Cebu’s Champion Dragonboat Team Breaks Every Stereotype

It's all about ability, not disability for the PADS racing crew.

Our combined disabilities are our greatest strength.”

This is the motto of the Philippine Accessible Disability Services (PADS) Adaptive Dragonboat Racing Team. It’s printed on a poster that enjoys pride of place behind a shelf crammed with trophies, awards and medals at their office in Cebu City.

“This is what we won in Hong Kong. And this is the TAYO Award,” team manager JP Maunes says proudly, picking up gleaming championship trophies. “Every time the paddlers enter the office or persons with disabilities (PWDs) come for rehab, they can see the accomplishments of the team. We can give them inspiration and motivation to keep up and train more, and also look at the brighter side of life.”

Team Captain Arnold Balais
Team Captain Arnold Balais

Over the past three years, PADS has been making waves in the local and international dragon boat racing scenes. Composed of people who are amputees, deaf or blind, they’re the Philippines’ first cross-disability adaptive dragon boat racing team. Founded in 2016, they quickly became one of the country’s strongest teams despite the uphill climb to the top.

Coming from the Global Sports Mentoring Program sponsored by the US State Department, JP was looking to set up a program that would get PWDs involved in sports while also helping the public understand the importance of community-based rehabilitation. Dragon boat racing was an emerging sport in Cebu — and, as a seated sport, presented a good opportunity for a team of athletes of different abilities.

The team pushing off from the beach at Shangri-La Mactan Resort and Spa
The team pushing off from the beach at Shangri-La Mactan Resort and Spa

“We invited a few PWDs to paddle one Sunday,” JP recalls. This drew the interest of the community, and eventually they put together a team of people who were either deaf, amputees, polio survivors or blind. Sports rehabilitation specialists also came in to volunteer their skills to help train the paddlers. The team came together as they trained. “It was a totally new sport for everyone. We got to develop [hand] signs for the commands, and the deaf paddlers trained our volunteers and others to communicate,” says JP.

While going toe-to-toe with non-disabled teams, they consistently won medals at local competitions, including championships in the women’s small boat, open small boat and mixed small boat categories of the 1st Naga Invitational Dragon Boat Race. And for two years straight, they’ve won the International Paradragon Championship at the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races.

Brylle Samgel Arombo training junior paddlers
Brylle Samgel Arombo training junior paddlers

They train their hearts out to remain at the top of their game. The team’s “normal” schedule includes two training sessions — one from 4.30am to 7am for boat and land training; then again in the afternoon for workouts and more boat training — four days a week. When they’re preparing for a competition, they ramp up their schedule to six days a week.

This year, they’re set to make history at the International Dragon Boat Federation (IDBF) World Dragon Boat Racing Championships. For the first time ever, the IDBF has opened a paradragon division, and PADS will be representing the Philippines at the competition in Pattaya, Thailand, from August 20 to 25.

PADS founder and team manager JP Maunes
PADS founder and team manager JP Maunes

Needless to say, the team is proud to have earned the endorsement from the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation to represent the country. Team captain Arnold Balais says that their spirits are high. “This is the fruit of two years’ work, starting from zero. The team’s excited for the world championships.”

And yet, despite their many victories, it isn’t all about winning for PADS. They’re here to dispel negative stereotypes and inspire
their fellow PWDs. After all, being part of a team and testing their mettle at competitions has given the paddlers themselves a real sense of empowerment.

Marvie Ubay and Kent Tumangan, the team’s pacers
Marvie Ubay and Kent Tumangan, the team’s pacers

“Because of dragon boat, our confidence in ourselves has risen,” Arnold explains in a mix of Filipino and English. “Win or lose, for us it’s still a win-win situation because we got personal development out of it. Winning is just the bonus; what’s important to us is our teamwork,” he explains. “PADS’ real goal is [to campaign for] the inclusion of PWDs in society. We also hope to reach out to other people with disabilities. That’s what we want to happen, first and foremost.”

Many people still think of PWDs as charity cases, JP concedes, but, he adds, “We want to change that perspective. There’s still another face to disability — and this is being healthy, fit, competitive and positive [about] life.”

The team has certainly won the respect of the international community. Last year, they decided to test their strength against non-disabled teams at the Hong Kong International Dragon Boat Races. They made it to the open grand championship, and JP will never forget the moment they were called to board their boat. As the announcer called, “Philippines PADS dragon boat team,” the hubbub of teams getting ready for the race dwindled into silence.

