It was July 22, 2016. Iyo Canlas, one of the top tennis players in the Philippines, has a vague memory of that early morning. He remembers being in the passenger seat of his family’s Mitsubishi Montero and falling asleep. When he woke up, he could hear the faint sound of cars rushing past their vehicle. He assumed his car just merely stopped in the middle of a highway. But as he looked around, he saw blood and shattered glass. In his mind, he knew he needed to ask for help, but heavy, crushed metal had trapped his entire body. It dawned on him that he had just figured in a horrible car accident.
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Before the accident
It was around 2 a.m. when Iyo and his driver left barangay Alabang, Muntinlupa City. The tennis star had just come from a friend’s despedida. Tired from the long night, Iyo got into the SUV, strapped on his seatbelt, and dozed off.
They were five minutes away from his home in Tandang Sora in Quezon City when suddenly, at a stoplight, their SUV crashed into the rear of an 18-wheeler truck. The impact was such that part of the car was thrust under the humongous vehicle.
Iyo remembers feeling numb. “I was, I think, shouting,” he says, shaking his head, trying to get a better recollection of the mishap. He was calling out for help but no car or human paid attention. It was somewhere along Congressional Avenue in Quezon City, right smack in the middle of a highway. At two in the morning, cars in the area move at the highest speed possible. “I tried, I think, to push the door,” he recalls. But the door was jammed. After some minutes — or maybe hours — a guy, whom Iyo calls Kuya Choy Cammayo, and his wife, a nurse, arrived and pulled Iyo out from the back window of his car.
Another long wait later, Iyo remembers someone asking him for his parents’ number. Since the accident happened only minutes away from his home, it didn’t take long for the tennis player’s folks to arrive at the scene.
“My mind was blank,” Iyo offers. He was in such panic and shock. People would inform him after the incident, when things have settled, that he refused to be placed on a stretcher. He insisted he walk to the ambulance.
Iyo was rushed to St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City and while en route, he was asked repeatedly to try to stay awake.
At the hospital, doctors immediately got down to business: stitched his tongue which, he was told, was sliced in half. It was a terrible struggle to keep his mouth open for the procedure, but the anesthesia made the ordeal bearable.
In the hours that followed, doctors would remove the shards of glass from his body and those that battered his face—followed by a battery of tests: MRI, X-rays, urinalysis, etc. He was in a stable condition by the end of that day.
Claudio Clement Cariaso Canlas, or Iyo, is the youngest of three boys, all of whom are tennis players. The eldest one, Ayo, now 31 years old, tried baseball, football, and basketball before he discovered tennis and won competitions in the Philippines and abroad. The second child, Ino, now 24, followed suit. Thanks to his brothers, Iyo, who will turn 23 this October, got exposed early to the sport, which, as a young boy, he didn’t really like at first.
Still, as early as seven years old, Iyo started taking tennis seriously. During the first few months of training, he would throw up before playing when his nerves got the better of him. There was pressure, of course, being the third in the family to try his hand in the sport. “I would ask myself,” he tells ANCX, “‘Why am I here? Why did you drag me into this?’”
Iyo got better at the game and grew passionate about it. In Ateneo de Manila, he was a member of the grade school and high school varsity teams. He was so consistently good that other universities were offering him college athletic scholarships even before he could finish high school. But he chose to stick it out with Ateneo.
Outside of the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP), Iyo had won tournaments including the Palawan Pawnshop President’s Cup Tennis Tournament and the Makati Sports Club (MSC) National Age Group Tennis Tournament. He was one of the top Filipino athletes of his generation before that tragic accident of July 2016 happened.
Can he play again?
Iyo, a spirited, five-foot-nine moreno, has a shy but warm smile on his face when we meet him at the Celebrity Sports Plaza in Quezon City. Even his handshake is a little tentative. It’s a different story, though, when he’s on the court hitting a few balls—albeit, today, he’s just playing so we could shoot him in action. When the man is given a racket, he turns serious.
It’s the same kind of seriousness that occasionally rises to the surface every time he recalls his journey in the past few months. Although, there are moments when he looks as though he struggles to just smile at the memory. Most of the time, he is just in a state of disbelief.
Months after the accident, Iyo still can’t illustrate a clear picture of what happened that July morning three years ago. He remembers the doctors telling him he had a spinal cord fracture. He remembers the first question he ever asked them: “Will I be able to play tennis again?” He remembers the doctors answering in silence. “Spinal cord, e. I thought, ‘I guess that’s the end of it,’” he says.
