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A Filipina Paralympic legend

Adeline Dumapong-Ancheta during a break while training at the Pelaez Sports Center, Cagayan de Oro City for the …

By Cong B. Corrales, VERA Files

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY—The metal plates clanked as the trainer slid two additional 25-pound weights on both ends of the Olympic bar, adding to the four 45-pound rubber weights already on it.  The powerlifter, lying on her back on the bench, carefully adjusted her hands on the bar and then took a deep breath before lifting the almost 250 pounds of weights and bar, away from her chest thrice.

It was the last bench-press for the peak of the training program of 39-year-old Adeline Dumapong-Ancheta, who has been preparing to compete in the Paralympic Games in London to be held from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9.  Five days every week since April, trainer Marlon Tajale pushed and goaded Dumapong-Ancheta to ace her powerlifting program prepared by her coach and champion powerlifter Ramon Debuque.

Dumapong-Ancheta and her assistant stand out amid the male bodybuilders and trainers at the massive Misamis Oriental Fitness Gym at the Pelaez Sports Center. Tajale, who has co-managed the gym since 2007, said no other woman who frequents the gym could lift the weight Dumapong-Ancheta has lifted.

"It is important to have a regular coach in my conditioning because he can push me harder when I feel weak. It is a struggle every day," she said, wiping beads of sweat from her forehead and taking a swig of her mineral water."Sometimes I get so tired my flesh twitches,but I want to give people something to celebrate about."

Dumapong-Ancheta may be the Philippines' best chance of winning a Paralympic medal. She holds the distinction of being the first and only Filipino Paralympian medalist ever, winning the bronze in the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sidney, Australia after beating the world powerliftingchampion. This year, her goal is to bring home the gold.

A hard life

Winning another medal would be sweet victory for Dumapong-Ancheta, who contracted the poliovirus or infantile paralysis when she was three years old.

The World Health Organization describes polio or poliomyelitis as "a highly infectious disease caused by a virus" that enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine.  It then invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis within hours. Polio can lead to death when the breathing muscles become immobilized.

Children five years old and below are most vulnerable to the virus. Polio has no cure but can be prevented by taking a polio vaccine in multiple doses.

Dumapong-Ancheta was born in Kiangan, Ifugao Province on December 13, 1973 to a father who was a mid-level public servant with not enough resources to support six children. Her parents had to make a painful decision.

"I remember my father and mother arguing whether to leave me in a dormitory for persons with disability (PWDs) or grow-up in Kiangan. I remember my father telling my mother that my staying in Kiangan would be selfish for them," recalls Dumapong-Ancheta, the third in the brood.

She was sent to a dormitory for PWDs called Bahay Mapagmahal in Quezon City, ran by sisters of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, where she grew up.

"Looking back, Sister Roos Catry—a Belgian missionary—really played a major role during my formative years," said Dumapong-Ancheta. Catry, she said, was a disciplinarian but a loving counselor.

Dumapong-Ancheta completed her elementary and secondary education at the School for the Crippled Children of the Philippine Orthopedic Center in Quezon City.  In 1995, she earned a degree in Computer Science from St. Paul University, which also awarded her "Best Thesis."

Life lessons in sports

Dumapong-Ancheta said she has always been into sports. She competed in other events such as swimming, wheelchair racing, wheelchair basketball, and athletics (shot put).

"We were always encouraged to take up sports at the Bahay Mapagmahal. I hate feeling helpless and sports taught me to be palaban(a fighter)," she said, adding she also had her share of teasing and discrimination.

She recalled an incident at a mall in Manila when a curious child touched her wheelchair. Suddenly the mother yanked her daughter away from Dumapong-Ancheta mumbling, "Huwag kang lumapit baka mahawa ka (Don't come near her, you might get infected)."

"I don't just stay a victim. Palaban ako(I fight),"Dumapong-Ancheta said. Much to the mother's shame, Dumapong-Ancheta ended up lecturing her on the rights and realities of PWDs. "I told her polio is not infectious."

Although Dumapong-Ancheta was infected when she was three, she is no longer a carrier of the virus, which is passed on by those infected for a week to 10 days before the disease sets.  Carriers discharge the virus in their stools for up to six weeks.

Problems continued to hound Dumapong-Ancheta through her married life. Her husband left her and their 10-year old daughter in 2005 for another woman. "Sumakabilang-bahay," she jokes.

"After the separation, I was a psychological mess. This sport (powerlifting) helped me a lot in my recovery," Dumapong-Ancheta recalled.

Last Paralympics

Dumapong-Ancheta started taking powerlifting seriously only when she was 23.  "I realized I had the strength, and frankly I did not really excel in shot put."

Two years later, in 1999, she won the gold medal in the Asian Bench-press Championships in Manila. That same year, she won the silver medal in the Far East and South Pacific Games in Bangkok, Thailand.

After 15 years as a world-class athlete in powerlifting, with an impressive portfolio of 10 gold medals and three silver medals from various competitions, and a bronze medal in the 2000 Paralympic Games, Dumapong-Ancheta said this year's Paralympic Games in London will be her last.

"I'm planning to retire next year. Maybe I'll coach or shift to other sports—archery or bowling," she mused.

Dumapong-Ancheta with the Philippine delegates to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London …

Dumapong-Ancheta is currently based in Cagayan de Oro City. She is the executive director of Freedom Technology Wheelchair Foundation, Inc., a non-profit corporation that makes wheelchairs.

Funded initially by Handicap International Fund of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Foundation is the only wheelchair production center in the country, and provides wheelchairs in accordance with guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO).

"Lessons in sports can be applied in dealing with pain—the joy of winning and pain of losing," Dumapong-Ancheta said. It is a truism that has served her well, both in sports, and in life.

(This story is part of Reporting on Persons With Disability, a project of VERA Files in partnership with The Asia Foundation and Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")

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