Philippine Amateur Swimming Association (PASA) president Mark Joseph doesn't play favorites. He treats the athletes on the national swimming team equally. But Joseph will be the first to admit that the 5'8", 170-pound, 21-year-old Miguel Molina probably has the best chance to win a medal at the Asian Games or even the Olympics.
"He's the one I'm drum-beating for a medal in Beijing," says Joseph. "With three years to go, he is already ranked No. 15 in the world."
Joseph believes Molina could've bagged as many as seven gold medals in the last Southeast Asian (SEA) Games with the proper focus, direction and support. Still, Joseph isn't complaining. Molina, after all, hauled in three gold medals and a silver - in the process, setting four new Philippine records. And Joseph himself is new to the job, hardly warming his seat in less than a year as PASA president.
"He's growing up and he needs to face the realities of life," notes Joseph. "I'll try and parlay that into an Asian or Olympic medal. It won't be easy [but with] the right kind of support, he can do it."
At the moment, Joseph says Molina is concentrated on making a big splash in his final year as a varsity swimmer for the University of California at Berkeley. "He's in his last season as a senior," continues Joseph. "He's very busy and his coaches are kicking his ass. It's his swan song for Berkeley."
At the 2003 SEA Games in Vietnam, Molina captured two gold, two silver and three bronze medals. His harvest in the SEA Games in Manila last year wasn't as bountiful in terms of numbers, but was more productive in terms of quality.
Molina picked up his first gold medal in the last SEA Games with a clocking of 4:26.21 in the 400-meter individual medley, breaking Carlo Piccio's national record of 4:30.31 set in 2001. Ariski Parmadi of Indonesia was a distant second at 4:48.53. Then came his gold in the 200-meter individual medley as he timed in at 2:03.8, erasing his own national record of 2:04.68 established at the World Championships in Montreal last July. Runner-up Radamyos Matjiur of Thailand wasn't close at 2:07.12. Molina took a third gold medal by clocking 2:16.88 in the 200-meter breaststroke, resetting his own national record of 2:18.71. Vorrawuti Aumpiwan of Thailand was second at 2:17.56.
In the 200-meter freestyle, Molina settled for the silver medal with a time of 1:52.83, eclipsing his own national record of 1:52.89 set in 2003. Daniel Bego of Malaysia pocketed the gold by a fraction of a second at 1:52.67 and Bryan Tay Zhirong of Singapore took the bronze at 1:54.39.
"I think the SEA Games in Manila coinciding with my senior year in the NCAA definitely helped me to improve my times," says Molina. "Since it's my last year swimming for Berkeley, I've been training harder and also I now have more experience than I had in Vietnam. I think my failures in the last Olympics fueled me to swim harder in practice and make sure that my times would drop."
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Molina went only as far as the heats in four events. A consolation was he placed second in his 200-meter breaststroke heat with a clocking of 2:19.19 and third in his 200-meter individual medley heat at 2:05.28.
Molina describes his Olympic experience as unforgettable.
"Being there was a great experience," he relates. "It was my first time in Greece and I loved sight-seeing after my competitions were done even though it was limited. Although I did not do as well as I personally thought I would, I enjoyed hanging out with the rest of the Philippine team in our apartments at the Olympic Village."
Molina failed to earn a medal at the 2002 Busan Asian Games even as he qualified for the finals in the 200-meter freestyle (fifth) and the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys (both sixth). To gain a medal at the Asian Games in Doha this year and at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 would be a dream come true for Molina.
Molina was born in Quezon City. He was only three years old when his parents Tomas and Mitos moved the family to Tokyo after they were contracted to teach at St. Mary's International School. It was in Tokyo where Molina learned to swim.
"I started swimming when I was in first grade, so I was around six years old," said Molina in an interview by Gretchen Kell found on the Berkeley Web site. "I don't know if there's any truth to this story, but apparently soon after I was born either my grandfather or my dad put me in the bathtub and I was floating, so I guess you could say I started early. No one else in my family swims. My parents are both runners and basketball players."
Even as Molina has lived most of his life outside the Philippines, he often visits home because his relatives, except for two aunts, are in the country. A sister, 18, is enrolled at Stanford University as a freshman.
Molina studied at St. Mary's for 12 years, was on the honor roll from Grade 9 to 12 and skippered the swimming varsity team for two years. He was a four time Swimmer of the Year at St. Mary's.
From St. Mary's, Molina chose to study in California after seriously considering the University of Minnesota and Northwestern University.
"My coach in Tokyo recommended swimming under [Berkeley] coach Nort [Thornton]," says Molina. "I felt the other schools I was looking at didn't have the reputation that Berkeley had in Tokyo."
Since transferring to California in 2002-03, Molina has made waves in Berkeley and was described as the most versatile varsity swimmer during his junior season last year for posting a top-six time in six events, including second place in the 200-meter individual medley (his favorite event "because I have the most fun training for it and swimming it"), and gaining All-American honors.
On campus, a typical day for Molina begins with a 6 a.m. practice swim. After two hours, he goes back to the dorm to nap, relax, study or watch TV if there is no class schedule. Afternoon practice starts at 1 p.m. and extends to 4:30 p.m. Then he reports for class and has dinner at 7 p.m.
"When my workload is light, I just watch TV or surf the Internet," says Molina. "I usually try to get my homework done on the weekends. If I need to get it done on the weekdays, I do it after dinner. I try to go to bed by 9 p.m. but it ends up being after 10 p.m. sometimes. I want to get a good eight or nine hours of sleep to be prepared for practice the next morning."
It's a Spartan regimen for Molina but he knows working hard is the only way to get ahead in anything in life.
No doubt, Molina has become a more mature athlete with the experience of competing in the Olympics, two World Championships, an Asian Games, two SEA Games and the US NCAA. His poise and maturity were evident in the last SEA Games where he smashed four Philippine records on the way to collecting three gold medals and a silver.
Molina says he'll continue swimming competitively until he reaches his full potential. That could mean the sky's the limit for Molina as he prepares to go for gold in Doha and maybe even a medal for Beijing.