By Aries Espinosa
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:14:00 03/23/2008
MANILA, Philippines – In recent years, the high walls that surround what has always been described as a “man’s world” have slowly been chiseled away, thanks to women who will not be boxed by tradition. These days, people no longer do a second take when they see women cab drivers, welders, soldiers, scientists and top level politicians.
But nowhere is the concept of woman empowerment more apparent—and more challenged—than in the world of sports. By sheer bulk and brawn—nature and testosterone at work—as well as constant practice under the approving gaze of a male-dominated world, men’s winning performance has set the gold standard for athletics. For the longest time, men have been believed to be the stronger sex.
Well, tell that to the Marines. Better yet, tell that to Ani Karina de Leon, multiple National Triathlon champion, who last Feb. 23 again emerged from the box labeled “petite, fragile woman inside, handle with care,” and emerged victorious in the Ironman triathlon in Langkawi , Malaysia .
Competing among a field of 700 triathletes, 22 of them fellow Filipinos, De Leon swam 3.8 km, biked 180 km, and ran 42 km for a back-breaking, lung-busting, muscle-tearing 12 hours, 21 minutes and 17 seconds, to cross the finish line first in her age category (30-34), leaving many of the supposedly stronger men eating her salty dust.
More importantly, De Leon’s victory earned her the right to represent the Philippines in the mecca of triathlons: the Ironman Hawaii in Kona this October. “I’m the first ever homegrown Filipino in history to qualify in Hawaii,” she says with justifiable pride. (Take that, you chauvinist iron man!)
And there’s no doubt as to her gender, either. This triathlete may swim, bike and run like Mars, but she’s got a soft spot when it comes to matters of the heart. In fact, she admits to a budding romance with another triathlete—a foreign male—but ssssh, mom doesn’t know just yet, she confesses sheepishly. Alright, we can print that, she says, “because I’m about to tell her anyway.”
That’s all in the future though. Right now, what she’d like to tell the world is how she started on the road to Langkawi, and eventually, to Hawaii.
It all started about 21 years ago, when she was 12, De Leon reveals. “I began as a gymnast, then took up swimming when I was 14 at the UP Integrated School.” Her coach and swim buddies apparently noticed her all-around strong physique and encouraged her to run and bike as well, as a way of “cross training” for her main sport of swimming.
In 1994, when she was 19, she joined her first triathlon, a “beginner’s” distance of 1.5 km swim, 40-km bike, and 10-km run. “I was traumatized after that,” she laughs, “and I didn’t join another triathlon until 2000.”
What actually kept her busy during that time was college. She concentrated on finishing her Interior Design degree in UP Diliman and passing her board exams. As an artist De Leon also painted, and was already working for an interior design firm when competitions beckoned once more.
She joined the national team from 2000 to 2006. “At first, my life was like 70 percent devoted to career and 30 percent to the sport, but then the ratio just slowly swung in favor of the triathlon side. Now, my life revolves 100 percent around the sport,” she explains.
More like 120 percent, if you look at De Leon’s typical week. That’s because aside from training her already well-conditioned body (read: 12-percent body fat) for upcoming triathlon events this year, she also trains the next generation of triathletes.
De Leon runs a race series for children 15 years old and below for the Superkids Youth Development program of the Triathlon Association of the Philippines (www.triathlon.org.ph, click on the Superkids link).
“More than just developing their skills and preparing these children physically for multi-sports such as triathlons, this program also develops their confidence to face life as a whole,” she explains.
De Leon also manages to find time to run the Pinay in Action race series and fitness programs. Pinay in Action, as described in http://www.pinayinaction.com, was “created primarily to uplift the lives of the Filipina…to empower women and girls by providing venues for a healthier lifestyle and tools and information for a better future. Organized by Senator and fellow triathlete Pia Cayetano, Pinay in Action’s principal advocacies include a year-long program that involves conducting running clinics nationwide for public schoolgirls (Check out pinayinaction.com).
“We’re trying to remove the typical stereotype of women as being emotionally and physically weak, using the sport of running as our main medium to get the message across,” stresses De Leon.
Actually, De Leon and her family ARE the message. Older sister Sinag is considered one of the female pioneers of triathlon in the country. Younger sister Daniw has already begun participating in run races, and 12-year-old niece Raya has already started doing triathlons.
Mom Anna Leah Sarabia, a known advocate of women’s empowerment, whom De Leon ironically describes as “not having a single thread of athleticism in her body,” serves as her greatest inspiration.
“She has consistently shown strength of character from the time I could remember, up to now. She has always allowed us do our thing, while leading by example,” the daughter muses.
But De Leon is now in lonely territory, being the only homegrown Pinoy to compete in the Ironman Kona in Hawaii this October, an event that only about six percent of all triathlete applicants worldwide can get to start in, much less finish. A lifelong dream for this triathlete, the Ironman Hawaii will test every inch of what De Leon has become, and what she has become, she says, has been the result of thousands of decisions made every single day of her life. These are decisions, she proudly declares, that she has made herself.
With such ironclad determination and character, who can doubt that De Leon is made of sterner stuff? Alas, ladies, the IronWoman cometh.