Rowing awaits big break amid growing popularity

Published July 20, 2021, 8:59 AM

by Tito Talao

Magnum Mebrere (MB Photo)

TOKYO — Magnum Membrere, the former Ateneo Blue Eagle sharpshooter, polished off his breakfast omelet, answered a few questions, allowed two quick photos and was off to watch national rower Cris Nievarez in practice early Sunday at the Sea Forest Waterway in Koto City.

Nievarez, 21, will compete for a berth in the final of the men’s single sculls on July 23, Friday, a few hours before the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympic Games opens at the multi-billion Olympic Stadium without fanfare, without spectators and without any guarantee the most stringent health protocols ever enforced in a major sporting event will not result in a super-spreader disaster.

As treasurer of the Philippine Rowing Association, under its president Patrick Gregorio, Membrere plays a major role in managing the national federation’s finances.

But as special assistant to the president, the five-year PBA veteran, who had worked his way back from a game-related eye-poking incident in the defunct PBL and a torn ACL in his right knee to find his calling in the corporate world, addresses everything related to paddling oars backwards in tight-fitting lightweight boats and racing two kilometers on calm waters.

“President Pato has programs lined up to bring the sport closer to the public consciousness, including the new coastal rowing,” said Membrere, drafted 19th overall by Red Bull in 2006.

Plans are afoot to set up a rowing hub either in San Pablo, Laguna, Ternate, Cavite or Caliraya Lake, with more carbon-fiber boats brought in.

“There was a time when the rowers outnumbered the boats,” Membrere recalled.

Such apparently is no longer the case.

A lot will be riding on Nievarez’s performance in the Olympics to raise the level of attraction of rowing, especially, Membrere said, to tall, long-limbed athletes who can’t quite make it in other sports.

“Cris, for instance, is 5-foot-11 and started in basketball,” said Membrere. “And those he will compete against are even taller, much taller.”

While knowledge of wind and water conditions on the site is crucial in rowing, the strength, stamina and built of the athletes are as paramount.

“Me advantage talaga pag row mo kung matangkad ka,” said Membrere, demonstrating the sweeping movement rowers use.

Nievarez earned an Olympic berth by virtue of continental qualification despite ranking ninth at the Asia Oceania Qualification Regatta in Tokyo last May, and the rowing federation intends to make the most out of the rare opportunity to build on something for the sport. 

A native of Atimonan, Quezon, the 2019 Southeast Asian Games gold medalist has trained extensively at the La Mesa Eco Park in Quezon City, among others, under 1998 Seoul Olympian Edgardo Maerina (single sculls), who goes beyond his duty as national head coach and serves as a father figure to the athletes.

“Parang mga anak na turing niya sa mga rowers,” said Membrere.