Wanting to show flag to world
Sports has taken Sheena Atilano to places she never imagined and today, faces the greatest challenge of her independent life.
Can she survive New York?
She has been in the city that never sleeps for over a year now and looks ready to conquer it, the way she conquered her fears when she faced her first hurdle in track and field.
Before she became a star in Philippine athletics, Atilano was a winnow and sports officials never took her seriously. She had to constantly prove herself and had to work doubly hard.
After participating in local meets, she achieved a measure of success but fame did not automatically come easy.
She lurked in the shadow of Elma Muros-Posadas, former queen of Philippine hurdling.
For many years, she played second fiddle to Posadas until a prestigious Asia-wide competition catapulted her to fame.
In the 2007 Asian Athletics Grand Prix (patterned after the International Amateur Athletics Federation Diamond League) held in Pune, India, only Asia’s elite athletes were invited to participate.
Officials of the national contingent did not expect her to figure prominently in the 100-meter hurdles but she surprised everyone, including herself.
She chased two highly rated and long-striding Kazakhstan athletes right at the gunstart, stuck with them to the finish and registered a personal best at the finish line.
Her gritty effort gave her a podium finish much to the astonishment of punters back home. The icing on the cake: she broke Posadas’ 16-year-old national record with 13.65 seconds in the 100-meter hurdles (Muros’ record was 13.66). That still stands today.
Posadas’ record was not supposed to be broken, more so by someone who has never medalled in any Southeast Asian Games. But it was meant to be. Atilano was always on the injury list on three consecutive SEA Games (2005, 2007 and 2009). She struck back and made an emphatic redemption.
Was it a fluke? No. She stretched her medal-winning streak to three in the same Grand Prix circuit. Her status as one of Asia’s fastest rising stars was thus sealed.
On breaking Posadas’ record, Atilano says: “I just thought that in order for me to break her record, I have to be muscular like she was. When I clocked 13.7 seconds in one of Patafa (Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association) track meets, I realized that breaking her record was possible.
That motivated her and she went into deep training, going as far as the US. After participating in several competitions abroad, her time tremendously improved and she consistently went under 14 seconds.
Hurdler not jumper
Like many Filipino athletes with inspiring stories, Atilano’s is worth telling. She was born in La Carlota City, Negros Occidental, where she studied elementary and high school then graduated from the University of St. La Salle Bacolod with a commerce degree, major in management information system.
In between her school days up to finishing her master’s degree at De La Salle University (DLSU), athletics became her religion.
Her parents were both educators. She is the youngest of three children and has a brother who is a professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. She got involved in athletics because her physical education teachers pushed her to join a running meet.
“I was hesitant to be a hurdler. I have always thought that I was a jumper and was never really cut out for it,” Atilano says. She remembered being very nervous and she cried the night before a running meet because she could not back out of the competition. She would eventually vanquish her fears and get used to an event many girls feared.
“When you love what you’re doing, nothing is difficult. What is harder is getting on the coaches’ list. You need to constantly let them know that you have what it takes to get much needed support,” Atilano says.
In the Philippines, sad to say, support is not given to promising athletes. They must crawl their way in and prove something before they are able to get ample help from governing national associations.
Lucky for Atilano, a company gave her an opportunity to work while training. Two coaches, Jeoffrey Chua and Jerry Cablayan were also always there for her for much needed guidance.
Atilano’s training would begin before daybreak and would last for three hours. She would go to work at 10 a.m. and finish at 7 p.m., six days a week. She made a lot of sacrifices. It came to a point where she had to choose between working and training. She chose the latter.
Hurdling accidents and injuries have plagued Atilano’s training days, some of them took months to recover.
“The toughest part was not knowing when you’ll be back,” she says. Her woes must have a connection to why you can count by your fingers the number of Filipino women hurdlers today and none has broken the 13-second barrier up to now.
Training was not totally tough for Atilano though. She considered it as mahirap na masarap because of the sense of fulfillment it gave her.
Before New York, Atilano participated in Palarong Pambansa where she ruled for four years. Her reign would bring her to the Philippine National Games, University Athletic Association of the Philippines, SEA Games (Manila, Vietnam and Indonesia), Asian Athletics Grand Prix in India, Hong Kong, Germany and the USA Track and Field sanctioned meets in Southern California.
Her training philosophy: “Nothing can replace hard work.”
As an athlete, Atilano was very disciplined, applying it to her diet and sleep. She gave up some of her hobbies and focused on trainings. She admits having a high tolerance for pain, not missing a day of training even when nursing an injury.
She describes herself as an adventurous person. “I have always wanted to experience and learn new things. I hate drama. I could be emotional but I don’t want to show that side of me. I always get the first impression of being a maldita but that’s not true in real life,” she confides.
Better grassroots program
She notes some good things happening to the country’s athletic scene today—more promising athletes are being sent abroad and sponsors are honestly helping.
Athletics has always been one of the biggest gold medal contributors to the country’s campaign in the SEA Games. “May it continue to produce better athletes and develop the country’s grassroots program even more,” she hopes.
She admires Olympic champion Gail Devers, gold winner of both 100-meter sprint and 100-meter hurdles in 1992 and 1996. “I have always thought of hitting two birds with one stone because of her. Unfortunately, I was not as talented as she was,” she humbly says.
But she did—she finished her studies and achieved a national record.
While studying at DLSU, Atilano, had admiration for most of her teammates. “Some of them came from rich families but their determination was something else. They could afford to pay tuition and need not wake up early but went through all the hardships “enduring the pain,” she says.
Life in New York
Atilano came to the Big Apple not for the status but for the money and opportunities. “Life is not easy wherever you are. You may be in the best city in the world but you still have to work hard,” she says.
She came upon the invitation of a former national track athlete who was very accommodating and generous to her. After two years, she decided to stay for good. She is now on her own enjoying her work at a pharmaceutical company.
Atilano still follows her training regimen. She misses her athletic life and still wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to go to the gym before going to work. She maintained her athletic figure.
“I am happy and very thankful with my New York life, a world totally new for me,” she says.
What would she advise young Filipino athletes who would want to become Lydia de Vega, Elma Muros-Posadas or like her?
‘Don’t hold back’
“I would say to them: Don’t hold back if you see any potential in yourself to excel. Utilize your talent as early as possible. An athletic career is just too short,” she says.
Atilano says it was too late for her to realize that she could have achieved much more had she started training earlier. She could have represented the country in tougher, bigger arenas.
One thing she wishes she could have done: “To represent my country in the Olympics and show the Filipino flag to the world.” That could still happen. It could not be in a track oval but in many life’s events she is now fearlessly facing.
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