Young Filipino swimmers set for Olympic debut

by Patrick Camara Ropeta, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at Jul 19 2012 04:46 PM | Updated as of Jul 20 2012 12:46 AM

LONDON - As the world prepares for the London 2012 Olympics, Filipino swimmers Jasmine Alkhaldi and Jessie Lacuna wait patiently for their moment to compete among the world’s top swimmers - a dream come true for the athletes who started making a splash from a very young age.

Alkhaldi and Lacuna trained at the Trace Aquatic Sports Complex in Los Banos, Laguna/Trace College

Speaking to ABS-CBN News at their training camp in Guildford near London, the young swimmers revealed their excitement and anxiety for the imminent London Games.

“I feel honored and very blessed. But at the same time very nervous because you’re carrying the whole country, and I’m just one person. The way I perform will reflect on the country so I really want to perform well,” said Alkhaldi, who is set to compete in the women’s 100-meter freestyle.

Lacuna, competing in the men’s 200-meter freestyle, added: “This is the biggest sporting event in the world, so we’re honored to be among the athletes here. I’m very happy and excited.”

From sink to swim

Alklhaldi, of Filipino and Saudi Arabian descent, has always dreamt of her Olympic moment, saying: “Ever since I was a kid this was the dream, to be part of the Olympics even though I didn’t really know what it was. It’s really amazing to achieve the qualifying time and to be able to be here and compete for the Philippines. Not a lot of swimmers or athletes can be here so I feel blessed.”

Olympic swimmer Jasmine Alkhakdi is excited and honored to represent the Philippines at the London Games

Yet her passion for swimming started from a traumatic event in her childhood that unwittingly influenced the course of her life.

“When I was three, I drowned just because I jumped in the pool and I liked it, but then I drowned. So my Mom had me enrolled in swimming lessons and I started ever since,” recalled the 19-year-old swimmer.

After years of training, her talent in the water quickly developed as she started to amass medals and personal records, including three gold medals at Southeast Asian Age Group Championships, two bronze medals at Singapore National Age Group Championships, and holding the Philippine record for the women’s 100- and 50-meter butterfly.

She also competed at Western Athletic Conference Championships in the US, representing the University of Hawaii, where she currently studies marketing and international business, and the Youth Olympics, which she considers as a career highlight prior to the London Games.

“Back then it was the closest I had to the Olympics: the closest feel, the closest atmosphere, the type of competition and the qualifying that I had. Not really as close but it’s right there. So now that I’m here, at the London 2012 Olympics, of course, this is the highlight,” she explained.

‘I’m just happy to swim’

Meanwhile, at the tender age of 18, Lacuna has already made a mark at national and international competitions, collecting an impressive array of accolades including 26 gold medals at Philippine National Games, 7 gold medals at Southeast Asian Age Group Championships, and 3 gold medals at Singapore National Age Group Championships.

Young Olympian Jessie Lacuna is feeling the pressure but vows to do his best at the London Games

He considers the Youth Olympics alongside his silver medal at the Southeast Asian Games as personal highlights, saying: “I felt honored to be among the people competing at the first ever Youth Olympics. I also feel proud of the SEA Games in 2011, where I won a silver medal as an individual swimmer for the first time.”

The young swimmer caught the swimming bug from a very young age from his family’s residence at a resort in Pulilan, Bulacan.

“I grew up inside a resort, so since I was three years old, my family started to throw me into the swimming pool with armbands. I started competing at the age of six,” he recalled.

Two of his elder brothers were also swimmers, once representing the University of Santo Tomas, which influenced the young Olympian.

Apart from his family, however, he draws inspiration from other athletes, including Filipino swimmers Akiko Thomson and Eric Buhain, as well as American swimming legends Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, both of whom will compete at the London Games.

“I’m shocked, because we’ll be able to see them here in the flesh. But ultimately you have to do your best to race against them, because we’re all just the same competitive athletes,” he explained.

Eyes on the prize

Alkhaldi and Lacuna’s Olympic journey began at Trace College in Los Banos, Laguna, where they both studied in high school while training at the Trace Aquatic Sports Complex.

“We’ve been working on this for the last six years. The amount of commitment, the amount of sacrifice that went into this to get them into the Olympics is tremendous. A lot of you may not know but these kids really grew up in a training center where we were based since 2006,” explained Carlos Brosas, coach of the Philippine swimming team at the London 2012 Olympics.

Both Olympians were developed by the Philippine Centre for Excellence in Aquatic Sports, an initiative by Trace College in association with Philippine Sports Commission and Philippine Swimming Incorporated, with the sole aim of producing world-class athletes in water sports.

“This is the pilot program, and it dealt with the components of how to graduate children to become Olympic athletes which you’re seeing now. We were able to give them education, good training, we were able to feed them, and we were able to house them in a good environment,” Brosas added, who hopes to continue the scheme across the Philippines following the success of Lacuna and Alkhaldi.

Warm welcome

Training and investment placed upon the young swimmers seems to have paid off as they qualified comfortably to the London Games, arriving in the UK a couple of weeks ago to acclimatize and continue their training alongside international athletes.

“I really like it, especially the training facility, and the Filipino community here is very welcoming and supportive. They take us around, they feed us. They’re so nice.  The environment is very welcoming and it feels good,” said Alkhaldi.

Lacuna also said: “It’s so nice here. I like historic places, especially Stonehenge, and the old houses are nice. It’s very beautiful.”

Alongside fellow Filipino Olympians, both swimmers have been meeting local Filipinos, who have showered them with invitations to house gatherings and community events. But the athletes remain focused on the games despite the pressure and distractions laid in front of them.

“Of course I admit there is so much pressure on us, because we’re not just swimming for ourselves, but for an entire nation, for all Filipinos. But we need to overcome all this and perform well,” said Lacuna.

Alkhaldi concluded: “I guess my motivation is to just to do my best for myself, for my family, and for my country. And for God, of course.”

The Filipino swimmers are currently training at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford, Surrey, and will soon move to the Olympic Village in East London in preparation for their competition rounds at the Aquatics Centre.

Lacuna will swim for the Philippines on July 29 at the first round of the men’s 200-meter freestyle. Alkhaldi will follow soon after on August 1 for the women’s 100-meter freestyle.