BY TITO S. TALAO
TOKYO — A fiber-glass boat measuring 8.2 meters long and weighing around 14kgs will help launch on Friday the Philippines’ campaign in the pandemic-delayed 2020 Olympic Games at the placid Sea Forest Waterway.
Propelling the long, narrow oar-powered shell, known in the rowing world as a scull, is 5-foot-11 Cris Nievarez, 21, from Atimonan, Quezon, who earned a Tokyo Olympics berth by virtue of continental pick in the men’s single sculls at the Asia Oceania Qualification Regatta in Tokyo last May.
While Nievarez finished ninth in his event, the rowers who clinched fourth to eighth spots had already gained entry to the Olympics via similar World Rowing-sanctioned races, allowing the SEA Games gold medalist to rise in the standings at No 4.
And since the top five finishers in the qualifier are slated to earn passage to Tokyo, rowing head coach and 1988 Seoul Olympics veteran Edgardo Maerina explained in reports that Nievarez, as ‘fourth placer,’ effectively made it.
Patrick Gregorio, president of the Philippine Rowing Association, lauded Nievarez’s achievement ahead of actual competition.
“For rowing to send one of its athletes to the Olympics after 20 years is a feat,” said Gregorio. “Cris is a promising young man and his journey starts in Tokyo. Long way to go.”
Citing the allures of the discipline, Gregorio added: “Rowing is a beautiful sport. We can excel in this. Let’s focus.”
Out to draw first blood ahead of 18 fellow Olympians, several of whom await anointment as the first Philippine athlete to bring home an Olympic gold medal, Nievarez will have the wind behind his back to fan modest expectations.
“Ang goal lang naman is makalapit sa kung sino man ang magli-lead and try to sustain it kung kaya hanggang finish line,” said Nievarez, who draws lots Wednesday to find out which of several heats he and five other rowers will be bracketed to race across two kilometers of calm waters.
A repechage is scheduled on Saturday, if necessary, to choose which three rowers among the second to sixth placers will join the top finisher to the quarterfinals, along with the qualifiers from other heats.
“Excited ako kasi makakalaban ko na yung mga napapanood ko lang sa world championship,” he said after practice Tuesday.
That was during the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Ottensheim, Austria where Nievarez and teammate Egan Ilas got a measure of world class competition in the men’s double lightweight sculls.
The Austria tournament allowed Nievarez to watch up close the best single scull rowers in the world, never imagining he would one day race against some them in the Olympics.
But here he is in Tokyo, hours away from raising the curtains for Team Philippines in the Olympic standard open weight — not lightweight, mind you — single sculls event where topnotch rowers are taller, heavier and packed with more international experience.
“Their longer strokes will propel them faster,” Nievarez agreed. “But being in the middleweight category (at 78-79kgs), I hope to have more endurance and faster movement. I’m comfortable naman sa kalagitnaan.”
So are the Philippine athletes comfortable with their lead-off rowing colleague who is about to set the tone for what lies ahead in this most unusual Olympiad.