Siargao’s young surfers are ecstatic surfing competitions are back in the island. When we meet Nilbie Blancada, Dianne Nogalo, Noah Arkfeld, and brothers Toby and Troy Espejon, they are still reeling from the adrenaline brought about by the previous day’s national surfing competition. It was the first national competition held in Siargao since the pandemic hit and after the devastation brought about by Typhoon Odette last December.
“Ang saya namin na nagkaroon na ulit competition dito sa Siargao. Gigil na gigil na po talaga kami [to compete],” says Dianne, who placed second in the women’s division, which was bested by her aunt, Nilbie. Noah, on the other hand, topped the Men’s Open Short Board category. The national competition in Siargao was participated in by a total of 140 Filipino surfers.
This recent win just fuels the athletes’ spirit to conquer bigger goals—and that’s to join and win the international league, especially since the sport has already made its debut as an official medal sport in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
At the moment, it’s the 1st Governor’s Cup that’s keeping everyone on their toes. This competition, which officially kicks off this Wednesday, October 5, is for “struggling surfers to earn maximum points to level up their national rankings” after two years of seeing no action. Its other goal is to spotlight other viable surfing spots within the island apart from the world famous Cloud 9. At the welcome dinner held at Twin Shores Malinao, Gov. Robert Lyndon Barbers welcomed surfers from different parts of the Philippines.
Surfing has definitely acquired a new importance for practitioners in Siargao. “Dati pastime lang ng mga ito ang surfing. But now with the support of Philippine Olympic Committee, Philippine Sports Commission, United Philippine Surfing Association, in partnership with MVP Sports Foundation, nakakabiyahe na sila. Natutupad na ang pangarap nila,” says Dencio Dizon, one of the locals supporting the athletes. “Ang goal natin siyempre is maka-produce ng Olympic gold medal, ng world champion na surfer. So itong mga batang ito ang pinakamalaking chance natin na maabot yun.”
The sport has also given the young athletes a chance to dream bigger for themselves and their family. “Goal nilang maging professional surfers, kasi with that career, makakatulong sila sa kanilang pamilya. Pwede din silang magnegosyo on the side,” Dencio adds.
Nilbie, who won the Asian Surfing Championship in 2012 and 2016 and the Southeast Asian Games in 2019, admits the competition is tough in the global surfing circuit. But she is confident the Philippines has a chance to win international titles with the country’s new breed of surfers.
“Dito sa Pilipinas, ang gagaling ng mga bata. It’s hard to compete against them,” says Nilbie, who’s now 30 years old. “Internationally, sobrang gagaling din ng mga competitors. But we train, surf everyday para ma-achieve namin ang goal namin.”
Siargao has developed many great surfers since the sport became popular on the island in the 90s. But these veteran athletes are not getting any younger. “I call it changing of guards kasi ito na sila,” says Dencio. “Mga bata pa sila, pero tinatalo na nila yung matatandang surfers natin. Sila na ang nagcha-champion sa mga competitions.”
Dencio says the edge of Siargaonon surfers is that they are exposed to the sport at a very young age. The talent and skill of the older ones are passed on to the younger generations. Brothers Troy and Toby, sons of veteran surfer Dodo Espejon, for instance, started to surf at age 5. “Kulang na lang sa surfboard ipanganak e,” he says, laughing. Many start to compete at age 10 to 12.
Nilbie and Dianne are also kin to a prominent surfing figure: they are the younger sister and niece, respectively, of Nildie Blancada Rietenbach who for years was one of the country’s finest surfers. Meanwhile, Noah’s dad, an American, was one of the surfers who introduced the sport to the people of Siargao. Noah was born and raised in the island and practically grew up on the beach.
Another huge advantage the Siargaonon surfers have, says Dencio, is that the athletes have “world-class waves” to practice on. “Sila, they grew up here. Itong dagat na ang playground nila,” he says.
Since many local and international competitions are held in Siargao, the Siargaonon surfers get to meet their idols and the popular names in the circuit, motivating them to level up on their skills.
While they all make it look easy, the sport isn’t as painless as people imagine it to be. Aside from devoting lot of time to practice, they need to have incredible discipline and focus. It starts with getting up very early to catch the waves at Cloud 9–early enough so that “kaunti pa lang ang tao,” says Dianne. To complement their surf training, they also engage in other physical fitness activities like Crossfit.
Getting support from government or private organizations could provide extra encouragement for the athletes. If only it came easier. For the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Junior Surfing Championship in El Salvador, Central America last May, Noah’s father and the PSC had to raise P700,000. “Sila lang ng father niya ang nagbiyahe doon. Ang ibang team nasa 20 ang contingent. Tapos nung tinawag ang Philippines, isa lang. Hawak ni Noah ang Philippine flag, mag-isa lang siya,” shares Dencio.
Still, he is optimistic there’s a bright future that awaits Siargao’s new breed of surfers. “Kung sa talent lang, hindi tayo nagkukulang diyan. Sobrang dami. Aside sa kanilang lima, madami pa tayong mga bata dito na may potential talaga,” he says. “Basta may support lang ng government at private sector, malayo ang mararating ng mga ito.”
Photos by Bren Fuentes. Courtesy of Queenmelo Esguerra