Ask any serious athlete and often they would open up about dreaming to compete in the Olympics, possibly winning a medal as well, in the greatest sports show on Earth held once every 4 years.
Air-rifle shooter Jayson Valdez is now partly living that dream, making his Olympic debut in the men’s 10-meter air rifle event on Sunday, July 25, at the Asaka Shooting Range inside Camp Asaka, a military base of the Japan Self-Defense Force, 15.7 kilometers and a 45-minute drive north of Tokyo.
Hard to believe, but Valdez went on record that he actually dreamt of seeing action in the quadrennial sports spectacular 3 years ago and winning the gold medal, to boot.
“This was in 2018. It’s the Olympic Games. Hindi ko alam kung ano’ng Olympic Games ’yon. Nag-start ’yong competition, nag-finals, tapos medal na kaagad. (I don’t know which Olympic Games. The event started, then the finals, and then the medal was given right away),” recalled Valdez. “Malinaw ’yong mukha ko sa panaginip and malinaw na gold ang hawak ko. (My face was clear in my dream and it was clear I was holding the gold medal.)”
The significance of the shooting venue inside the headquarters of the Japan Eastern Army won’t be lost on Valdez, who, ironically, had given up on his Olympic aspirations, enlisted in the Philippine Army and had begun his boot camp at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija in mid-June of this year.
“Jayson felt he was getting old since he was turning 26 in September. He wanted to have a stable future. He took the test and applied with the Army. Even before his test results were out he was taken right away,” his father-coach Julius Valdez explained of his son’s decision.
The elder Valdez was a Philippine Marine and national shooter himself, bagging 3 golds and a silver medal in the men’s free rifle event at the 1987 Jakarta Southeast Asian Games.
In the midst of his Army training, Philippine National Shooting Association secretary-general Irene Garcia texted Valdez late June 18 that he qualified for the Tokyo Summer Games by the International Sports Shooting Federation through its MQS (minimum qualifying scores) system.
“Ma’am Irene texted me late Friday to inform me that I qualified and if I was ready to compete in the Olympics. Of course, who was I to turn it down?” said Valdez of the opportunity of competing for flag and country in the quadrennial meet.
“What we learned here is not to give up on your aspirations. It may not come when you expect it but it will surely come,” added Valdez of his belated call to national team and Olympic duties.
After informing his Army superiors, who graciously allowed him to cut his training stint short, of the good news, the athlete went back to Manila that same weekend and had his first vaccination shot against COVID-19, ready and raring to resume training once he had gotten over the effects of the jab.
TRIBUTE TO 2 DADS ON FATHER’S DAY
With the world celebrating Father’s Day on June 20, Valdez dedicated his feat to his two “fathers”: Julius and “Daddy” Tac, former national rapid fire standout Nathaniel “Tac” Padilla, who has been his benefactor for more than a decade.
“I saw Jayson following along with father Julius, who was our former national teammate, when he was small and he showed interest in promise so we included him in our national junior program under the late shooting chief Art Macapagal,” Padilla reminisced. “Ever since, humble at magaling ang batang ’yan. (That boy has remained talented yet humble ever since).”
It was no mean accomplishment for the shooter, the youngest national athlete at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games at 14, crisscrossing the globe from 2018 to June 2021 in trying to accumulate enough MQS scores to be eligible to compete in the Tokyo Olympics.
To meet that requirement, Valdez needed to earn MQS scores in ISSF-sanctioned qualifying events, including the World Championships, World Cups, World Cup finals, continental championships and continental games, or special designated qualifying competitions.”
“There were times when we had to skip other international events of the national team we were pursuing our Olympic dream and my national teammates could not understand why and felt I was abandoning them,” Valdez said.
Banking heavily on the Philippine Sports Commission for support to his international engagements, Valdez said there were times when he and his father waited anxiously at the PSC office before they left for the funds needed to leave and compete abroad.
With no strings attached, there were instances when Padilla, now a successful businessman, would come to the last-minute rescue of the Valdezes so they could proceed abroad, according to the athlete.
MEETING MQS OLYMPIC SCORES
The MQS for the men’s 10-meter air rifle event is 595.0 points, and Valdez successfully exceeded it six times over the qualifying period, beginning with a score of 618.6 points to place 17th in the Asian Games in Jakarta in August 2018.
He did it again in scoring 613.1 points with his 14th-place at the Asian Air Gun Championships in Kuwait City 3 months later, while he tallied 599.8 points in placing 29th at the Asian championships in Doha, Qatar in November 2019.
He tallied scores of 618.8, 614.6 and 620.0 points in finishing Nos. 103, 75 and 69 in the Munich, Rio de Janeiro, and Beijing legs, successively, from April to August of the 2019 World Cup series.
Valdez credited his renewed commitment to physical fitness in meeting the MQS Olympic standard that earned him his Tokyo ticket.
“Because I focused on my fitness I was able to exceed the MQS six times and even shot 626 points in actual competition. I have also scored 630 several times in practice,” Valdez stressed.
DEMANDING AND TOUGH EVENT
To the uninitiated, the 10-meter air rifle shooting competition is a rigorously demanding event requiring a balance of strength, endurance, balance, skill and precision from the competitor.
From a standing position, shooters aim at paper targets 10 meters (32.8 feet) away using a 4.5 mm caliber air rifle that can weigh as heavy as 5.5 kilos (12.13 pounds) and whose bullseye or “10th ring is far smaller than a pencil tip,” according to the ISSF website.
In the qualifying round, shooters need to complete 60 shots within 75 minutes, garnering a possible maximum of 640 points, and the top eight finishers advancing to the final round where they start from scratch the next day.
No air rifle shooter has ever achieved a perfect score of 640 in international play, with Valdez noting “parang robot ka na noon. (You are like a robot if you do that).”
Italian Nicola Cipriani ruled the men’s 10-meter air rifle event in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, first topping the qualifying round with a score of 630.1 points, a new Olympic record, before sealing the gold with a score of 206.1 points in the finals.
A 3-time Olympic gold medalist, Cipriani won’t be around to defend his title in Tokyo after being appointed as the shooting coach of the Italian national biathlon team.
Valdez acknowledged he would still be up against a high-caliber field despite the Italian defending champion’s absence, but remains undaunted because it is likely he will be facing the same rivals in the previous international events.
With the advent of sports science, visualization is now an integral part of an athlete’s training and preparations for major international competitions, such as the Olympics.
Together with the intense physical training, sports psychologists ask athletes to “visualize” their performance in the battle arena, preparing them mentally so they can execute their game plan with precision once they are in actual conditions, just as they imagined.
Valdez’s visualization process began 3 years ago when he dreamt of participating in the Olympic Games and winning the gold as clear as if It was yesterday.
“I am confident that with my training and prayers, I hope that I will be able to make that Olympic golden dream a reality,” he said.
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