Toni Leviste: Dare To Dream
Tuesday, December 26th, 2000
By: Toni Leviste
"There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure." And so says my self-proclaimed 'guru on motivation,' and favorite author, Paulo Coelho.
It has been a long road. A rough road. But a journey filled with immeasurable lessons and a lifetime of memories. The 2000 Sydney Olympics have come. And gone. After all, is said and done, I can honestly say that it was the best experience of my life!
I know we did not capture that elusive 'gold,' nor did we bag a single medal. But contrary to the opinion of many, the Filipino athletes who represented the country at the Games did not come home empty-handed. We came home with pride, to have represented the Philippine Islands (all 7,107 of it!) in the most prestigious sporting event in history. We came home with honor, to have been amongst the world's 10,000 elite athletes, whose place in the Olympic Games could not be bought (no 'dagdag-bawas' involved here), but earned through sheer perseverance and dedication in one's craft. Most importantly, we came home knowing that all 20 of us---the boxers Romeo Brin, Larry Semillanjo and brothers Danilo and Arlan Lerio, taekwondo jins Roberto Cruz, Donald Geisler, Eva Ditan and Jasmin Strachan, shooter Jasmin Luis, archer Jennifer Chan, tricksters Lerma Bulauitan and Eduardo Buenavista, swimmers Carlo Piccio, Lizza Danila, Jenny Guerrero and Miguel Mendoza, Divers Zardo Domenios and Shiela Mae Perez, rower Benji Tolentino, and myself, the equestrienne, not to forget Ghandy (my 15-year old mare and Olympic partner) fought with heart and gave the Games of the 27th Olympiad our best shot. No, we did not conquer the world. We did better than that. We conquered our fears.
The hardest part about getting to the Olympics…is getting there. The spectator only sees the few minutes, in my case, the 90-seconds in the ring. One is not privy to the hours of grueling training and years of sacrifice and hard work. You see the culmination of a dream, not the heartaches and frustration that go hand in hand when one dares to dream.
I feel very fortunate that I have been blessed with a supportive family and a generous, 'stage father wannabe' dad. They have always encouraged me to do what I love most---compete. When I win, they are there to celebrate with me. And when I lose, they are also there to cheer me up. But none of them, not even my dad, ever told me I could ever be an Olympian. It was a dream I nurtured in my heart and mind since childhood. A dream I never imagined to be a reality, until I marched down the Sydney Olympic stadium, together with 19 other Filipino athletes, to join some 9, 980 of the world's supreme individuals in their respective sporting fields. When, after hours of waiting for our cue during the Opening Ceremonies for the 'Parade of Nations,' I, together with the rest of the Philippine delegation marched into the stadium of two hundred thousand cheering Olympic fans, feeling every inch proud to be Filipino.
Parading into that stadium, seeing the country's name, even briefly, flash across the giant screen hanging above the crowd: "PHILIPPINES", hearing the announcement in French, then English, that the Philippine delegation is marching in, I felt my heart pounding rapidly. It was not due to nerves or stage fright, for I doubted that aside from my family and a few friends waiting up to hopefully see me waving for a second or two on television, the 3.5 billion viewers nor the 200,000 spectators would even notice me amongst the chaos. It was the realization, that at that very moment, I had achieved my dream. I became an Olympian.
It was when walking into that stadium that I understood why I heeded that insatiable desire to beat the odds. Why at 8 years old, rather than playing with my Barbie dolls, I preferred to gallop with horses. Why at 16, I was more interested in four-legged beasts than two-legged boys, hardly attending parties and soirees because of the competition I was training for all week. Why during Commencement exercises at the Ateneo University, batch '95, I was not present to accept my diploma, nor had the chance to wear my toga because I was at the Manila Polo Club Annual Horse Show fiercely defending my title for "Rider of the Year." Why I based myself abroad, away from my family and the comforts of home for years, training and competing in international meets. Why when I fell unconscious and broke my right collar-bone after a fall during a competition in England, just six weeks before the Opening Ceremonies, the first words I uttered were: "Am I gonna make it to Sydney?" Why nobody could tell me I couldn't do it-I couldn't be an Olympian. At that moment and forevermore, all twenty of us representing the Philippines, all 10,000 of us representing the human race, joined the others before us who have embarked on a voyage to last a lifetime. We paraded as symbols of the Olympic ideal: regardless of your background, where you came from and what you speak, each of us was there, not as winners or losers, but because we valued the search for excellence and continued man's quest to test the limits of human endeavor. That moment was not only special it was magical!
And the Olympic flame was lit. It continued to burn brightly for all 16 days of the 2000 Sydney Games. Records were broken, dreams fulfilled. While defeats, upsets were inevitable drama of any sporting event. As for the Philippine contingent, our efforts were deemed as failures, but only by those who measure success through medals, like one who measures happiness through dollars and cents. I know I can never quantify the comfort my family gave me during those days of competition. No way to describe my father's worry as I prepared to get on my 1200 pound-mount, Ghandy, for my final warm-up. As if, like a protective father, he would, if he could, jump on the saddle and hurdle those massive jumps for me, instead! I could still hear him, calling me on the cell phone every half-hour: "Kid, look at the doughnut and not the hole…!" (yeah…whatever?!) And how proud he was to watch me salute to the judges at the stands.
No words to express my elation, though I could not display it, when my boyfriend Vince, surprised me outside the gates of Horsely Park. When all I could say was: "What are you doing here?" Sweet, huh? There is no measure for the encouragement my riding buddies demonstrated when I entered the arena, with the loud cheers of 'Go, Toni, Go!' and the thunderous applause upon jumping the last obstacle, whatever the final results. Although I cannot speak for the rest of the Filipino athletes who competed in Sydney, I believed that each and every one of us wanted nothing more than to have brought home an Olympic medal. But we did not. Instead, we came home with the same hope we carried with us going to the Games, but this time wiser and richer in experience. We came to realize that it takes as much courage to have tried and succeeded, as it does to have tried and failed.
Toni Leviste and her soulmate, Leap of Faith
If none of us dared to dream, the Philippine flag would not have been hoisted up at any of the ten venues, including the Athletes Village, where the country was represented. Which reminds me of one talk show host proposing that the Philippines not send any athletes to the Olympics in the future, since we cannot seem to bring home any medals and save the money instead for a more deserving cause. Excuse me, madam, but that was the most hideous thing ever suggested (next to the motion of not opening the Equitable 'sealed envelope,' at the impeachment hearings, but that's another story).
As the father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin famously philosophized: "The important thing in the Olympiads is not so much winning as taking part…the important thing in life is not victory, but the fight; the main thing is not to have won, but to have fought well." So goes the words of a loser? Perhaps. But after 19 years on the saddle, of tears and many defeats, of frustration and anguish, of backaches and heartaches, at 27, I finally feel like I have won. To all who have inspired me to keep the dream alive-thank you.
First published in the Young Star of The Philippine Star, December 22, 2000