Tokyo—His final three words before boarding his boat were “Para sa bayan.”
Left without one of his coaches, who had to fight his own battle against an unseen enemy, Cris Nievarez, one of the youngest Filipino Olympians in these Summer Olympic Games, on Friday delivered a performance that may have finally catapulted the sport of rowing into the Filipino consciousness.
The 21-year-old Nievarez timed 7:22.97 in the 2000-meter course of a powerhouse preliminary men’s single sculls field embellished with two world champions. He did not win anything yet, just a quarterfinal seat for a chance to go deeper into the tournament, but it was enough to install rowing as probably the Philippines’ newest darling sport.
“Seldom do I do this, but this time, allow me. I must take advantage of the feat of our very own Cris Nievarez to help promote the sport of rowing in the Philippines,” said Philippine Rowing president Pato Gregorio, just one day removed from his birthday celebration.
“It took us 20 long years to be back in the Olympics. Cris is the first Filipino rower to reach the quarterfinals. Cris is the only Southeast Asian qualifier and one of three Asians who qualified, the rest need to go through repechage,” added Gregorio.
On the eve of the biggest battle of his life, Nievarez was left without his Uzbekistan coach Shukrat Ganiev, who in his own words, woke Philippine rowing from its deep slumber. Ganiev was the unnamed Philippine team coach, who hogged sports headlines in Manila on Thursday after testing positive for COVID-19.
But Nievarez soldiered on.
The first-time Olympian was unfazed of the weight of the competition as he went side by side with world indoor champion Alexander Vyazovkin and Nicaragua’s Felix Potoy in the first 500 meters.
“Nauna na talaga ‘yung Croatian (Rio Olympics silver medalist Damir Martin), pero kami ng Russian and ‘yung Nicaraguan, halos sabay lang sa first 500 meters. Noong 750 meters, nauna na ako sa Nicaraguan,” said Nievarez, who built a huge 10-second lead over Potoy all the way to the finish.
The strong performance was significant because it righted the Philippine ship that nearly went off course following a COVID-19 scare a day before.
“Cris has delivered,” said Gregorio in telling “this heartwarming story” to those who cared to listen and those who love their country.
Para sa bayan
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