medalla who will be the primary swimmer, and if she completes the swim, Valencia need not even touch the water.

“Betsy is the main swimmer,” explained Valencia. “I’m just the back-up. Just in case it’s really cold, and then Betsy became hypothermic, that’s the time I jump in. We’re not gonna swim together.”

Medalla said she would love it if both she and Valencia can complete the swim, but it will depend on the organizers.

“It’s actually possible to do that if there are two boats with two separate crews,” Valencia said. “Kung masyado kaming magkalayo – and I expect her to be a kilometer ahead of me – that distance is dangerous if you only have one support boat.”

“If they assign another boat, then it becomes feasible to do it together,” he added.

If Medalla cannot finish the swim, then she cannot hold the distinction of being the first Asian to cross Robben Island, and her effort will not be certified by the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association, the governing body of the open water swim.

“It will just be a completion of the swim commemorating Mandela and the South Africa-Philippine friendship. So it won’t be a record. The record about being the first Asian or Filipina to cross that channel, wala na ‘yun.”

But Valencia has full confidence in Medalla’s ability to complete the historic swim.

“Knowing Betsy, tatapusin niya,” said Valencia. “Ganoon ang mindset namin eh. Nag-usap nga kami. Unless we’re popsicles, or if they really pull us out of the water, then we’re going to swim.”

When asked what will force her to stop swimming, Medalla said the decision will not come from her.

“It’s gonna be the official’s call, because I don’t think that it will come from me,” she said.

“Sabi ko nga, unless you fish her out of the water, she won’t stop,” Valencia interjected.

The swim will take place on either February 9 or 10, depending on the conditions of the ocean, Valencia said.

The swim will also be held to raise funds for the programs of Rescue 926 Inc. and the Gift of the Givers for the rehabilitation and rebuilding of communities in and around Leyte.

The team’s airfare is sponsored by Rhenus Logistics and Qatar Airways, while their gear and equipment will be provided by Tyr Endurance Sport and PSI.