The decorative dragon head on the boat
The decorative dragon head on the boat

The paddlers found the silence unsettling and wondered what was going on. Then, as they walked down to their boat, the captain of one of the Chinese teams began to clap. His teammates joined in, and the ripples of applause spread out until all the teams and even the race officials were clapping for them. “Every time I talk about this, I get goose bumps,” JP says. “These were major elite teams from different countries. [In the dragon boat community,] you have to earn respect from the teams, and the Chinese teams are really strong and professional. The officials were lining up and applauding as if we already won!”

The PADS team was moved to tears, and JP told them, “You know what, this is something. Savor this moment. Always remember this day. You have earned a spot in the international dragon boating community. This is more than winning that gold medal, this is about respect. This is about honor and glory. Savor this moment because you were part of it.”

PADS has begun to work with under-13 paddlers to train future team members
PADS has begun to work with under-13 paddlers to train future team members

As they reached their boat, a crowd of Filipinos lined up at the harbor erupted into applause while waving a huge Philippine flag. “It was so surreal!” JP recalls. “This is one epic moment that we will never forget as a team. We will share this with our grandchildren. We did not win the grand championship, but that event was really something worth remembering. Later that day we won the paradragon championships, and we had a feast after.”

While the PADS team joined competitions to show what PWDs could do, what they didn’t expect was the impact they would have on the Filipino community in Hong Kong. When they arrived, the OFW community gave them a warm welcome, bringing them food and helping the team with logistics. During the last day of the race, so many people came to cheer PADS on that the organizers had to hire security personnel for crowd management.

“They told us, ‘I’ve never shouted this loud my entire life, and I felt that my dignity as a Filipino was restored when you guys won the gold’,” says JP. “Before the gold medal race, we offered a prayer to the community and the paddlers felt it also; they had to win this for our fellow Filipinos who were struggling and felt so lonely. This is [no longer] about people with disabilities paddling; this is about our country.”

In June, PADS will return to Hong Kong aiming for a three-peat victory at the International Paradragon Championship. “We are really excited not because we want to win, but because we really want to see our OFWs,” JP says.

But they can’t do it alone — the team is looking for sponsors to help cover their training and travel expenses, not just for the International Paradragon Championship, but for the IDBF World Dragon Boat Racing Championships too. In return for support, the team will give “110%”, says PADS sports coordinator Gabrile Labra, because they know that they carry the Philippine flag with them. “We don’t want to miss this opportunity, and it’s very clear that our paddlers give their all during training… Alam nila na nakataya dito ang bandila ng Pilipinas.”

Sponsor or join PADS at fb.com/adaptivedragonboatracingph

Cebu Pacific operates a hub out of Cebu City. cebupacificair.com

. . .

Good talk

Making small changes in the way we speak about people with disabilities can go a long way in promoting inclusivity:

  • Use “people-first” language such as “person with a disability” or “person who is blind” instead of saying “disabled person” or “blind person.” By putting the person first, we emphasize that their disability doesn’t define them.
  • One exception is the Deaf community, who sometimes refer to themselves as Deaf with a capital “D” to denote that they are part of a community with its own language and culture.
  • Avoid using euphemisms like “differently abled” or “handicapable,” as these can sound condescending.
  • When referring to someone who is not disabled, avoid saying “regular” or “normal,” and use “non-disabled” instead.

. . .

It’s All About Ability, Not Disability

Athletes with disabilities compete in a wide range of sports. Here are a few to get acquainted with while we wait for the 2020 Paralympics:

  • Wheelchair Basketball. Nicknamed “murderball” by its fans, this sport can get pretty brutal. The rules are similar to basketball, except that players are strapped into special wheelchairs with four wheels for maximum agility. They’re allowed up to two wheel pushes before they’re required to dribble — a traveling violation results otherwise.
  • Amputee Football. The rules can vary slightly around the world, but in general, amputee football players may only manipulate the ball with their legs. Using their crutches on the ball or on another player counts as a foul.
  • Sitting Volleyball. You might think this sport is played on wheelchairs too, but players actually sit on the ground, spiking the volleyball over a net 1.15 meters high for men and 1.05 meters high for women.
  • Power Lifting. Power lifting for PWDs involves bench-pressing, and unlike with amputee football, one is allowed to wear prosthetics while competing. The athletes are strapped to the bench while lifting, and the one who manages to lift the heaviest weight wins.

This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Angelica Gutierrez

Photographed by

Jacob Maentz

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