Aside from the fracture, he sustained a partial tear on his left knee’s posterior cruciate ligament (PCL)—which connects the thigh bone to the shin bone— located at the back of the knee. The PCL is the stronger and larger sibling of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)—an ACL injury is common among athletes. The MRI scan also showed he had a brain contusion. He was told that if the blood didn’t clear up, they would have to drill into his skull and drain it.
After the accident, Iyo stayed in the hospital for a week. When he finally came home, he was a different person.
“I shut down from everyone, completely, from the world” he says. He couldn’t walk, and couldn’t do things on his own. When he needed to pee, he had to ring a bell and call for help.
“It was depressing,” he recalls. “From being one of the top athletes in the country to zero.” There were many nights he would experience bouts of insomnia. There were days he would just break down and cry. It took a month before he could walk again. For a while he was using crutches and a knee brace. Since it only had a partial tear, the doctors did not find it necessary to operate on his knee.
He kept the incident from everyone, save for his immediate family. When school started, he had to tell his friends and schoolmates that he got into a tennis training accident, hence the scars and crutches. “My best friends knew something was wrong, though. I was off,” Iyo says.
Early in his college years, Iyo had to be in a very stringent training program. He would wake up at 4:30 a.m. so he could start training at 5:30 a.m. After school, he would join the team for weights training and conditioning. When it’s off season, they would train three to four times a week. During UAAP season, training was everyday.
“Before it was all tennis. ‘What now?’” he remembers asking himself over and over.
A break in Spain
Months after the accident, an opportunity presented itself. Ateneo was offering an exchange program, where the chosen students would get to study in Spain for six months. It wasn’t an easy feat for Iyo. His grades were failing, and a minimum average was needed to qualify. Because of his brain injury, he was having a hard time remembering information. “Walang nare-retain,” he recalls.
In a matter of months, Iyo had to put in twice the effort in his studies, all while going to physical therapy for three to four hours every day. And fortunately, the blood in his brain would clear up on its own. Iyo’s hard work paid off. He made it to the exchange program and stayed in Spain from December 2016 to June 2017. He shut off all tennis-related activities on his social media accounts. He ignored the tennis team’s chat group on Viber during that UAAP season.
In Spain, he was forced out of his comfort zone; he lived alone and did all the house chores. He was no longer in crutches but he still had a limp.
Iyo wanted to have a temporary new life but the world, it seemed, wouldn’t let him.
When he arrived at his flat in Spain, he discovered that behind it were six tennis courts that were very much visible from his balcony. “Sinusundan ako,” he says, laughing at the memory.
Even while abroad, he continued to go to therapy for his knee, “In the hopes na pagbalik ko, I’d be able to play, at least leisurely,” he says. “It wasn’t even about competing. It was just to hold the racket.”
In June 2017, he went back to the Philippines and felt renewed.
After months of therapy, Iyo passed the hop test, or what doctors use to compare the good leg and the bad leg.
Iyo wasted no time. Immediately, he went back to training with the tennis varsity team. But fate wouldn’t let him just go back to his beloved game that easy: after a month, the partial tear on his PCL worsened into a full tear. The doctors told him they had to operate. He squeezed out whatever good he could from that news. It was September 2017. He decided to delay the operation until January of the following year, just so he could enjoy a few more months of traveling —mostly backpacking around Asia—before going back to therapy.
His date in the operating room came, followed by months of rehab. By September 2018, Iyo was back in the game, but it was a struggle. “I was playing the worst tennis of my life,” he recalls. “It was hard for me, mentally. I was scared to run. ‘What if [the knee] snaps?’”
Iyo had always been a singles match player. But to make it easier for him, he was put in a doubles match, “paraI don’t have to run as much.” In that first round of games, he won one out of seven matches. It was a wake-up call. “I knew I had to do more than what my teammates did.”
Iyo followed a strict diet, and lost 20 to 30 pounds in two months to lessen the pressure on his knee. He would play tennis after training, and even during weekends. He asked his coach for extra running drills, so he would get his confidence back. But a month before UAAP season, in January 2019, while training, Iyo slipped, and his knee gave up on him again. “If my knees were normal, I don’t think anything would happen,” he presumed. The accident tore his meniscus, a cartilage in the knee that cushions and stabilizes the joint.
