Whatever dreams he had of becoming a successful basketball player, Cris Nievarez saw his attention diverted 5 years ago when he was invited by national rower Justine Kyle Vinas, who hails from the same town of Atimonan, Quezon as the athlete, to try out for the national squad.
“Mas nagustuhan ko ang rowing at pinagpatuloy ko po,” said Nievarez, who was only 15 when he got recruited to the national rowing squad. “Dalawa po kaming na-recruit pero ako lang po ang nagtagal. (Two of us got recruited, but it was I who stayed on.)”
His efforts and sacrifice did not go for naught after World Rowing, the global governing body for the sport, awarded him with a coveted slot to the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games less than 3 months from now in a letter to the Philippine Rowing Association last Monday.
The youngest of 3 children, Nievarez, whose late father was a land caretaker and mother a homemaker, secured an Olympic berth following his overall ninth-place finish in the Asia-Oceania continental qualification regatta in the Japanese capital last week.
Philippine Rowing Association secretary-general Jercyl Lerin said that this performance gained Nievarez a Tokyo ticket based on the World Rowing qualification process.
Head coach Ed Maerina, who was with Nievarez and the rest of the squad in the Japanese capital last week, explained that while his ward finished No. 9, the other rowers who placed fourth to eighth in the same event had already qualified for the Olympics after competing in other World Rowing-sanctioned events.
“So from actually finishing No. 9 in his (Nievarez’s) event, he rose up the standings to No. 4,” Maerina said of the men’s singles sculls, where the top five finishers of the race clinched Olympic berths.
For the first time in 21 years, a Filipino rower will be playing for flag and country in the Olympics since Benjie Tolentino represented the Philippines in the 2000 Sydney Olympiad in the men’s singles sculls.
Budget woes nearly scuttle Olympic bid
To think that due to budget constraints, Nievarez bared that his Olympic bid nearly got scuttled.
“Hindi po kasi sigurado na mapapadala ’yong bangka sa singles sculls ko po sa Tokyo dahil limitado po ’yong budget (There was a problem delivering my boat in the single sculls to Tokyo because of lack of funds),” Nievarez said.
Although he was a 30th Southeast Asian Games gold medalist in 2019, he said the Philippine Rowing Association, the sport’s national governing body, had first decided that the pairs of Joanie del Gaco and Melcah Jen Caballero, and Roque Abala Jr. and Zuriel Sumintac would be the country’s bets to the Tokyo qualifiers.
Del Gaco and Caballero, who bagged 2 of 3 golds the rowers won at the 30th SEA Games, were in fact reckoned to end the country’s Olympic rowing dry spell.
Nievarez acknowledged his own Olympic hopes sank when he was told there was not enough to fund the air freight costs of his boat to the qualifiers.
“Pero nagtulong po ang Philippine Sports Commission at Philippine Olympic Committee na mapadala yong ’singles sculls. Ako po ’yong sumakay, at ako rin ’yong nag-qualify (But the Philippine Sports Commission and the Philippine Olympic Committee pooled their resources to send my boat to Tokyo. I rowed it, and managed to qualify,” the youthful and soft-spoken rower said.
“Naniwala po sila (POC and PSC) sa amin hanggang sa dulo (They believed in us to the end.)”
Nievarez said he gained a lot of experience competing in the Tokyo qualifiers.
“Sa akin po talaga ay ’yong technique and endurance. Sa rowing po, kapag maganda ang technique mo, maski malaki ang kalaban puwedeng makipagsabayan. Kailangan ko pa dagdagan ang endurance para sa Olympics. (For me, it is all about the technique and endurance. You can be competitive given the right technique. I also need to build more endurance for the Olympics),” he said.
Maerina wants him training right away, even while they are in quarantine and unable to return to their training camp at the La Mesa Dam reservoir in Quezon City.
“Parating na ’yong rowing machine sa hotel today,” Nievarez said on Tuesday.
Maerina said his team would draw up a new program for the Olympic-bound rower once Uzbek coach Shukrat Ganiev, who was stranded in his country for a while, arrives.
Nievarez said he had a hunch that someone among the rowers who saw action last week in Tokyo might make it to the Olympics when they left their oars behind because the airline they used to head back home declined to load them because they were “oversized.”
“Baka naiwan duon kasi alam na may babalik sa amin sa Tokyo. (Perhaps it was left there because one of us would be returning to Tokyo,” he said with a chuckle.