A day with Peping Cojuangco and Mikee Cojuangco-JaworSKi
John A. Magsaysay (The Philippine Star) - April 30, 2017 - 12:00am

3 A. M.

MANILA, Philippines - While most of the country is still fast asleep, the father and daughter team of Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, Jr. and Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski get in queue at the departure counters of NAIA Terminal 3 for the first flight to Tacloban City. The senior had just come from paying his respects at a friend’s wake, the junior had just kissed her three kids and her husband to bid them farewell. By the time the plane takes flight at 4:45 a.m., both have started the long day with barely any shut-eye.

“I knew in the beginning that I would, at least, travel once a year. But at this point, I’m traveling up to 12 times a year,” shares Mikee, who is entering her fourth year as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) representative to the Philippines. The mom of three sons, Robbie, Renzo and Rafael, may already have plenty on her plate, but she still, somehow, finds time to make the promotion and policy-making of sporting ethics and values around the world part of her personal vocation. “Before I sent my application, I had to make sure my husband was also in it 100 percent, because there’s absolutely no way that it would not put a strain on my family. At first, my kids were totally opposed, but somehow, my kids have gotten used to it,” Mikee, 43, admits.

On the flipside, her father Peping is, at age 82, in his 12th year as Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) chairman. “I thought for a while that my job there would be all about making speeches, and ceremonial, but what I found was that it’s more of a challenge,” Peping reveals, before reciting a list of the headaches that come with the post, from differences in government policies to the sheer lack of national funding support. “It’s a difficult job to do, there are too many uncertainties. But, I took it as a public servant. It’s a thankless job, you only get self-satisfaction,” the five-term former congressman adds.

Flying at 39,000 feet, it’s easier to understand the lofty responsibilities required of the father-and-daughter tandem in shaking up the state of Philippine sports. Ninety-three years since the country first joined the Olympics, the gold medal still proves elusive. “It is not that we don’t have enough good athletes,” Peping reminds. “It’s just that we need to decide how far we are willing to (go to) take care of our sports,” he adds. Touching down at Daniel Romualdez Airport at 6:30 a.m., it all becomes clear just exactly what he means.

7 A. M.

Stopping for breakfast and a breather from the red-eye flight at Tacloban’s Hotel Alejandro, Peping reminds Mikee to pile on the calories for the strenuous day ahead. “But it seems like we’re light eating today since we don’t really know how to eat bread,” he jokes, ushering Mikee to the breakfast spread of pan de sal, sweet potato and eggs.

Peping is no stranger to keeping his children in excellent condition. After all, he raised four of his five daughters to be a part of the national team in their respective sports, and equestrienne Mikee brought home a gold medal for show jumping from the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, using some of his well-conditioned horses. “I worked with an Australian vet, and I learned that the blood can tell you how to get the optimum health from your horses. From then on, we tested our horses monthly in order to guide us on what to feed them, what supplements to give them, and as a result, I won most of the big races in the Philippines,” he reveals.

Now, he plans to replicate this scientific approach in nurturing and conditioning our top athletes, in hopes that it will reap the same success in the upcoming SEA Games. “Everything will be based on what the blood of the athlete tells you. We will be eliminating most of the guesswork,” he says.

8 A. M.

By this time, we were riding southeast to the town of Albuera. It would be an almost three-hour ride, and everyone in the van took up different forms of entertainment; somehow, talk of Mikee’s local films making a resurgence on TV surfaced. “I hope I still get royalties from them; that way, the POC will have plenty of funds,” she joked.

But when asked if she missed being in the entertainment spotlight, she answered, “My job now doesn’t have a regular schedule, so I can’t really commit to a (showbiz) project. But I can say this is what my heart is committed to. And you know it when work doesn’t feel like work, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s how I felt about being an athlete, it’s how I felt with all those years of being an actress. It’s not something I planned. It’s not something I aspired for, but I think God prepared me for it.”

Mikee first became a member of the IOC in September 2013, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, after being voted in by 206 member states. Prior to her post, Mikee was poised to embrace a more private life, keeping her support for the POC in a personal capacity by being her father’s aide de camp. However, meeting other Olympic committee officers from different countries this way, her life took an unexpected turn with a job offer that she never even imagined.

“It’s part of being an athlete to be always pushing yourself. You get such a huge high to see what you can do, what more can be done. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. It’s not about winning, it’s not about being the best, it’s not about adulation. It’s about being able to get God’s assurance that I am in the right place,” Mikee says of her POC post. During this time, she was able to be a part of five commissions of the international body, including a seat in the Executive Council of the Association of National Olympic Committees, and the Athlete’s Committee of the National Olympic Council of Asia.

It is these positions that became instrumental for her to focus much international support back home, particularly during the time Typhoon Haiyan struck the country. With the IOC’s support, Mikee was tasked to rehabilitate the damaged sporting facilities, particularly the areas worst hit by the disaster. But Mikee, through the help of the POC, opted instead to build new Multi-Sport Facilities in the region’s most disadvantaged communities, which she believes will have more impact in spurring the development of sports training in even the most impoverished sites of the country.

