Toni Leviste on keeping the faith and leaping through hope
The Philippine STAR, Wednesday, January 9, 2013
By: John Magsaysay
See that horse over there? Her name is Leap of Faith, and she's my soul mate," Toni Leviste says, gesturing towards an immaculate snow-white mare, a graceful yet commanding presence at the center of her 10-hectare property, the Leviste Equestrian Eco Park (LEEP). Already in her diamond age in equine years, Leap of Faith has led Toni in countless competitions around the world and has since retired to the world of show jumping, but this four-legged damsel sparked what would become Toni's two-decade-long love affair with the sport, a journey peppered with pride, philosophy and patriotism that could only spring from pure, unbridled passion.
In an old orange orchard at the heart of Lipa City, made barren by disease and years of neglect, Marie Antoinette Sarangaya Leviste found her true potential as an equestrienne. Then a college student at the Ateneo de Manila University, doubly majoring in philosophy and political science, Toni regularly traveled seven hours a day to reach her small stable at the heart of the Leviste ancestral farm. Often sleeping in a solitary thatched hut in equally bucolic conditions, Toni would hone the discipline, dedication and determination that would make her Southeast Asia's most prolific equestrienne, competing in over 20 high-profile international competitions and winning six.
But despite where her horses take her around the world, Toni still calls Lipa her home, transforming the property into an international-class manor for steeds, complete with a cross-ventilated, high-ceilinged stable at par with the finest horse lodgings in Belgium or France, where Toni spends half of the year during competition season. "I call it a horse spa," she says with a laugh. "The altitude of Lipa makes it perfect for raising and training horses as it's the highest point in Batangas, so horses imported from Europe or elsewhere will never find it hard to adjust to the environment."
It's perfect setting, located between the twin mountains of Malarayat and Makulot, for grazing and training a future generation of equestriennes and equines alike. "Outside the classroom, the youth can also choose to learn," Toni says. "One of the best vehicles is sports. To be a top athlete, you have to be competitive, you have to have discipline, focus, you have to be passionate with what you do in order to be the best, and I feel that it's very important for the Filipino youth to espouse these traits in order to have a strong notation."
Speaking through experience, Leviste competed in her first dressage competition at the age of 10, a penchant she nurtured from a horseback ri ding holiday in Baguio's Camp John Hay. She joined the Philippine Team in 1990, and bagged third in the Sunshine Grand Prix held in Jerez, Spain, in 1999. Also in the same year, Toni was the first Southeast Asian to compete in the World Cup Show Jumping Finals in Gothenburg, Sweden. She also competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and ever since then, she has shown no signs of slowing down in reaching for Olympic gold.
"The beauty of being an equestrienne is that the older you get, the better you become," reveals Toni of a sport in which riders generally pe ak at around 40 to 50 years of age. "In fact, in the last two Olympics, the oldest athlete was a 73-year-old Japanese dressage rider. Imagine: he was at the top of his game and a great pride for his country at age 73. I have a long way until I'm 73, but it has been my biggest dream to win an Olympic medal for the country, and I will die trying," Toni says, with the same fervor and ardor as, perhaps, her first mount on horseback.
And despite what may seem like a comfortable gallop towards prestige and accolades, Toni Leviste quickly dispels the stereotypes, prejudices and inherent headaches that plague the sport. First, alongside her fellow rider and SEA Games alumni Mikee Cojuangco, she dismisses the notion that the country recognizes dressage or showjumping as a sport reserved only for females. "Worldwide, there are more male riders than female," she explains. "I think here in the Philippines, polo has been a more popular sport for male equestrians, and I think it's because they see show jumping as a girlie thing. But worldwide,it isn't the case. It's the only sport where men and women compete equally against each other, because, primarily, the horse is the athlete, and the combination between rider and horse is what makes it work."
Second, that being an equestrienne is reserved for the rich and the well-bred. "Well, I'm not going to deny that, as it's a very expensive sport. The transport and the upkeep alone cost astronomically. And the most Olympic-grade horses, or European Warm Bloods, fetch 10 million euros each, and, you know, that amount could feed half of a province for a year. I admit, I don't have that much for a horse, and so I train the horses I have to be in their best shape and condition. And I'm also thankful that there are people, companies and institutions that have been supporting me and my cause," Toni reveals.
And third, that la vie equestre is all glitz and glamour. "They think that this sport is so highfalutin, that it's so sosyal, but fact is, while it looks glamorous on paper, the reality of it is a different story," she says. "When I'm competing in Europe with my Filipino groom, we will be in (below-zero) temperatures, and I will get the truck, take the horses, and drive 10 hours to the competition. We live out suitcases, stay for a few days, and drive on to the next. It takes a lot of physical effort. And of course, it gets lonely: you miss your family, and life can realy get tough in Europe. But I don't want to sound spoiled, or that I'm complaining, because I love what I do and I'm thankful for it every day, and if this is what it takes, then I'm going to work doubly hard." She shares anecdotes of a handful of broken bones she suffered while alone somewhere in Belgium or London, far from the comforts of her family.
Although she admits she has come close to retiring, "Every day I wake up and have a stronger, renewed passion for my sport." She thanks God for such divine revitalization. A devout Muslim, Toni emphasizes the importance of faith in any athlete, as well as in anyone's everyday life. "Every day, my only prayer is that God will let me do what is good, what is right, and what is just, that I may be pleasing to Him. That is the only thing that is important," she says. So, on top of her athleticism, Toni is also busy with a handful of civic work, duties and initiatives that center on uplifting the lives of people.
