Wednesday, January 25, 2017

"Never Meet Your Heroes.."

"I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people." Maya Angelou

It was described as apocalyptic. The entire town of Tacloban was leveled. Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest in history, swarmed the Philippine Islands on November 8, 2013 with 115 mph winds and left in its violent wake a destruction only seen in video games and Schwarzenegger movies. Over 200,000 homes destroyed and 6,300 people dead with another thousand missing. The end of the world had come to life.

Just 100 days after the tragedy, a young woman came to Tacloban and began the process of healing the city using what she herself had used in her own life: sports. Geraldine Bernardo, part of the Global Sports Mentoring Program, brought a program she developed called RePLAY, ReLIVE, ReNEW to the teachers and students of Tacloban using sports and games to bring this battered coastal city hope and purpose. 

ReNEW. ReLIVE. RePLAY. They weren’t just catchy words on a pamphlet. They are Bernardo’s ethos. They are what she speaks of, lives and sweats, under the relentless Philippine sun.

Geraldine Bernardo, Dina, grew up a self described “chubby kid” who was steered away from sports as a youngster because it would take her focus away from her studies. She idolized Bruce Lee growing up and would dabble in martial arts along with biking, swimming and skating. Her high school years she began to redefine herself by following fitness guru Jane Fonda’s aerobic workouts and cutting out sweets. She went into college studying physical therapy and found interest in exercise physiology and biomechanics which got her interested in weight training. 

It was at the University of the Philippines she also met the most important person in her life, her soon to be husband Jay. They have been a true team ever since. Thanks to her husband’s encouragement, Dina got involved in the performing arts: dancing and singing, skills which would serve her going forward as a gifted public speaker and completely at ease in front of audiences. She added to her burgeoning resume by graduating from the Asian Institute of Management with a Masters in Business Management. After their marriage in 1994, Dina and Jay began a series of small business together along with helping take care of her family’s interests as well. Years later, the couple hit a professional rough patch culminating in layoffs, lawsuits and the feeling of being burned out. Dina searched for answers.

In Chinese mythology, a subject Dina immersed herself in as a young student; Qu Yuan was a trusted soldier, advisor and poet for the state of Chu during the Warring States period of Chinese history. He was slandered by jealous officials in his own party and was put on trial for treason and exiled. He wrote poetry in his exile of his love for his country. A few years after his exile, his country was conquered by the Qin State: the very enemy he had proposed fighting against before his party had turned on him. Overcome with grief, Qu jumped into the Miluo River on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month which caused the rest of the townsfolk to jump into their boats and paddle up and down the Miluo, banging the water with their oars and beating drums to keep evil spirits away from him. They even tossed lumps of rice into the water to ensure the fish would eat the rice and not Qu. He was never found.

From this legend, the idea of Dragon Boating began. Imagine a supersized 40 foot canoe with 20 paddlers on each side of the elaborately carved vessel, a dragon’s head at one end and a dragon’s tail at the other. A lone steersman sits at the rear of the boat and a drummer at the front beating out a stroke count for rower unity. In Southeast Asia, it is a celebrated and honored sport tradition going back 2000 years.

Dina saw it as the ultimate team sport: rowers working in unison for a common goal. She decided at the age of 37 and with no previous sports experience, to give it a try at the local club in Manila. Her muscular frame and long arms lent herself perfectly to her new found passion. Three months into the Club season, Dina saw the Philippine National Team was having tryouts. She missed the age cut off by 10 years but with Jay’s insistence and her perseverance, she went anyway.

She tried out for two months but failed to make the first cut because she couldn’t finish the running criteria of a mile and a half in 12 minutes. She grabbed a book and began to learn how to pare her time down. She would try out in the morning with the team, go to work the rest of the day and then run in the evenings. On June 14th of 2003, her perseverance paid off and Geraldine Bernardo put the Team Philippine jersey on her back. Two months later she was named the Captain of the team.

She put her business acumen to use and helped organize and consolidate her diverse team into a functioning and thriving unit. She delved into the science and the math to help her team reach their potential. A few years into her National team stint, with four hour practices five days a week and on top of that cardio and weight training, her teams work paid off. At the age of 39 years old, Dina and her team captured a gold medal in their first Southeast Asian Games, adding to their 10 medals in the China Circuit races the previous two years.

In this amazing story, Dina also saw a different side of sports. She saw the athletes who worked so hard just following their passions. She saw what sports can do and how it can be used as a vehicle for social change and she saw, through her own eyes, how far people can take themselves if just given opportunities. She has also seen the side most of us don’t get to see. Abuses in leadership and the treatment of athletes; a part of sports she has been warring with ever since.

And so it began. Dina worked with the Philippine Olympic Committee and the Philippine Sports Commission. She was the first Filipina to be accepted into the 2012 inaugural class of the Global Sports Mentoring Program for emerging women sports leaders through the U.S. State Department which lead into her work at Tacloban after the typhoon. She has started the Sports for Women’s Empowerment and Employment Program (SWEEP) and the Sports Management Council of the Philippines, hiring young men and women to pay forward her ideals that sports can heal, can encourage and can inspire. 

The past couple of years, in conjunction with the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Dina has organized a program for U.S.A. Volleyball to reach out to coaches and communities around the Philippines. She has touched the deaf and disabled communities along with player and coaching clinics in elementary, high schools and colleges around much of Manila, Cebu and Baguio. In every clinic, she makes sure the participants are fed at the end and are given shirts that they wear proudly. She also leaves volleyballs with the programs so the ideas of the day are continued forward. None of those things are assumed in the Philippines.

If you read the blogs about J.P. Maunes and Adeline Dumapong, you should know that their work with USA Volleyball is through Dina. She is the nucleus of this atom and has no intention of slowing down. 

On a Sunday afternoon in late September last fall, Dina came to Bahay Mapagmahal, a school for disabled children. For an afternoon, the kids played sitting volleyball in an activity room the size of your kitchen and laughed and smiled, competing for hours. Dina acknowledged that she worked in the orthopedic hospital that this facility was attached to by its parking lot but never knew it was there. She smiled and entertained the children, talked to the schools administration and as she does with all of her outreach, left an indelible mark on so many. When she climbed back into her car, she began to cry. She wanted to do more.

There is an old adage: “Never meet your heroes, they’ll disappoint you every time.”

That’s not always the case. Heroes heal, encourage and inspire. They find ways to the light when the paths are dark and full of obstacles. They know how to say yes when the rest of the world says no. They promote inclusion and opportunity and they wrestle with their own demons to further their humanitarianism.

Geraldine Bernardo is a hero. And everyone who has met her is better for it. 

"Nothing is given to man on earth - struggle is built into the nature of life, and conflict is possible - the hero is the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen." -- Andrew Bernstein

No comments:

Post a Comment