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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.
For members of the Philippine National Rowing Team, the La Mesa Dam might as well be synonymous with home. This is where they spend at least four hours each day, six days a week, working out at the boathouse or rowing on the water. And with no speed boats, barges, or pollutants to worry about, the team only needs to focus on their boats.
An exclusive training facility like this is a dream for any athlete, and the La Mesa Dam fits the bill for traditional rowing pretty well: an unobstructed waterway that goes a long distance, with clean water, little to no waves, and wide space for multiple boats. On paper, it’s pretty perfect… but the reality is a little more complicated.
As it stands, La Mesa Dam is the only training venue available for rowers in the city… unless you count the Pasig River, which even the athletes think isn’t the most ideal. While it’s a setup that’s helped the team so far, having a single rowing hub for all of Metro Manila—scratch that, all of the country—raises a major concern about the sport’s accessibility, especially when it comes to new recruits.
“Hindi naa-appreciate ang rowing dahil konti pa lang ang nakakaalam sa kanya locally,” says athlete Melcah Caballero. “[So] it’s not like other sports na maraming bagong athletes na dumadating.”
A six-year veteran of the National Team and one of its only three female athletes, Melcah has seen firsthand how difficult a lack of access can be to the growth of a sport. Sure, those interested can learn to row at the Manila Boat Club, or visit La Mesa Dam if they’d like to join the team. But what about prospective rowers in areas like Bohol, Samar, or Ilocos, who don’t have the luxury of being a drive away from a boathouse? Limited access leads to a lack of interest, which eventually translates into a smaller number of athletes. In turn, a smaller talent pool makes training them competitively a little more difficult.
“Before, [I could only compete in] single scull kasi wala naman talagang ibang babae,” she says. “But for me, yung biggest challenge ngayon is [that] kami-kami lang magkakasama everyday; wala kaming ibang ka-karera ng bangka.”
“How can we take action to spread the sport when people can’t actually, physically try it?” <callout-alt-author>Joachim de Jesus<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
About 20 minutes away from La Mesa Dam, another rowing team shares the same frustration.
“You could say we’re lonely in the water,” says Joachim de Jesus, captain of the Ateneo men’s rowing team. “It sounds dramatic, but you have no idea what you’re doing for the first few months of training. You [can’t] gauge if you’re doing well.”
As the only university team that’s remained from the mid-1900s, the Ateneo men’s and women’s rowing teams have learned to make the most of their limited options: renting boats at La Mesa Dam, linking up with the National Team for extra practices, and joining collegiate competitions abroad. But promoting the sport remains a difficult endeavor, especially with no local facilities of their own.
With no local collegiate competitions, the Ateneo rowing teams attend regattas in neighboring countries, such as the Varsity Boat Race in Malaysia. Photo courtesy of Joachim de Jesus.
“How can we take action to spread the sport when people can’t actually, physically try it? There’s literally a physical barrier with teaching other people,” he says.
The idea of the Philippines lacking waterways is laughable, but unfortunately true: while there are plenty of lakes and waterways around the country that would be great for rowers in theory, actually maintaining them for recreational use is another story altogether.
“Sustainable water use is key to rowing, and vice versa,” says Quintin. “[Other countries] are able to take care of their waterways because running boathouses, doing tours. . . pay for the river’s maintenance and [keeps them clean].” As it stands, commercial use is the priority for waterways in the Philippines, and clean, untouched water is often too remote for easy public access.
Having a single rowing hub for all of Metro Manila—scratch that, all of the country—raises a major concern about the sport’s accessibility.
Beyond the waterways, access to equipment and facilities is also scarce: local rowing boats are limited; boathouses even more so. “The walls are set pretty high for us to expand,” says Joachim. “And the reality is that the public views it as a posh and expensive sport, so it’s hard to encourage them to try it out.”
