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They say it’s a religious experience, taking a boat out for a row. The world falls away until it’s just the gentle dip and pull of your oars cutting through the water, carrying you across with precise and methodical strokes. The soft rays of early morning sunlight dance across the surface; the silence peppered only with your own steady breathing.
“I row every Sunday and it feels like I’m going to Church,” says veteran rower Quintin Pastrana. He speaks reverently of the sport as he goes through the finer details, as if it were blasphemy to show it any less respect. “Whether at the height of competition or a relaxing weekend thing, there’s nothing quite like the feel of the water.”
To call him a veteran is a bit of an understatement: Quintin started rowing as a freshman in the 90s before joining the National Team. After more rowing stints in the US and UK while pursuing further study, he returned to the Philippines with a stronger resolve to help the sport grow. In that time, he’s been an athlete, an official, and president of the Manila Boat Club, Philippine Rowing Association (PRA), and Southeast Asian Rowing Federation (SEARF). Now a private patron and recreational rower, he has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
Rowing is a deceptively complex sport, where it’s difficult not to mistake its simplicity for ease. After all, it’s just one constant motion that moves a boat forward—no fancy tricks or special skills needed. But beneath the calm surface of the sport lies a collective, never-ending drive to see Philippine rowing reach a much-awaited and long-deserved heyday.
“I intend to row until I’m physically unable to,” Quintin says with a smile.
Rowing in the Philippines dates back to the late 1880s, when it was introduced to locals by would-be members of the Manila Boat Club. A practice rooted in colonial history, rowing at the time was exclusive to English expats working in the country; it was only in the 1950s that Filipinos really began to take up the oars. After a rough patch following World War II, the sport was on the come up: university rowing teams were founded, and local rowers joined international regattas with some success. In 1985, the PRA (then called the Amateur Rowing Association of the Philippines) was established, and with it an official National Team.
All in all, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before the Philippines emerged as the next great rowing country, but the Asian Economic Crisis of the 1990s quickly caused the sport to lose momentum, and it hasn’t quite recovered since then.
These days, rowing is seen as an intimidating sport, reserved for the expats and affluent Filipinos it used to be exclusive to. But despite the odds, Philippine rowing is now enjoying a significant resurgence, thanks to the local rowers who have made it their mission to change that view.