The first time I met Coach Marnelli “Let” Dimzon, 35, the players in the locker room whispered stories of her time with the women’s national football team. She had given birth via C-section and a few months later played in the SEA Games. On this Sunday afternoon at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, I ask her about the years-old locker room chismis and she confirms it.
“2005 yun,” she says. After giving birth in January, she started running again the following month, and by May was back on the national team. “Kasi ako, ‘pag ginusto ko kasi talagang ginagawa ko.” It is a line she repeats several times in the interview.
Coach Let, as she is mostly called these days, is the head coach of the FEU Women’s Football Team. In the nearly 2 decades of existence of the UAAP Women’s Football Tournament, the Lady Tamaraws have emerged as the league’s most dominant side. As of last season, the Lady Tams have contested 12 of the 19 previous championships and have, in all, won 10 titles.
Under Coach Let, FEU have won 3 championships in a row and are looking to improve on that record going into UAAP Season 78.
In addition to being the mentor to the Tamaraws, Coach Let is also the head coach of the Under-14 Girls’ National Team. A team, like the Lady Tamaraws, she’s led to historic highs.
In 2014, the U-14 Girls squad reached the final of the ASEAN Regional Championships. It came as a surprise as the Philippines, in any age group, has never been known as a powerhouse in the region. En route to the finals, team Philippines defeated Singapore, Cambodia, and defending champions and hosts Vietnam. In the semis they squeezed past Myanmar 2-1, prior to losing to Thailand by the same margin in the final.
At the press conference that greeted the squad back home, Coach Let said the second place finish was “unexpected” as the U-14 Girls only had a month to prepare, and had placed fourth in the same tournament the year prior.
I ask Coach Let of her proudest coaching moment so far. Without skipping a beat she cites the U-14 Girls’ unlikely run to the ASEAN finals as her favorite moment.
“Yung U-14, syempre, kasi first. History yun [unlike] yung sa FEU [na] marami na rin kasi.”
At this last bit, she laughs and qualifies her statement. “Pride ko yun as coach and player na hindi ko tinatawanan. Utang na loob ko sa FEU. Kaya yung work ko rin, pansinin mo, dedication ko, iba. Kung hindi dahil sa FEU wala ako dito.”
“Kung hindi dahil sa FEU wala ako dito.”
Born to father Feliciano, a tricycle driver, and mother Zenaida, a food vendor, in Valenzuela City, Coach Let had her start in sports as a track and field athlete competing in middle distance.
“I started playing for FEU in 1998,” recalls Coach Let. “Sa FEU na mismo when I was second year college. Before [that] I was in track and field from grade school until high school, then nag-first year ako sa FEU for track and field. Second year ako nag-football. Under Coach Plagata pa. ”
Women’s football in the UAAP started as an official sport in school year 1997-1998. In Season 63, just the second edition of the event, FEU went against defending champions DLSU for the title. DLSU had swept the elimination rounds to hold a twice-to-beat advantage in the finals.
LA Salle were twice-to-beat and twice beaten, and Coach Let—then known to teammates as Marnelli “Letlet” Salvador—was given Most Valuable Player honors.
“It was always difficult to play against FEU since they had a lot of fast and experienced players,” shares Marielle Benitez, former DLSU stalwart and former women’s national team captain. “Coach Let was one of them. She was a fast player who could play in the center or on the wings. She could deliver crosses accurately [and] she was also one of the best headers—so we had to make sure we had someone defending her.”
Comparing the FEU program then and now, Coach Let says a lot has changed.
“Wala kaming field noon. Dati nag-re-rent lang kami or sa Luneta lang. Wala kaming sariling field, so para samin malaki yung challenge na na-achieve namin yung championships na wala kaming regular field. Yung nagdadala samin noon yung motivation ni Coach Plagata at yung experience ng players. Hindi pa namin nakukuha yung grand slam noon, pero lagi kaming fighting for finals.”
In 2013, FEU opened a brand-new artificial turf field in their Diliman campus. The following year, they achieved the feat of a back-to-back grand slam in football, defending their titles in the men’s, women’s and junior’s divisions in the UAAP. Much may have changed, but the school’s winning mentality has stayed the same.
Season 63 proved to be Coach Let’s last playing year in the UAAP. In 2002, in what was supposed to be her senior year, she admits to having failed a pre-requisite class that shifted her into her degree program’s new curriculum. The semester after failing math, she says, “Nung pag-enrol ko uli, [instead] na 18 units, naging 56 units. So nag-stop na ako.” It was this turn of events that led Coach Let to transition into coaching full-time.
“Binigyan ako ng chance ni Coach [Marlon] Maro na mag-coach ng grassroots and doon naging raket na rin sakin hanggang sa mga napasok ako sa mga club teams.”
Prior to becoming head coach of the FEU Women’s Football Team in 2010, Coach Let had been assistant coach under Malou Rubio from 2005 to 2009, and then assistant coach to the team under FEU football program head Kim Chol Su in 2009. Coach Let says her time spent with the Korean mentor—known in football circles as “Master” Kim—was formative of her own development as a coach.
“Lahat ng sinasabi ni Master Kim, may notes ako. So nung binigay na sakin yung team dun ko pinasok lahat ng natutunan ko parang kinombine ko lahat ng natutunan ko from Master Kim and sa iba.”
Watching FEU play in the UAAP, whether it’s their women’s, men’s, or junior’s team, there is a common adherence to slick passing football built on what Master Kim calls the twenty “foundation skills”. Coach Let says in training this means emphasis on proper body position and ball movement, with corrections done at every step, if necessary. “Yun yung magandang natutunan ko. Since nasa grassroots level rin yung hawak ko, nagagamit ko talaga siya sa lahat.”
In 2015 Coach Let was able to watch the Women’s World Cup in Canada as a delegate in the congress held by FIFA to promote the women’s game. The final was played between USA and Japan, a rematch of the 2011 World Cup final.
On this, Coach Let recalls her days as a player for the national team. She played against Japan once too, albeit in a 15-nil loss in 2003.
For my last round of questions, I ask Coach Let who her favorite player is and she cites the Japanese midfielder, Homare Sawa, the Nadeshiko’s captain during their 2011 World Cup-winning run. Sawa made her debut for Japan in 1993, against the Philippines, where the then-15 year-old scored 4 goals.
As we watch the games from the bleachers, Coach Let tells me offhand, “Masaya ako pag naglalaro. Mas gusto ko na nandito ako kaysa nasa bahay.”
To a woman who has found life and success in football, this says much. She found her calling here. She found love here, married in 2004 to a fellow football player, Jimmy Dimzon. Of her daughter Kyle, now 11, she says she wouldn’t mind her pursuing a career in football either.
In 2013, after a 12 year gap in schooling, Coach Let went back to college and finished her degree in financial management. She felt like she had no right to tell her daughter to study hard if she herself had never finished school.
“Kailangan ko na din tapusin, so if ever mawala ako sa football may panghahawakan ako.”
In sports, as in any field, there are people who loom larger than life. Coach Let is not one of those people. In conversations she is quiet and unassuming. She is of the mold, perhaps harder to emulate, of the much-idealized but rarely seen role model. Asked on her coaching motto, Coach Let says, “Dapat never ka mag-stay sa level mo. Laging push yourself to the next level.”
Hard work is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Coach Marnelli “Let” Dimzon is in a league of her own precisely because she constantly exceeds her level.