Through her "Keep the Faith Initiative," the children of the resident workers of the Leviste Equestrian Eco Park enjoy full-scholarship grants and sport scholarships through the profit of the farm, as well as Toni's personal income from her professional training and equestrian management services. Toni has also made a tradition of helping out the farm's neighboring convent and hospice, the Missionary Sisters of the Cathechism, where abandoned elderly and children are provided shelter and food through private donations. And most recently, Toni, alongside the Red Cross and Red Crescent, has spearheaded the first inter-faith bloodletting in the country, called "Isang Dugo, Isang Bansa." "We may be of different faiths, but we all believe in one God, and we're all Filipinos. It is a natural need for human beings to find fulfillment in their lives, and I find fulfillment in helping other people. It makes me feel as good as winning medals abroad, sometimes even better!" Toni shares.
With a public servant heart and a well-known surname, it is not unthinkable for Toni to take up politics, especially in her home province of Batangas, where her father, Antonio 'Tony' Leviste, served as governor for eight years. Add to that a political science degree and her celebrity status, and you have the makings of a runaway political winner. But Toni seems like someone who chooses her battles carefully and her choice is a sound one. She says: "I don't believe that politics necessarily has to be hereditary. If you have the heart to serve, and you have the opportunity to do so, do so. It's the most noble field, the field of public service, but it is not only through politics that you can help people and influence lives. If you can make the lives of people around you better then that's already good, but of course, if you can do more, you should. But I still want to be an athlete, and I still have to pursue that passion that's still burning in my heart. And, I admit, I don't have the same multi-tasking skills as Congressman Pacquiao! (Laughs) I believe that God has a destiny for all of us but we all have the free will to achieve it or reject it. Every decision we make leads us to the future we create for ourselves."
And that future in the eyes of Toni Leviste, contains her Olympic goal, the Philippine flag, and a gold medal, and while it will still take three more years to compete again, Toni still has a long list of competitions to attend in the near future. She,along with her mares Century Magic and Century All-Stars, recently competed at the Gucci Paris Masters in 2012, the most glamorous indoor show-jumping competition in the world. In attendance were high-profile equestrian celebrities worldwide, led by Princess Caroline of Monaco, whose daughter, the beautiful Charlotte Casiraghi, is the face of Gucci.
Other notable competitors and VIP guests included Zara owner Armancio Ortega, Athina Onassis de Miranda, granddaughter of the late Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis, and renowned French director Guillaume Canet, whose wife, Oscar winner and now Golden Globe nominee Marion Cotillard, watched eagerly from the VIP Masters Club section. It was also the second appearance of Hannah Selleck, daughter of Tom Selleck, alias "Magnum P.I.," onscreen at the Paris Masters and the first for Jessica Springsteen, daughter of "The Boss," Bruce Springsteen.
Toni represented the only other Asian contender in this luxurious roster of globally acclaimed equestrians. The Gucci Paris Masters always caps the year, with Gucci's creative director, Frida Giannini, an avid rider herself, revealing that when Guccio Gucci created his company in 1921 in Florence, Italy, his creations often took inspiration from motifs and symbols inspired by the equestrian world. Over the years, the green-red-green website stripe, inspired by a girth of a saddle and the horse bit, became iconic elements of the house.
This year, Leviste is set to compete in the Hongkong Longines Masters starting Feb. 28, which promises to bring the same high-caliber horses and esteemed riders to this side of the world.
And while Toni was once invited by the Qatari National Team, the highest-funded, best-trained equestrian team in the world, to become a part of their lineup as their first female rider, she- though tempted by the better odds of winning an Olympic gold- politely declined. "I ride with passion because I ride for the Philippine Flag. If I ride for another country, I may not have the same fervor, the same passion. Despite the challenges we face representing the country, I still choose to ride for the Philippines becuase this is the country where I was born, and I will always be proud to represent it," she says.
While competing for her country, Toni isn't spared the cheap accommodations, the easily worn-out uniforms, the lower-class training amenities and the inadequate funding that most, it not all, Filipino athletes face when representing the flag. Yet the only consolation for her and her fellow athletes are the warm cheers of support from Filipino sporting fans all over the world. And while she has been disappointed, she has learned to take a more proactive step in achieving her goals. She says, "While there are other concerns that the government should focus on, I still believe that the promotion of sports (helps) build a stronger national character. You build a stronger nation because you build people of stronger body, mind and spirit. And while we are a third-world country and we can't afford it, I believe that sporting bodies in the country should take it upon themselves to get help from big corporations to raise funds. I'm fortunate enough to raise funds for myself, but what about the other athletes? They shouldn't have to; I shouldn't have to. We should all focus on our training on bettering ourselves. But I choose not to sit and complain because I believe that you should always fight for what you want. But I wish for my fellow athletes to get the support they deserve. Let us not let our athletes down. They give their best, they train their hardest, because the Filipino fighting spirit is not a myth."
And while Toni Leviste's career as an equestrienne has grown by leaps and bounds, it is her wild passion, steady discipline and galloping faith that takes her ever closer to her goal. "For as long as there is one person with a dream of winning the Olympics, then it will always be a possibility," she says. "I believe that God has planted that seed in my heart and I have to work towards it every day, and if I never make it, it's that journey that counts."
Published in the Lifestyle Fashion & Beauty section of The Philippine STAR, January 9, 2013