This story was first published on Sports Illustrated Philippines on July 28, 2016.
Patrick, my photographer for the day, and I walked briskly inside the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex to look for the Table Tennis Association of the Philippines (TATAP) Training Center where Ian Lariba would be busy preparing for her stint in the Rio Olympics.
I had never been to the TATAP area so it took a while before we found it. Thanks to the scorching sun, our faces were beaded with sweat when we got to the place. I took a swipe of my forehead, opened the fragile white door that seemed it was going to fall of its hinges anytime soon and entered the room.
I approached the first guy I saw and asked if Mr. Ting Ledesma, the president of TATAP, was around — hoping I could to talk to him and introduce myself. We had exchanged messages on the phone just a few days before when I asked for his permission to sit down with Ian, to which he immediately accommodated — “approved without thinking” were his words.
I saw Ian in my peripheral vision, just in the left corner of the training room. She had just wrapped up her last training session in Manila with her Korean coach Kwon Mi Sook. When I directed my eyes toward her direction, Ian, who prefers to be called Yan, had a ball collecting net in one of her hands, using the other to pick up the white ping pong balls scattered on the floor.
It was around 11:30 a.m. when we arrived there. We had scheduled the interview with Yan for 12:30 p.m. but Patrick and I came early so we could study her while training. I let out a faint wave when she looked, and she acknowledged by raising her eyebrows. I told her we would wait for one more hour, but she insisted we start the interview since her training was done for the day. She introduced me to her Korean coach and her La Salle mentor, Lauro Crisostomo, and then excused herself to the locker room so she could change into something dry.
The training room was small and far from being world-class. There were only three (yes, just three) ping pong tables, strategically placed to give players enough space to maneuver. It was disheartening to see — now I know where the national athletes’ frustrations on proper funding and training facilities are stemming from.
Yan consulting her Korean coach after they end their training session (Photo by Patrick Adalin)
Yan was first exposed to a major table tennis tournament when she competed in the Palarong Pambansa Games in Iloilo in 2005. It was her first time to participate so she had no expectations of any kind — she just wanted to play.
“Syempre first time namin dun, parang nothing to lose,” Yan says.
To the surprise of many, Yan won the championship at the elementary level that year. Many scouts from Manila saw her play and were impressed with her performance. That’s why every summer after that, she was invited to Manila to play table tennis. The more she played, the more she got better. She continued to win at the Palarong Pambansa games and gained a ton of experience playing in several tournaments abroad.
The time to select a college came around. Yan had several options — La Salle, Ateneo, and U.P. But she eventually chose to study and pursue her table tennis career at La Salle after she got a glimpse of what the environment was there like.
“Parang nagdalawang isip pa ko nun. Pero nung ininvite ako ni coach Lau dito, pinapunta niya ko tapos pinakilala niya ko sa office at sa team. Yung feeling na ‘Ay, gusto ko na dito,’ parang yun yung naghila sa ‘kin.”
Her success in table tennis continued at the collegiate level, winning championships and MVP trophies one after the other. Being a Lady Paddler was something she enjoyed and she admits she is very grateful she ended up with La Salle.
“Yung pinaka-fulfilling para sa akin, as a Lasallian, na nakaka-give back ako sa Lasallian community in my own way. Syempre ang dami nilang natulong from the start until my fifth and last playing year, and even now na wala na ko playing years,” Yan says. “Very supportive sila lalo ngayon sa Olympics. They’re very proud and happy.”
People know that the journey to qualifying for the Olympics is quite challenging. What they don’t know is what happens behind the scenes — the hard work, preparation and training that athletes religiously do and all the sacrifices they have to make in order to succeed.
Yan, even though she was already playing table tennis at a high level, still had to find a way to improve her skills. Enter Korean coach Kwon Mi Sook. Kwon also attained ping pong success during her heyday, winning the silver medal at the 1989 World Table Tennis Championships. In the early goings, Yan had a tough time adjusting to her new coach — who she started working with in 2015 — but eventually became comfortable with Kwon after witnessing how much passion the coach had for table tennis.
“Nung una nahirapan talaga ako makipag-sabayan sa kanya. Pero very open siya sa kung ano gusto niya, makikita mo talaga yung desire and yung love niya for this sport.” Yan says. “Sa akin sa part ko, nainspire ako. Syempre siya mismo parang nakita niya yung potential ko, why not gamitin ko yun to motivate myself lalo na nung ininvite kami for the qualifiers.”
During one of her matches in the ITTF-Asian Olympic Qualifiers in April 2016 (Photo from ITTF.com)
In the ITTF-Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament in Hong Kong, Yan had a terrible start. She got swept by her Thai opponent in Stage 1, but redeemed herself in the next stage by defeating Qatar and Iran. In the decisive round, she lost to Thailand, 3-4, but Yan says she wasn’t discouraged by the loss because she was personally satisfied with her performance.
