Ex-swimmer takes world’s toughest triathlon test

Ex-swimmer takes world’s toughest triathlon test Sep 14, ’08 9:00 PM
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Ex-swimmer takes world’s toughest triathlon test

By Francis Ochoa
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 06:13:00 09/11/2008

MANILA, Philippines—Anyone who had caught a glimpse of 9-year-old Ani Karina De Leon staying up way past her bedtime and feverishly adding the final touches to “a sketch or story made up of drawings” before finally surrendering to sleep would have known even then that she was the type who finished whatever she started.
“I did not care what time it was,” recalled the now 33-year-old De Leon. “I just felt like I had to finish the sketch.”
Whatever that indistinguishable impetus was, it has served her well—even if it didn’t exactly serve the artist in her.
The former University of the Philippines swimming standout is now the country’s top female triathlete after accomplishing what no one else before her has: Qualifying for the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Hawaii.
The event kicks off on Oct. 11.
For the clueless, triathlon is a lung-crushing sport that demands a mastery of three disciplines—swimming, biking and running. In extended distances.
Basketball’s NBA
The Ironman version of the sport is the mecca of triathletes. It is a basketball player’s NBA.
“Doing the Ironman version of triathlon is always at the back of any triathlete’s head,” De Leon explained. But not all triathletes take it seriously.
After all, Olympic triathlon is already as tough as it gets. After swimming in open, oft-choppy waters for 1.5 kilometers (that’s like swimming 30 laps in an Olympic-sized pool—during a 5.0 earthquake), you mount a bike and pedal like the end of the world is near for another 40 kilometers (Manila to Malolos, give or take a few Ks).
As if that’s not enough, when you dismount from the bike, you have to run another 10 kilometers (Manila to Pasig).
To those competing in the Ironman World Championships, Olympic triathlon has a simpler term: Warmups.
The Ironman version calls for a 3.8k swim, 180k bike (Manila to about 20k short of Lingayen, Pangasinan) and 42k run, which is equivalent to a full marathon.
So what’s a weaned-on-the-arts gal whose name means “harvest” in English doing in a sport that after you compete in makes you feel like someone is wrapping rose stalks around every muscle in your body?
“After graduating from UP, there was no masters competition for swimming and that was hard for me because I’m really such a competitive person,” said the interior design major.
“That’s why my sister and I, along with some friends decided to try triathlon, which at that time, was new in the country,” she explained.
When “at that time” came around, Ani and her sister Sinag (They have a brother named Diwa) had finished competing for the UP swim team in the UAAP. Ani had also carved her own niche in a four-year stint at the Palarong Pambansa. But the rush of competitive juices simply refused to be quelled.
“Since I already knew how to swim and I was pretty confident I could handle the bike part because my sister and I used to ride a lot when we were kids, I was pretty confident that I could do triathlon,” recalled the butterfly specialist. “I played a lot of games when I was a kid so I figured the run part would be easy.”
So easy that even when she was a newbie in the sport, De Leon plunged into competition right away, participating in the 1994 Subic International Triathlon event.
The result?
“Put it this way: After I competed there, I didn’t want to do it again,” she said, laughing. “I didn’t even run the whole way. There were parts when I simply walked.”
But where the body yielded, the competitive spirit kicked into high gear.
Borrowed bike
“I just decided to train harder, and this time, train properly,” said De Leon, recalling she was ill-prepared for the Subic tilt that she even rode a bike she borrowed just five days before the event.
But those days are behind her now. She has competed for the Philippines in the Southeast Asian Games as a triathlete in Manila (2005) and Thailand (2007). She also was in the 2003 team to Vietnam, but as a cyclist.
And now, after topping her age-group in the Malaysia qualifying last Feb. 28, she’s headed for Hawaii.
“I’m just excited because not a lot of people get the chance to do this,” she said, conveniently forgetting that not a lot of people would even think of trying.
Her time when she ruled the 30-34 women’s age group was 12 hours and 21 minutes.
“That’s still too far from the times of the best women triathletes in the World Championships,” she said.
And then there are other problems. Triathlon being a new sport, financial support doesn’t come easy for those who participate in it. De Leon has had to rely on sponsors who help fund her trips abroad.
In fact her benefactors are hosting a hula party on Thursday at the Mag.net Cafe on Bonifacio High to raise funds for her Hawaii stint.
And when she finally gets to the World Championships, a little reality check helps her put things in perspective: De Leon’s time is about two hours slower than what the top female triathletes in the world have accomplished in the Ironman championships.
Not only that, her opponents have well-funded year-round training.
Singapore race
De Leon, on the other hand, makes do with what she has. For warm-up, she recently managed to sign up for a Singapore race which is half the length of the Hawaii Ironman event.
She finished 15 seconds behind the eventual winner—and she even took a wrong turn on a forked highway, carrying her bike past whizzing cars in the freeway just to get back on course.
“I have no illusions,” said De Leon. “I still have a lot of work to do and for me, just being able to race against the best and at the same time learn how to compete in the Ironman is really a big, big thing.”
So cross off expectations of podium finishes.
They mean little, after all, to Ani Karina de Leon, the once energetic 9-year-old kid who would squeeze every drop of wakefulness from the late hours to finish an even meaningless sketch and in the process, learned to value the art of making it to the finish.


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