The first doctor he saw told him he needed to have surgery. “It was my last season in UAAP. Hindi ko matanggap,” he says. Iyo sought other opinions from other doctors, until he came across one that sounded more suited to his desires: he could play without the surgery, but it would hurt a hell lot. “It was all I needed to hear,” says Iyo, “that chance.”
While in the past he had months to fight his fears just so he could play, this time he only had two weeks to “get over it.”
All kinds of winning
In the varsity team, there are eight players; one of the eight is a reserve. During season 81 of the UAAP, the sequence of the games went this way: singles, doubles, singles, doubles, singles. A team has to win three matches to proceed to the next round.
Ateneo made it to the semifinals, along with the University of Santo Tomas (UST), the National University (NU), and the University of the East (UE). Iyo got to play but he was on painkillers throughout.
As fate would have it, the obstacles weren’t over for Iyo yet. A week before the final four teams were to compete, while he was training, Iyo dislocated his little finger. He was doing a backhand when it got caught in his pocket. In a rare occasion during this interview, Iyo breaks his steady composure, and raises his hands in the air: “That doesn’t happen! Sobrang malas ko naman!”
Pained and disappointed, he asked his coaches, for the sake of his team, to just do “what’s best.”
On the day of the semifinals, said coaches decided to put him in the last singles game. That way, there was a bigger chance his teammates would already win three matches, and Iyo wouldn’t have to play at all. “In my mind, I was, ‘Huwag n’yo nang paabutin sa akin, please,’” recalls Iyo.
But the guy’s wish fell on deaf ears. Ateneo won the first two games and lost the next two.
Iyo had to play.
It was an early morning on a Saturday. The grounds of the Colegio de San Agustin in Bulacan was but the mood inside the tennis courts was the exact opposite. It was a close game, matched with an intense and overtly expressive crowd. Whenever he would make a mistake or lose a point, his opponent’s fans would cheer. He might have even heard laughter.
“It was one of the most painful things I had to go through,” Iyo narrates. Every time he would use his backhand, it would hurt so much that when his opponent wasn’t looking, he would turn his back, close his eyes, and grunt out his agony. To worsen the situation, he felt a burning in his knees. “I was put on the spot,” he recalls. “If I lost that game, mawawala lahat.” He had a few thoughts: “This was my last chance to prove myself, and to prove myself to the team. I’ve been through so much more. Kaya ko ’to.”
He played like he never played before. As Iyo kept winning the points, the cheers got louder. His teammates and fans matched the intensity of the rival team, UST, especially when Iyo’s opponent seemed like he was making a comeback. Iyo fought through the pain—his mental strength unperturbed. In a few months he would be graduating from college; he needed to be in that championship game.
Iyo won that Saturday, conquering every challenge that came his way. His team and its fans were jumping and dancing. Iyo closed his eyes and heaved a sigh of relief.
The following day was the start of the UAAP finals. Ateneo lost to NU, and it was an upsetting loss. “I cried for days,” Iyo recalls. “Sa amin na ’yon, natalo pa.” He kept going through the games in his mind, and every time, he would sob.
It would take time before he realized he needed a change of perspective. He needed to reconcile his desire with the reality he gave all he can to fight. “I looked at the bigger picture. I already began the season as a winner: just being there on the court, playing with my teammates, wearing the color of Ateneo. My journey made me realize how important it was to redefine what success is.” The goal was to win. Iyo knew that all along. “But it’s not really always about that. It’s about self-improvement, getting better every day,” he says with acceptance and sincerity in his voice. “The boring days in therapy were just as important as the triumphant days.”
Iyo graduated last May with a degree in Communications at Ateneo and is now taking a much-needed rest. Occasionally, he plays tennis with friends or with his brothers. He needs to go to therapy for the rest of his life—he’s since dealt with that fact. “My injury is life-long. My knee doesn’t hurt as much, but it will never feel the same. I’ve accepted that.”
He reveals he was hesitant at first to be interviewed, to share the story of his journey—but maybe events like the one that befell Iyo, no matter how grim and difficult, serve a bigger purpose. He knows this too now. “I didn’t want that accident to define who I was. But any chance I could have to uplift or inspire others, in any way I can, I’ll take it. The doctors told me I shouldn’t have lived. I survived, and I did more.”
Photographs by Pat Mateo