Turning the tides: A look back at the FAST Ateneo Men’s Season 82 Championship
BETTING AGAINST five-peat champions does not seem like a normal thing to do, but the recently concluded University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Season 82 Swimming Tournament could have been the exception to the rule.
Season 81 marked the swan songs for record-breaking legends Aldo Batungbacal, who won the UAAP Most Valuable Player (MVP) in Season 79, and Jessie Lacuna, who bagged the same title in Seasons 77, 78, and 81, setting up a year of reckoning for the young Blue Eagles squad with the weight of five glory-laden years on their backs.
The five-in-a-row champions FAST Ateneo Men’s Swimming team suddenly had tall odds to conquer. Going up against multiple record holder Sacho Illustre and the rest of De La Salle University (DLSU) meant that the Blue Eagles were widely favored to finish second to their rivals, consequently halting their championship streak.
Aki Cariño was the man tasked with leading this team into a new era, flanked by the likes of Season 79 Rookie of the Year (ROY) Miggy Arellano and Season 80 ROY Miguel Barlisan. Other returning veterans included Drew Magbag, Drei Buhain, Josh Taleon, Ianiko Limfilipino, Jethro Chua, and Justin Sy, while exciting rookie talents Rian Tirol, Jiron Rotoni, and Nate Barlis gave the squad an extra boost.
However, despite trailing DLSU for most of the tournament and facing a deficit that peaked at 13 points, the Blue and White accomplished a phenomenal comeback in the final swims of the tournament to take the throne for the sixth year running.
FAST’s title defense did not open smoothly. Complications with the pool’s chlorine levels forced the first day of the tournament to start 10 hours late. To accommodate the delay, all swimmers would compete in the finals instead of swimming in qualifying heats for each event. Despite this, the Blue Eagles’ focus never wavered and the squad came away with a gold and silver from Limfilipino as well as one silver medal from Barlisan. However, this was not enough to put them in pole position as they sat four points behind the Green Archers, who ended the day on top.
The tournament reverted to its traditional format on the second day of the competition. With ground to cover, the Blue Eagles attempted to step up their game, this time following the conventional competition format with a preliminary round and finals round. Limfilipino secured a podium finish for the first event, finishing in third place, while the next event saw rookie Tirol bag himself a silver medal. Ateneo’s first gold medal of the day finally came after captain Cariño’s efforts, and the second gold came right after in the last event of the day: A relay consisting of Buhain, Chua, Sy, and Barlisan. Despite the team’s four-medal haul, DLSU sat on a 13-point lead ahead at the halfway point in the race for the title.
The championship was far from over on the third day of the competition, and the Blue Eagles were still swimming to catch up to leaders DLSU. The first two events of the day saw Barlisan and Rotoni deliver two bronze finishes. Ateneo’s momentum slowed down at one point, with only Barlisan swimming in the next event and finishing sixth. They got back on their feet in the next event and claimed a bronze medal through Cariño. Limfilipino and Rotoni followed suit with a gold and a silver, respectively, while Barlisan, Buhain, Chua, and Taleon finished first in the relay. Although the late surge swung crucial points in Ateneo’s favor, DLSU’s 13-point cushion remained intact.
With a six-peat championship on the line, the Blue Eagles’ performances on the deciding day of the competition were nothing short of extraordinary. Both Barlisan and Rotoni opened the day with a silver medal each in the first two events, while Limfilipino claimed a bronze of his own in the next. Their early success set the stage for the last four events of the competition that would decide the title race. Limfilipino began a streak of gold medals after dominating the lengthy 1500m freestyle. Buhain followed suit in the 50m freestyle before Barlisan’s finish in the next event finally put them a few points ahead DLSU. With the title still in the balance, Cariño, Taleon, Magbag, and Buhain took the mantle in the relay event, the final event of the competition. The veteran Blue Eagle squad finished in second place ahead of DLSU in fourth, completing the comeback and sealing their six-peat championship for good.
At the helm
While FAST flaunts an arsenal of talented swimmers, the team’s unprecedented triumph this season is rooted in a deep fraternal spirit that Cariño paid special attention to forging. “This year, the men's team was really built on sacrificing for each other,” he explained. “And for this team, no matter what happens, win or you lose, it's better knowing that we swam for the sake of the team and for each other.”
A former team captain of the Ateneo FAST Junior’s division team, Cariño is no stranger to steering a ship through rough waters. Recognizing the uphill climb his team had to make, not to mention the pressure of keeping their dynasty alive, he knew it was important that the team remained motivated and swam with clear heads. “So that's basically what I kept telling [my team]: Just enjoy the meet and let’s become a band of brothers fighting ‘til the end,” remarked Cariño.
Cariño’s words rang true. On the final day, every man on the squad drew energy from each other, fueling the rally that swung the advantage and the championship their way.
“They all have their individual stories, but they all rose to the occasion and I'm really proud of all of them. I wouldn't change a thing, even if it was super close and super nerve-wracking for me. I wouldn't change a single thing with them. Winning the championship was the best feeling ever,” said Cariño.