MANILA, Philippines – One-legged Arnel Aba can swim faster than most people with two good legs.
Aba’s record at the 200-meter backstroke of the ASEAN ParaGames – the SEA Games of people with physical disabilities – which earned him a gold medal for the Philippines, has yet to be beaten.
Together with two other differently-abled athletes (one is a cyclist with a clubbed right foot and the other is a runner who lost his right arm), they pit themselves against the country’s best triathletes.
“Feeling ko ‘pag asa tubig ako, kumpleto ang katawan ko,” Aba said in an interview on ANC’s “Storyline.”
A photo of Aba emerging from the water with former Cobra Ironman 70.3 champion Noy Jopson and former national swimmer and Alaska’s big boss, Fred Uytengsu, went viral on Facebook recently, with users impressed as to how a one-legged man can match their athletic skills.
Others, meanwhile, said: “What’s your excuse?”
Aba, 26, lost his right leg in a vehicular accident. He used to be a jeepney driver.
But he does not regret the incident. “Ang sinasabi ko lang sa pagkaputol ng paa ko is isa siyang blessing,” he said.
Bully, drug addict
There is a good reason for Aba to not regret losing his right leg. Before the accident, he was a bully who was addicted to drugs.
“Kung andito pa ‘yung paa ko, marami akong pagpipilian. Nasa mental ako, nasa ospital, nasa sementeryo o nasa kulungan. So itong pagkaputol ng paa ko, medyo kumportable ako rito dahil malaki na ang respeto ko sa ibang tao, malaki na respeto ko sa sarili ko, lalong-lalo na sa parents ko. Sobrang mahal ko na ‘yung parents ko ngayon,” he explained.
Aba was born in Iligan City to a carpenter father and a stay-at-home mother.
By Grade 6, he started to have vices – smoking, alcohol, and eventually drugs.
“Gusto ko maging kilala sa barangay namin na siga ako,” Aba shared. “Tapos nung high school na ako, ‘pag pumapasok ako ng school dapat naka-rugby ako, nakainom ako. Ako unang na-kick out eh.
“Pangarap ko nun maging doktor, naging kundoktor ako ng jeep. Tapos nung nagkukundoktor ako sa tito ko, bisyo naman niya droga. Gusto ko ring maranasan kung anong feeling ng nakadroga.”
As a result of his drug addiction, Aba joined gangs and committed crimes. “So ako naman, walang sapat na trabaho para pambili ng ganung bisyo, kung ano-ano na pinasok kong gang. Sinubukan namin ‘yung holdup, snatch, nakaw, hindi ko naiisip na masama ‘to o mali. Ang iniisip ko na lang pera ‘to pambili ng drugs. ‘Yun na lang nasa isip ko.”
Failed suicide attempts
Aba eventually got a steady job as a jeepney driver, thanks to his sister who bought the vehicle and asked him to take care of it.
But his goal then was not to take passengers, but get drugs. “Araw-araw bumibiyahe ako, ‘yung goal ko hindi pang-arkila kundi pang-drugs,” he said. “Hinahanap na ng katawan ko.”
An accident, however, changed everything as it took away not only his right leg but his will to live.
“Dumating ‘yung time na may nanlalait sa akin na ‘dati siga siga ka rito sa amin, ngayon wala ka nang magawa.’ Hindi ko talaga matanggap na nawalan ako ng paa kasi ang hirap na mawalan ng parte ng katawan. Dumating ako sa pagpapakamatay,” he said.
Aba tried to end his life several times, but failed each time.
“First ko ginawa is hindi ako huminga, grabe ‘yung pawis ko [tapos tinigil ko rin]. ‘Yung sunod, inisip kong maglaslas sabi ko masakit ata, hindi ko tinuloy. ‘Yung sunod nagtali ako sa leeg ko, tinali ko sa sanga ng bayabas, pagtalon ko naputol ‘yung sanga ng bayabas.
“Ang last ko naisip magpasagasa sa malaking bus so nung nakita kong parating ‘yung bus, inisip ko baka mabuhay ako tapos maputulan na naman ako ng isa pang paa. Di ko siya natuloy kasi parang may nagpigil sa akin.”
A man in a pickup truck stopped Aba from committing suicide. It was the same person who changed his life and helped him become the medal-winning swimmer he is today.
“Pinuntahan niya ako, sabi niya, ‘bakit ka nandito?’ Sabi ko magpapakamatay ako. Sinabihan niya ako, ‘gusto mong mag-swimming, exercise?’ Tapos naisip ko ‘yun ang sabi ng doktor para gumaling agad ‘yung [sugat sa] putol ng paa ko,” he said.
“Di ko alam ‘yung taong ‘yun, isa pala siyang instructor at may-ari ng resort. Tinuruan niya ako kung paano lumangoy,” he added.
Considering this as his second chance in life, Aba gave up drugs and started honing his swimming skills, practicing every single day.
“Nagpursige akong praktisin siya. Sikreto pa akong nagte-training tuwing umaga hanggang sa natuto ako kung paano lumutang,” he said.
“Ang goal ko sa sarili ko, dapat makuha ko ‘yung swimming dahil wala na akong magawa sa buhay ko, dito na ako sa larangan ng sports.”
In two months, Aba became a competitive swimmer. And the rest is history.
Asked what he plans to do in the next few years, he said: “Pangarap ko is magkaroon ako ng sariling swim club, maging instructor talaga. Napamahal na ako sa tubig kaya ‘yun ang goal ko.”
Aba also wants to spend the rest of his life giving back to his parents. “Every vacation na makakakuha ako ng pera, may share ang nanay ko. Para sa akin, ‘di pa sapat ‘yung naibigay ko sa parents ko. Kulang na kulang pa rin. Hangga’t andiya ang parents ko, bibigyan at bibigyan ko sila, hangga’t may maibibigay ako sa kanila,” he said.