PSL develops future stars thru grassroots program (First of Two Parts)

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine Swimming League, a non-profit, non-stock corporation that doesn’t depend on government for support, is one of the few success stories in grassroots development in the country.

The PSL was born out of necessity, conceived of by a former Asian Gamer who saw the utter deterioration of a sport she had brought to the doorsteps of the Olympics, expanded it with the help of former swimming greats, sustained its growth and turned it into what is now a shining example of effective grassrootsdevelopment for future Olympians.

After three years of operation, the organization has conducted 52 tournaments nationwide and sent young swimmers to over 12 age-group international competitions –  in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Taiwan and Malaysia. Its regular local tournaments drew an average of 400 swimmers from various parts of the country even as they were alternately held in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

From their foreign tours, the swimmers, aged six to 17,  had brought home Most Outstanding Swimmer awards on top of individual gold medals in various age categories. In the process these young swimmers gradually developed a feeling of confidence and achievement while  experiencing the joy and excitement of swimming side by side with foreign age groupers and bringing honors to their country. A brief tour of every city gave them a peek of the global village.

The PSL has also gone outside East Asia as its swimmers competed against world-class opposition in the Universiade, the Olympics of schools in over 166 countries, held in 2011 in Tsien Shen, China and in 2013 in Kazan, Russia.

In 2014, under new PSL chairman Buddy Cunanan, it is  sending 18 top swimmers to vie for honors in the Cape Town invitational meet in Cape Town, South Africa – the first time the country on the southernmost part of Africa has invited a Southeast Asian country to its national tournament. Stints in parts of Europe are in the works in 2014 under Cunanan, a businessman-media practitioner who is consul of the Republic of Georgia.

The PSL was formed following a leadership crisis in the national swimming association, which handles the training of national swimmers, and unrest in the swimming community, particularly parents who sought equal treatment of swimmers who were not members of the association.

About seven years ago, Loren Dale Echavez was stripped of her gold medal in the Arafura Games because she was not a member of the national association. Two years ago, the Quezon City team under former senator Nikki Coseteng had swimmers who qualified for the finals in an Australian meet but were denied participation in the gold medal round for the same reason. They were replaced in the finals by national association members with slower clockings.

In 2010, organizers of an invitational tournament in Sabah prevented Filipino minors from competing  because they received threats of suspension by the international swimming federation (FINA) from the national association. Some of the minors, already embarrassed for being branded “trouble makers who could cheat their age” to be able to compete,  were forced to swim under the North Borneo flag.

In 2010, the Diliman Preparatory School launched the Unity Swim to unify all sectors of the swimming community. No one from the national association came.

Much earlier, the PSL volunteered its services to the Philippine Sports Commission under chairman Harry Angping. Former senator Santanina Rasul lauded the initiative, as she looked forward to the resurgence of Muslim swimmers in the mold of Jairulla Jaitulla. A day later, the national association lambasted the PSC for interfering in the affairs of the national association, which claims the sole right to handle grassroots programs. Angping promptly disbanded the task force but faced the spectre of ouster during his entire term from an irate association president, who never pursued a program for Muslim Mindanao.

Olympian Susan Papa thus saw the need for forming the PSL, whose chief objective is to raise the level of performance of age groupers all the way to the college level. She did it first with the help of an outstanding lawyer and former national swimmer in Atty. Ma. Luz Mendoza, who was later instrumental in filing court cases against the association leadership. The other member of the triumvirate was Coseteng, a sports patron and advocate.

It opened its competitions to members and non-members, brought entry fees down, gave free clinics to public school students as well as members of orphanages and the military. It coordinated with local governments, urging them to launch their own sports programs and naming regional directors to bring the sport of swimming to the grassroots.

 It volunteered to officiate the Palarong Pambansa and Private Schools Athletic Association. Taking note of its outreach program, the Federation of School Sports Associations named the PSL its national sports association for schools and colleges.