MANILA, Philippines – When Manilla Santos left the UAAP, she made sure to do so as a champion.
The De La Salle University icon piloted the Lady Spikers past the Far Eastern University Lady Tamaraws in the UAAP Season 71 women's volleyball finals in a thrilling three-game series, for which she earned Finals MVP honors.
It was her fourth title with the Lady Spikers, and in recognition of her contributions to their women's volleyball program, the university retired her No. 14 jersey in March 2009.
To this day, Santos is still the only Lady Spiker to have her number retired. Number 14 hangs from the rafters on the Enrique Razon Sports Center, along with the jersey of the late, great Ian Lariba, and basketball players Lim Eng Beng (14), Kurt Bachmann (33), and Renren Ritualo (4).
After that triumph, however, Santos stepped away from the sport that made her famous. She opted not to play in professional leagues, and instead decided to focus on her family. In an interview with ABS-CBN News last year, Santos – now Santos-Ng – appeared completely in peace with her decision.
"There was a small percentage of me na, not closing my doors totally to the sport. First love ko talaga eh. Pero iba na talaga 'yung priority ko," she said at the time.
So much can change in a year, however. Santos-Ng is now preparing for a comeback, having signed with the Choco Mucho Flying Titans for the Premier Volleyball League (PVL) Open Conference. Hints of her return started as early as April, when she was seen training with the Creamline Cool Smashers.
What, then, compelled Santos-Ng to change her mind? According to the athlete, thoughts of a comeback began with a conversation with her young son, Kenzi.
"I decided when my son asked me, that he wanted to watch me play," said Santos-Ng. "May one time kasi noon, sa UAAP volleyball game, nanonood ako. And then there were some people asking for a photo with me."
"And then my son asked, how come they're asking for your photo. And then doon, sinabi nga niya na he wants to see me play. So it all started there," she explained.
When her decision was made, and the contract with Choco Mucho signed, Santos-Ng again talked to her son.
"Noong tinanong ko nga siya, 'O can mommy now play na?' Sabi niya sa akin, 'I have to see you in practice first before I will decide,'" she related. "Sabi ko, 'Sorry anak, but I already signed the contract, so you don't have any choice but to support me.'"
'10 years braver'
The decision to return was far from easy. After all, it had been 10 years since she last played competitively, and the game has evolved during Santos-Ng's time away from volleyball.
"Sabi ko nga eh, I'm 10 years braver now," she said. "I have to be brave… Physically, ang hirap, tapos 'yung schedule, tapos 'yung bashing, iba na rin ngayon, compared before. Dati newspaper lang, ngayon ano na, social media, 'di ba?"
She questioned herself many times, admitted Santos-Ng. She wouldn't deny that there were times she doubted herself.
"Do I really have to come back? Ito ba talaga 'yung pinili ko? Gusto ko ba talaga 'to?" These were the questions she asked herself leading up to her decision.
There was also the matter of her family. Her son may have wanted her to play again, but Santos-Ng knew that if she returned to volleyball, she would be sacrificing time that she could be spending with her children.
"You know, the schedule of the kids... Ako 'yung nagpi-pick up sa kanila before, pero ngayong, husband ko. Ang dami talagang nabago. So ano siya, medyo mahirap siya," she said.
Yet Santos-Ng kept plugging on. She began training again earlier this year in preparation for her comeback. She did pilates and regularly went to the gym, and focused on strengthening her quads and hamstrings – doing all of this before she even stepped onto the court.
"So maraming pagsubok, maraming mga masasakit sa katawan," she noted.
"Minsan, may injury, after another, meron ulit. So parang, 'Gusto ko ba, o hindi? Gusto ko ba o hindi?' Pero, ayan, andito ako ngayon. Laban," she added.
Now, with just a few days to go before their campaign starts, Santos-Ng feels she is close to where she wants to be, at least physically. She has been training with Choco Mucho for two weeks now, after months of practicing with Creamline, and has no issues with the program put in place by head coach Oliver Almadro.
"Ako talaga, the moment I decided to come back, gusto ko talaga maglaro. And sabi ko sa sarili ko, I will try my best to at least perform at the level during my college, or parang, mas maganda kung ma-exceed ko pa 'yun," she said, when asked what she expects from herself.
"So, I'm getting there, I guess," she added.
Santos-Ng's return has generated excitement in the volleyball community – even among her young teammates in Choco Mucho. Some members of the Flying Titans openly admitted to being star-struck when they saw the diminutive spiker in practice for the first time.
For her part, Santos-Ng won't deny that the hype surrounding her return has her feeling a little pressured.
"Pero keri naman," she quickly added. "Kasi, parang isa rin 'yan na challenge na gusto ko i-entertain. Para you know, people who think na 'O kahit na 10 years na akong hindi naglalaro, I can still come back and makalaro, and hopefully maka-inspire pa ng mga bata."
"Or, 'yung mga grumaduate na rin na pwedeng bumalik," she added.
Besides, she has her teammates to help her deal with the pressure and the expectations that has become commonplace in Philippine volleyball.
"Alam mo, sa totoo lang, I think mas sanay pa nga silang ma-handle 'yun compared sa akin eh," said Santos-Ng. "Kaya ako, I'm very much happy na sila ang mga naging teammates ko."
Rather than dwell on the pressure and the hype, Santos-Ng chooses to be grateful instead. Just last year, all she could say was that she was not totally closing the door on a return to volleyball. Now, she is days away from returning to the court – 10 years after leaving in her prime.
"Pinag-pray ko 'to, itong comeback ko," she said. "And I think, I am here right now, because God allowed to happen."
"Laban," said Santos-Ng once again. "I'm gonna do my best."
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