Once disabled, boy bikes his way to athletic dream
Efren Gonzales almost lost the ability to walk as a kid, after he was afflicted with a rare form of bone tuberculosis.
A decade or so later, however, the teen from Cabangan town in Zambales province, is training to compete as a national athlete.
At 19, Gonzales has already competed in the Palarong Pambansa, the country’s oldest collegiate league. Years ago, he represented Region 3 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase event in track and field. This time, he is busy preparing to compete in longer distances.
The turnaround is the stuff of telenovelas. In fact, in 2016, a long-running drama program on Philippine TV took notice and featured Gonzales’ inspiring story.
“My life story is really dramatic, what can I say?” said the plucky athlete in the vernacular.
The long walk
To get to where he is, Gonzales had a long journey—literally. The youngest in a brood of six, he remembered scorching days perched on top of his father’s shoulder while he was being physically transported to school.
Thanks to his parents’ unflinching support, he said dealing with his crippling condition became a little bearable.
Things began to look up when a social worker from World Vision referred the family to a bone specialist. World Vision had helped support Gonzales’ schooling since he was in grade 1.
Then began a long, often difficult process of medication and therapy, an ordeal that eventually gave way to reprieve as Gonzales slowly regained strength in his legs.
This newfound strength and youthful audacity gave the then grade 5 student the confidence to pursue his interest in running, making up for the lost time when his legs failed him. His parents did not approve, as the memory of their child’s frailty was still fresh in their minds.
“But I became a very active child, and I persisted,” Gonzales said.
It was also then when he realized that competitive running, aside from giving him an adrenaline high, could also be his ticket to a brighter future.
On his last year at junior high at Cabangan National High School in Zambales, Gonzales gained a different sense of mobility. In 2013, he became one of the 509 students from Zambales and 5,000 from all around Asia to become beneficiaries of the ING Orange Bike Project that was piloted in the Philippines.
Spearheaded by ING Bank, the Asia-wide initiative targets boosting the performance of school children from remote areas by helping them get to school in a safer and more enjoyable way. Launched in 2013, the ING Orange Bike Project aims to sponsor 5,000 bicycles over five years for kids who walk long distances to get to school, according to the project’s website. In addition to getting to school faster and safer, the project also hopes to improve school attendance and academic performance, giving the children and their families a chance for a better future. To date, about 3,200 bikes have been given to children in the Philippines (1,200), Indonesia (1,000) and Thailand (1,000), the website added.
For Gonzales, the 7 kilometers between his house and school was a course he dreaded daily.
“It used to take me an hour if I walked,” he said. “I could also take the tricycle, but it cost P10 per trip and there were days, up to twice or thrice a week, when I simply couldn’t go to school because I had no fare money.”
The bike provided by the ING Orange Bike project enabled him to go to school faster and thus propelled him towards his dream: to finish high school and go to college, Gonzales said. The project also enabled him to improve his performance in class. He even finished junior high with academic distinction, in addition to winning in various regional athletic meets.
One rationale behind the Orange Bike project is to mitigate the effects of the long journey to school on a child’s attendance and academic performance, said Teresa Cuzamo, a volunteer from World Vision, one of ING Bank’s partners in the project.
The Zambales project was monitored for three years and, as of the first semester of the third year, the student beneficiaries were able to improve their class attendance by 91 percent; of this group, 72 percent had improved their academic grades.
Gonzales’ lucky streak continued when his high school trainer, impressed by his athletic ability, referred him to a coach at Arellano University in Manila, which competes in the prestigious National Collegiate Athletics Association.
“It sounded too good to be true, to be honest,” he said. “Imagine, free tuition and other benefits, which meant I could go to college without burdening my parents.”
The training package came with a scholarship plus dormitory and meal allowance. His parents (his father is a farmer and his mother a barangay health worker in Zambales) eventually realized that it was Gonzales’ way of chasing his dreams.
“I told them, I want to finish school to repay them for all their hardships when I was growing up. They really did everything for me. Like I said, I owe them everything,” a grateful Gonzales said.
Whenever he takes stock of his life story, Efren said it was no longer the disease and the pain that he remembers. As a long-distance runner, he had always believed that life is not a sprint but a marathon, in which endurance is key.
While he knew it was his dogged persistence that moved him closer to the finish line, Gonzales said it was the support he enjoyed from his family, as well as from institutions like ING Bank and World Vision, that propelled him toward fulfilling his dream.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.