In her final match of the tournament, Yan faced Indonesia’s Lilis Indriani — a slot to the Rio Olympics at stake. She says she enjoyed that match so much it felt like it was just her and the ping pong ball. No distractions, no crowd, no opponent.
“At that time na-enjoy ko lang talaga yung moment na naglalaro ako nun and parang ang ganda ng feeling,” Yan shares, “Kasi after nung game saka ko lang napansin yung crowd and yung surroundings. Parang ako lang at yung bola (buong laro).”
“In the zone” some would call it. And because of that, she became the first Filipino table tennis player to compete in the Olympics since the sport was introduced in 1988 — a feat she is very proud of.
“I’m very honored and blessed I was given the chance and opportunity to represent Philippine table tennis in the Olympics for the first time. Parang for me, it’s a fulfilment for the table tennis community dito sa Pilipinas kasi parang nabuhay uli. Nakakatuwa.”
But Yan knows there’s a “big responsibility” that comes with this incredible opportunity.
“Syempre mas kailangan ko galingan sa training and mas doble yung hard work and sacrifices. It’s a matter of balance din, di lang siya puro glory. May kaakibat talaga na sacrifices.”
At one point during the interview I asked her if there’s a lot of pressure on her, considering she is the first Filipino table tennis bet to make it to the Games. She let out a faint laugh and nodded. But she says she will brush off the pressure and use it instead as motivation; especially since it’s her first time to participate in the world’s biggest sporting event.
“I just want to enjoy and at the same time really give my best for the Olympics. Ako first timer ako, the Olympics is very overwhelming, but for me personally ang hiling ko lang, ang dinadasal ko lagi na mabuhos ko talaga lahat ng na-practice namin yung mga pinaghirapan namin,” Yan says.
“At the end of the day, whatever happens, I would have performed with no regrets.”
For an athlete, to qualify and compete in the Olympics is already a feat in itself. But to be the person to actually carry the country’s flag there, that’s a tremendous honor and privilege.
Most of the 12 Fiipino athletes competing in Rio are experienced. Some have even participated in past editions of the Games. That’s why it came as a surprise to Yan when she was chosen to become the flag bearer. When I asked her what she had to say about it, her face gleamed with excitement — a wide smile broke out.
“Di ko rin inexpect yun kasi, for me, makasama lang at maka-parade lang sa Olympics malaking bagay na… what more pa na ako yung napili as flag bearer. Nakapalaking karangalan,” Yan replies. “At the same time I’m very humbled din kasi from all the list of athletes na sobrang bigatin na nag-qualify, na lahat naghirap para sa slots nila at mga veterans na, they gave me that chance and they entrusted me with that responsibility.”
Yan, a native of Cagayan de Oro, started playing table tennis before she entered the 3rd Grade. At that time her parents wanted her to have a productive summer and encouraged her to try sports. In previous years, Yan’s parents had enrolled her into different classes. She tried painting classes one summer and had speech classes the next. But this time, her parents wanted their daughter to engage into a more active lifestyle.
Yan says she started playing table tennis when she was nine years old (Photo by Patrick Adalin)
One day her parents accompanied her to their local sports complex to check out the different sports, so that she could choose which one to learn. They dropped by the basketball, volleyball, and badminton courts but they were filled with people — no way she would get a chance to try them out. Fortunately, the ping pong table nearby was empty. It was the first time Yan held a paddle and tried table tennis. She admitted she had difficulty learning the sport at first, and at times thought of giving up, but eventually became addicted to it — her love for the paddle grew. Since then, her father enrolled her in table tennis training sessions each summer to improve her skills.
She continued having 1-on-1 battles with her dad. She says those are the matches she looked forward to the most when she was just starting out, because every time she won, she received a reward from her dad. But that was then, it’s different now. The reward is much bigger. The stakes are much higher. There’s a chance she could bring home a gold medal for the country.
No matter what happens, though, Yan will always be appreciative of the support her parents have given her throughout her years holding a table tennis racket.
After the interview, we asked her to play table tennis against one of her friends so we can take photos of her in action. Even if it was just for show, Yan looked as if she was competing with her life at stake. But in between those back-and-forths, she was smiling and laughing. Both expressions on her face show how serious she is about the sport and how much she enjoys playing it.
Win or lose in the Olympics, Yan has already succeeded. Because she believes that whatever life throws your way you should always find it in your heart to be grateful.
“Just always be thankful for everything and always try to look at the positive side of things in life. Always be humble whatever happens kasi lahat naman ng nangyayari sa buhay pinaghihirapan,” Yan reminds us. “When you’re at the top, be even more humble because a lot of people are looking up to you as an inspiration.”
That’s how down-to-earth and humbling Ian Lariba is. She’s proof that there’s more to life than being the first Filipino table tennis athlete in the Olympics.