Olympian prays for London gold
- Joaquin M. Henson () - October 31, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Enrique Beech competed in shooting at the 1956 Melbourne and 1960 Rome Olympics, finishing out of the podium twice. Now at 91, he’s praying that the Philippines finally hits paydirt in the next Summer Games and realizing he’s getting on in years, London could be the last window of opportunity for the country to capture its first-ever gold medal in his lifetime.

“I know it will happen sooner or later but I’m hoping to still be alive when it does,” said Beech, a former football striker who turned to shooting for the chance to reap honors for the country at the 1954 Asian Games in Manila. “The gold will come from sports where height is not a major factor and there are weight divisions. I’m hoping it will come from shooting. We’ve got a potential medalist in shooter Jayson Valdez who’s only 16. But sports like boxing, taekwondo, weightlifting and badminton could also give us a gold medal.”

The Philippines has so far collected only nine Olympic medals – two silver and seven bronze – since making its debut in the quadrennial event in 1924.

Beech said the football renaissance in the country couldn’t have come at a better time – while he can still enjoy it. “I’m happy the interest is back,” he said. “But let’s not expect too much from the Azkals too soon. It takes a long time to put a championship team together in football. I realize how difficult it is to create chemistry for a team that relies on picking up players from abroad every time we play in a big tournament. In my time, most of the players on the national team were together for one to two to three years and when we were called to play in a foreign competition, we had at least four months of practice. That’s how we beat teams from Ireland, Portugal, British Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand.”

Beech started playing football in high school for San Beda in 1936 and earned a reputation as a deadly striker. He suffered a left knee injury in 1950, knocking him out of sports until three years later, shipping magnate William Chiongbian offered to fly him to Madrid for surgery. 

“I played 18 years with the national team and we dominated Asia with players like Rafael Ygoa, Pitong Pacheco, Manuel Miranda, Mari Hernandez, Totit Valles, Paulino Ugarte, EmilioHeredia, Bulilit Reyes, Leo Prieto, Louie Javellana, Manuel and Rene Nieto, Charlie Rebullida, Poteng Tillman, Pepe Esteva, Fernando Alvarez and Gorda de Larrazabal,” said Beech. “Not too many of us are still alive but my memories are fresh in my mind. We played for our country with honor. It had nothing to do with money. We played for national pride and we were a heckuva of a national team.”

Chiongbian chipped in $500 and the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation (PAAF) put up $1,200 for Beech to fly to Madrid for his knee operation. “It was a certain Dr. Garrizabal who did the surgery which was successful,” said Beech. “I stayed only two days in the hospital. While in Madrid, I was treated like a star by the Spanish football officials. I was given a ticket to watch a match between Real Madrid and Barcelona in the special VIP box at the stadium. I was invited to stay in Spain and play for Barcelona’s second team. I could’ve played against Alfredo di Stefano. But I chose to go back to the Philippines.”

Beech resumed playing football for the William Lines club but when national coach Chito Calvo chose to leave him out of the lineup for a Hong Kong tournament, he turned to another sport.

“I started shooting as a hobby in 1938 in the high novice division,” said Beech. “I’ve always liked shooting a shotgun. But since I concentrated on football, I forgot about shooting until my friend Virgilio Teotico got me interested again in 1954. There was a national shooting competition and there was a slot open in a five-man team. P. B. Dionisio asked me to fill up the slot if I wanted. Without practice, I competed and took fourth place. So Federico Elizalde bought me a shotgun for P170 and told me to practice for the Asian championships where I eventually won a gold. When the 1954 Asian Games came up, I had a choice to play football or shoot. Dr. Regino Ylanan of the PAAF told me I could only compete in one sport. I thought I would have a better chance to win a medal in shooting than in a team sport like football.”

As it turned out, Beech claimed a bronze at the 1954 Asian Games and won another bronze at the 1958 Asian Games. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Beech finished 13th in trap and four years later in Rome, wound up 34th in the same event.  

“No regrets,” said Beech who has been a Philippine Sports Commission consultant since 1990. “Some years ago, a writer named Michael Church came to Manila to interview me for a story that was published in Asian Football Confederation magazine. He found out I could’ve been the second Filipino after Paulino Alcantara to play football in Europe and was interested in my story of shifting from football to shooting. He called me the Filipino sharpshooter. It was an honor to be featured in the magazine.”

Beech said for the Azkals to progress as an Asian power, they’ve got to play together longer and be more familiar with each other on the pitch. “We can’t win by defending,” said Beech who worked 19 years for Philippine Airlines in the cargo section and used to operate a travel agency. “We need players to attack. If we lose by one goal, we still lose. We need good players at 15 or 16. We played when we were children with a small ball and learned how to control it that way. We’ve got to open up our game so the defense comes out. It seems to me the only sure way we can score is if we break away. That can’t happen all the time. We need to play with both feet. When the ball is coming at your left side and you need to stop it with your left foot, don’t use the right. I think a little thing like that is a fundamental we should be aware of.

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