These are long-term problems that require long-term solutions, which the PRA continues to take steps to address. For now, Joachim hopes to see the Philippines take after countries like Australia and the UK, where boathouses and facilities abound for people to experience the sport as early as childhood. In fact, it’s a dream he’s already working out how to support.
“I talk to a lot of the alumni, and we always say, ‘Hey, when we’re older, how much money are you pitching in for our own boathouse?’,” he says, the accompanying laugh doing nothing to hide his sincerity. “I really hope to see—and contribute to—better facilities for the community in the future.”
“It’s been a busy week,” Quintin says over the phone, calling from a line at the toll booths along SLEX. He’s on the way back from Laguna, checking in as the Caliraya Boat Club nears completion before opening early next year—a fitting celebration of the 125th foundation anniversary of the Manila Boat Club.
A private partnership with both the PRA and Manila Boat Club, the new facility will serve as an additional hub for local rowers, and encourage schools and communities in nearby areas to try their hand at the sport. “At Caliraya, our athletes will have somewhere to row to their hearts content without worrying about falling into the Pasig River,” he says proudly.
It’s only the first of many regional rowing hubs to be established in the near future: a facility in Cavite is next on the PRA’s priority list. Before the pandemic, they were also set to launch a Learn to Row program for young athletes in the provinces, as well as a special youth camp in Davao. While these plans are on hold, their main focus is to support the National Team as they train for Olympic qualification in April.
After an impressive season and multiple-medal haul at last year’s SEA Games—Melcah won two of the team’s gold medals—the National Team believes they’re well on track to do well in Japan, and hope that Olympic success will help bring the sport more recognition. The support they’ve received so far has been encouraging. “With facilities and equipment. . . after the last SEA Games, nagkaroon nang mas maraming boats and equipment, [tapos] latest models na din,” Melcah says.
“Whether at the height of competition or a relaxing weekend thing, there’s nothing quite like the feel of the water.” <callout-alt-author>Quintin Pastrana<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
Plans to grow the sport in the collegiate circuit are also well in motion: with the PRA’s support, the University of the Philippines has begun laying the groundwork for a new rowing team. “I’ve met some of the incoming UP team and [can see] that they’re really trying to grow, which is exciting,” says Joachim. “Hopefully more schools start soon and we can also join the UAAP.”
For the rest of his captaincy, Joachim is focusing on helping the team’s newest members prepare for the next season. They’re also working with the student council to provide more support for student athletes across the board. “Being a student athlete is hard, but there are a lot of things we can do to make sure that [they’re] well-equipped to help their sports flourish even more.”
From left: the Ateneo men’s rowing team at the 2018 Varsity Boat Race in Malaysia; members of the national rowing team train for Olympic qualifiers in La Mesa. Photo on left courtesy of Joachim de Jesus.
Joachim describes seeing his newbies cross their first finish line—some elated, others in tears—and smiles at the memory. “It’s the moment you can just feel how much everyone loves the sport,” he says earnestly. “And every time, it reminds me of why I want other people to experience it, too.”
It seems that’s a sentiment shared by the entire rowing community: that the desire to help the sport grow is only a natural consequence of being part of it. Perhaps it’s why its athletes are all so dedicated to the cause.
They say rowing is the ultimate team sport: everyone on the boat has to move together, because an individual misstep slows it down or upends it altogether. It’s a lesson its athletes have clearly taken to heart as they work to drive the sport to greater heights—everyone responsible for each step in the right direction. The only difference is in the movement: rowing requires one constant motion, done in sync, to move forward.
After decades and multiple positions in the sport, I ask Quintin why he still cares enough to contribute. “Because rowing is a lifelong thing,” he tells me. “And the sport never changes. It’s just what you can give to it that does.”
Learn about local rowing
Though currently on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Manila Boat Club holds introductory rowing lessons for those who want to try their hand at the sport. Get in touch through firstname.lastname@example.org. Rowers who want to learn more about joining the National Team can also get in touch through the PRA Facebook page, as well as visit the team’s boathouse in La Mesa Dam.