Cris Nievarez begins his day at five ‘o clock in the morning.
He goes on a five-kilometer run to build up his stamina. Breakfast is at seven; then by eight, he and the members of the national team plunge into the waters of La Mesa dam for rowing training until 10:30 in the morning. He takes a short break for lunch and rest, then resumes water training at four in the afternoon. He grinds it out until six in the evening.
Day in, day out, Nievarez adheres to this regimen — the mark of a disciplined competitor constantly seeking improvement.
At 21 years old, Nievarez has proven himself to be a top-notch athlete. In the recent 2021 World Rowing Asia Oceania Continental Qualification Regatta held in Tokyo, he earned one of the five slots in men’s single sculls to the Summer Olympics, which is set to begin on July 23.
“Bago po ang Olympic qualifiers, ang pinanghahawakan lang namin ay yung tiwala sa sarili at tiwala kay God na mapagbigyan kami ng kahit na isang bangka lang makapasok. Pinagaralan na din ng mga coaches na mas tyansa akong mag-qualify sa single sculls kasi lima ang kukunin,” shared Nievarez in an interview with Midlife Halftime.
Nievarez’s journey to the Olympics has been both remarkable and meteoric. Not only was he giving up a lot in terms of age in the Olympic qualifiers, but he also faced a deficit in terms of experience.
“Sa totoo po, may pressure talaga kasi ako ata ang pinakabata sa single sculls. Karamihan sa mga nakalaban ko doon mga beterano.”
The youngest of three children born and raised in Atimonan, Quezon, Nievarez only started taking up the sport of rowing in 2015. A rower on the average takes 10 years of training in the sport to be good enough to qualify for the Olympics. Nievarez did it in a little over five years.
It helps that at an early age, he has always shown an aptitude for sports. He started playing basketball and had dreams of joining the Palarong Pambansa in athletics. He competed in the 400-meter event. But the sports gods seemed to have other plans for Nievarez.
Fellow Atimonanan Justine Viñas saw in Nievarez’s size (he stands 5-foot-11), strength, and athleticism a diamond in the rough who could be polished by three months of intensive training in rowing. Nievarez decided to give the sport a try. Besides, it offered him a chance to be part of the Philippine national team.
Used to big spectator events in basketball and athletics, Nievarez found himself immersing in and loving a new albeit not so popular sports, which does not have many fans. One of the challenges, he eventually learned, was having enough warm bodies to form the national team for international tournaments.
He narrated, “’Pag merong competitions na kailangan ng maraming atleta, konti lang napapadala namin. Minsan, humuhugot pa kami sa Ateneo para mapunan ang isang event.”
Nievarez is just the third rower from the Philippines to earn qualification to the Olympics.
The last time this happened was over two decades ago, when Benjie Tolentino competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The first Filipino rower who made it to the summer games was Ed Maerina; he joined the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Nievarez always finds time to pick the brains of both Tolentino and Maerina, the latter as the national rowing team head coach.
Maerina is fully aware that the level of competition in the Olympics is unlike any other that Nievarez has faced. He is working closely with Coach Shukrat Ganiev of Uzbekistan to craft a program that would enable Nievarez to elevate his game.
Nievarez already has set some personal goals when he gets to Tokyo. “Gusto ko po makadikit sa mga malalakas na atleta tulad ng mga rowers ng New Zealand at Great Britain.
“Gusto ko po makakuha ng experience para mas malakas at mas handa ako sa susunod na Olympics sa Paris.”
These lofty ambitions are what make Nievarez special. Just four years after learning rowing, he won a SEA Games gold medal. He has never been afraid to go for broke and take risks, just as he did as a high school teen when he left his home province to try out for the national team in an event he was not even familiar with.
Now he has earned the right to be called a Filipino sports hero and an Olympian.