11 A. M.

The summer sun was at its height when we reached Barangay Poblacion in Albuera town, but just the same, the excitement that welcomed us in the Senor Santiago Gawad Kalinga community was at its pinnacle. It was the day that their own POC Multi-Sport Facility, a covered court structure that is open-walled to maximize ventilation, but with roofed bleachers to protect from the elements, will be formally unveiled six months after its groundbreaking.

“The first time that we were here in Leyte, we were in Palo where we turned over the facility there. Now we are turning over your own Multi-Sport Facility here,” Mikee says, addressing new Mayor Rosa Meneses, and hundreds of the community’s young and old residents. “This is for everyone. We want everyone to come together, to play and enjoy. If you don’t come here, if you do not join, this wouldn’t have meaning. We would be proud of whatever it is you will do with this facility,” she goes on to encourage everyone.

But the kids don’t need much prodding, as they break into a dance to welcome their benevolent guests. Of the young dancers, Peping notes, “I saw among you that you have the agility, the timing, all of which are necessary for any sport that you will undertake. Sports is not only for victory, we also use it to develop one’s personal character, and it should give our youth the ambition.”

He goes on to address the Albuera residents, who, just months before, were shaken by a drug scandal involving their former local chief executive. “Why we have a rampant drug problem is that, sometimes, our youth does not have hope for the future. They are so idle, and easily tempted with the bad elements around them,” Peping says. “I can see that the youth here are very engaged and excited, that is the sheer sign that the kids here want to do something. That is why, among all of us, young or old, we have to work together such that this community, and the whole country, will be able to have the real fellowship to raise our youth for a better future.”

Soon, the Multi-Sport Facility in Albuera will be able to host basketball, volleyball, badminton and other court sports for its youth, and this early, the women of Barangay Poblacion are organizing morning Zumba classes to be held there daily.

After a lunch of lechon and pansit, we proceeded to the winding road that would lead us to our next stop of Alangalang, which is roughly two hours and a few catnaps away.

3:15 P. M.

Impressed by its sustainability model and responsible practices, Mikee has been supporting the Gawad Kalinga since 2004, so she couldn’t think of a more suitable partner for both the IOC and the POC in carrying out their Multi-Sport Facility projects in Leyte. Their newest site is the GK Community in Barangay Binonton in Alangalang town.

“In other countries, it is (written) in the law to play sports for at least an hour a day. Because if the government takes care of the health and welfare services of its people, they discover that they save a lot on hospitalization and medicine costs when the people are engaged in physical activities. This is the reason why we try to bring sports closer to the most depressed communities in our country,” Mikee says, shortly after the groundbreaking of the community’s new Multi-Sport Facility, slated to be completed this September.

“In the Olympics, we have what we call Olympic values: friendship, respect, and excellence. This is our dream for Alangalang. That is why, once it is completed, it is our hope that people will use it rightly,” she adds.

Introducing her father for the closing address, Mikee says: “This is the person who completely supported me my whole life as an athlete. He is the person who taught me that I need to work hard for everything that I want to achieve, because victory is sweeter if you gave everything to achieve it. He is not only my father, but also the father of those who would want to fight for the glory of our country through sports.”

At this, Peping humbly jokes: “I may be her father, but I am under her. Sometimes, she might have a hard time telling me what to do, but I can’t do anything when she says it is the order of the IOC. But on this occasion, it is nice that we are working together towards one goal.

“We are natural athletes,” he continues. “Filipinos are good people, the Philippines is a great country, we all need to work as one in order to make it a country that will be recognized by the whole world.” He goes on to challenge the members of the community present to help see the project through, and make the most of the complex once it is completed.

5 P. M.

“This is my fourth trip here in Leyte for this project, and every time I come, I learn more,” Mikee shares as we reach the Daniel Romualdez Airport for our trip back to Manila. After more than 12 hours, we were able to open the IOC and POC’s second Multi-Sport Facility in the region, as well as break ground for another one. “I see more meaning in what we do. And I feel like it’s also making me grow and, hopefully, I will be able to use that in the other things I do in the future,” she says, weary from the day’s exertions but gratified.

Which makes me shift my attention to the elder Cojuangco, who simply sits, relaxed in his seat, checking the current NBA scores on his mobile phone. “I’m already 82 years old. Despite that, I still surprise even myself that I’m still strong and not slowing down. Well, sometimes, I forget names and all, but as far as other things, I’m still okay. Perhaps this is God’s way of telling me that I still have an assignment. It’s like I can’t help it, there’s plenty to be done, but there is a lack of those doing it,” he says, with the same vigor he displayed when we arrived. And perhaps this fire will remain well until we finally get our proverbial Olympic gold.

“The concerns of my dad are also my concerns,” Mikee shares. “Of course we want more medals for the country. I am an athlete too, and I know how it is to desire and need support. But what’s important is not forgetting other things, not to get too distracted by something that feels like a brick wall. If we succeed through these facilities, in terms of community growth through sports, then that is our example of utilizing sports for nation-building. It is a model that can be applied anywhere in the world,” she says.

And pretty soon, we boarded again for Manila, where fathers will continue to be fathers and daughters will continue to be daughters, but their hearts will continue to beat to the pulse of our country’s athletic dreams. Photos by John A. Magsaysay

 

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