Down, but never out. No other phrase could better describe the journey that Katrina and Vincent Tolentino went through since they stepped foot in the Philippines.
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The two weren’t really on a lot of people’s radars when they decided to take their act back to their parents Irene and Noli’s motherland. “I was here for two years before I got to play for Ateneo. I went to a tryout, met with the managers. I also tried out for rival La Salle, but it was Ateneo that really stuck. Norman Black was still the head coach as they won the last of the five-peat, and I was on Team B doing residency,” recalls Vince, the second of three children. (Their eldest sibling, Stephanie, lives and works in Canada.)
Kat says that she only moved here because of her big brother. “I was even confused why he did because I didn’t know how popular the sport is,” she says. “I was still in grade 11 when he moved out and it was shocking to me.”
Vince first played for the Ateneo Blue Eagles in UAAP Season 76, with then first year head coach Bo Perasol. Unlike the previous five seasons, however, the next three years would turn out rocky as the Eagles would be unable to make it to the championship round; they missed the Final Four in his first year, got ousted as the first seed in the next, and lost on a Mac Belo buzzer beater to FEU in season 78.
But in 2016, a coaching change would prove to be the best thing for his career as former Gilas Pilipinas head coach Tab Baldwin replaced Perasol, almost immediately turning Ateneo’s fortunes around. That year, the team made it into the finals, unfortunately losing to a star-studded La Salle squad bannered by MVP Ben Mbala and Jeron Teng.
Nevertheless, the southpaw would get his due the following year as he finally showed the world what he’s got, proving himself a worthy starter. He began hitting the long bomb on a consistent basis, and became an anchor on defense, taking on the assignment of guarding the other team’s best wing player. As that final buzzer sounded in Game 3 of the Finals that year, he raised his arms in victory as tears fell down his cheeks, knowing he ended his collegiate career in the best way possible.
“Coach Tab helped my career a lot. My first three years here was my real development period that prepared me for what was to come under him. It really was a struggle. I felt like I wasn’t being used. I was working but the results weren’t showing,” the 25-year-old shares. “With Coach Tab we just clicked on the system. Losing to La Salle was one of the worst feelings, worse than all the ones before. But it gave me added fuel personally to come back and accomplish what we wanted.”
Fall three times…
Kat had her own share of challenges. Before making her way to the Philippines, she had already suffered two Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injuries on her left knee. Just as she was set to return to action in 2015, she tore her right one during a game in the Shakey’s V-League and had to undergo reconstructive surgery and months of rehab all over again.
She wanted to quit at the time, and stayed away from the sport completely, not even daring to watch her teammates play. “That was the time when I hated volleyball. I didn’t even want to be associated with it,” she shares. “I was fine with just going to school. I even thought of moving back because I can continue school in Canada without playing.”
But when a former teammate, Therese Gaston, shared a Thought Catalog post with her she changed her mind. It was a story of a girl who had five major knee surgeries and was still able to play sports. “She wrote a letter to herself titled ‘to the athlete I’ll never be.’” I actually messaged the writer and chatted with her on Facebook,” the 23-year-old says. “That was a wake up call for me. At the time I was also already on the 10th month of my rehab and I felt stronger. It was also a factor that the Lady Eagles lost to La Salle in Game 3 of the volleyball finals. That’s when I changed my mind and decided to finally come back and play.”
When Kat finally made it on court, she didn’t fail to impress. With her height and skills, she led Ateneo to podium finishes in her three years with the school: first runner-up in Season 79 (lost to La Salle in the Finals), second runner-up in Season 80, and finally the championship this year. It was the school’s first since winning back-to-back in UAAP in Season 76 and 77. She was awarded as the Best Opposite Spiker of the tournament.
The two have loved sports since their growing up years in Vancouver, British Columbia. Vince began playing at around 6 years old because of his dad Noli. “He played and loved the sport so it kind of came naturally to me. I joined regional club teams in our area, and we played year-round.” Basketball is big in their hometown of Steveston in Richmond, British Columbia. Vince went on to play high school ball for Vancouver College, leading him to try out for college and professional basketball.
Meanwhile, their eldest sibling Stephanie was who inspired Kat to play volleyball in the fifth grade. “I was pretty tall for my age so it came natural for me. I’ve been playing since I was 10 years old,” she says. “In Canada there are club teams in high school already and like Vince, I played for them.” She played for five years each for her club team Air Attack, and high school McMath Secondary.
Even though they grew up playing sports, they never imagined coming here and experiencing everything that has happened in the last seven years. “In high school I wanted to play collegiate volleyball, but I didn’t want to go pro. I just saw it as a way to go into university as a student-athlete. But I never thought about moving to the Philippines,” Kat says.
Vince has always wanted to turn basketball into a career. “But I guess, personally, college in Canada was very competitive and I didn’t get a lot of offers to play there. But here, I was given a chance to play collegiate and professional ball. I saw the opportunity, but I knew it was a long process,” the six-foot-three stretch forward says.
The Filipino way of life itself was something they had no idea of before moving here. “There were a lot of Chinese-Filipinos in Richmond. But in the area we grew up in, we were surrounded by a lot of Canadians. So we became accustomed to that Western lifestyle,” he says.
In Kat’s league in Canada, she was one of only two Filipinos, and her teammates did not know much about her culture. “Growing up, my childhood was built around that western culture,” she admits. “As an athlete I wasn’t super in touch with the Filipino heritage until I got here.”
They had to make a lot of adjustments in their life here. From having younger classmates than them, to the food, to their studies, to their twice-a-day training. But having each other here helped. “It’s huge to have some type of family here, someone you’re comfortable with. It was big for us. Being athletes, we know how each other works,” reflects Vince. “It helped us grow together and move toward what we wanted to do.”
“It’s comforting having family back at the condo. I didn’t have any friends when I moved here so having him definitely made me stay. My mom can be there to say a lot of things and comfort me. But having another athlete there to talk to is something else, especially when I got injured again. I’m just thankful we’re both here. The five years has been good because of him and I’m grateful for that,” Kat says.
Today, more than ever, there are a lot of Fil-Ams and Fil-Cans finding their way back to the country for the opportunity to study and be an athlete. With school recruitment as competitive as ever and the spotlight being given to collegiate players, the numbers just continue to increase year after year. These two siblings are an inspiration for these players if the going gets tough.
“Our dad always tells us a lot of people want to be in our position, right? We always have to be thankful for what we have because not everyone is given the chance to do this, this dream. People often think that if you’re from abroad you can come here, dominate, and people will love you. But not many understand there’s a lot of good talent here. You have to continue to put in the work and stay humble,” the Bataan Risers player advises. “A lot of Fil-Ams have the chance, but because there are also many Filipinos it can be a tough situation. But if you stick it out you can have a good chance. For me, I just decided to do so and it worked out for the best.”
Kat thinks that the level of volleyball in the Philippines is so much higher than when she first came here. She recommends that players raised abroad should “trust the process, adapt to the coaches’ systems here because it really is different from the States and Canada. Trust that the hard work and all the obstacles you go through will pay off. No matter how bad it is or how down you may feel, your time will always come. Everyone has their own stuff to go through. You shouldn’t pity yourself and always just stay humble.”
Vince is currently planning to finish his contract with the Bataan Risers before declaring for the PBA Draft slated to happen before the end of this year. Kat meanwhile, is set to join a new team in the Premier Volleyball League.
Photograph by Paulo Valenzuela