Elite athletes often embark on long, solitary journeys to foreign countries to further hone their craft. There, they benchmark themselves against world-class competition and get exposed to rigorous, high-level trainings.
But just like any other person who has had to leave the country in pursuit of an environment conducive to self-improvement, they too have to wrestle with the emotional strain of being away from loved ones and friendly surroundings. Even for athletes who are molded to be mentally tough, it never hurts to come across people who can give a sprinkling of the familiar, some semblance of home.
Junna Tsukii, currently ranked fifth in the world in the female kumite minus-50 kg division by the World Karate Federation (WKF) and ranked no. 2 by the Karate 1 Premier League, has made Serbia her country of preference whenever she prepares for major tournaments. She pitches camp in Arandelovac, a town located in the Šumadija District of central Serbia, about an hour away from the capital Belgrade.
Tsukii has been in Arandelovac since October where she has been training and sparring with Olympic medalists and world champions. She is in the thick of her preparations for the 2021 World Karate Championships which will be held on November 16 to 21 at the Hamdam Sports Complex in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
In Kragujevac, also about an hour away from Belgrade and the fourth largest city in Serbia and the administrative center of the Šumadija District, another prominent Filipina athlete has been holding court.
Jack Animam, Gilas Women’s center and former UAAP MVP of National University, has been the pillar that has helped Radnicki Kragujevac stand at fifth place in the standings of the First Women’s Basketball League of Serbia.
Animam is the first Philippine-born player to suit up as an import in a professional league in Europe. In her first seven games for Radnicki which she has piloted to a 4-3 record, Animam has posted impressive numbers of 19.57 points and 13.42 rebounds.
Tsukii and Animam, though both members of the national teams of their respective events, had never met in person. They were also initially unaware of each other’s presence in Serbia.
It took separate interviews with Tiebreaker Times columnist and Rappler contributor Ariel Ian Clarito for the two to finally meet. It was Clarito who connected them to each other thru social media. Tsukii and Animam took it from there.
The two eminent figures in Philippine sports finally found time to meet up in person in Kragujevac last Sunday.
Tsukii narrated, “I went to her city because I know my way around there. We had lunch and dessert.”
“Aminin ko na star-struck ako kay Junna,” revealed Animam of their first encounter. “Kasi grabe, top karateka of the Philippines, tapos ma-meet ko for the first time.
“Pero noong nagkita kami, yakapan kaming dalawa na para bang hindi yun ang first time na nagkita kami. We talked non-stop.”
Tsukii said this after getting to know the person behind the baller in Animam, “Jack is really sweet.
“She inspired me with her strong mind and passion.”
There are a number of parallelisms in the lives of Tsukii and Animam.
Both are born of mixed heritage. While both their mothers are Filipinos, Tsukii’s father is Japanese while Animam’s father is Nigerian. Tsukii and Animam are both largely considered the best Filipina athletes in their respective sports events.
During their brief get-together, they discovered one more similarity between the two of them.
“We felt very happy that we had something in common.
“We were both thinking about the future of our country,” intimated Tsukii.
Animam affirmed this. “Sobrang happy ako to have met a kababayan that has the same experience like me here in Serbia. Sobrang nakaka-refresh lang.”
She added, “Kasi after two months of just playing basketball, we got to talk about a lot of things. Our lives, the experience, struggles, and the reason why we still keep choosing to do what we are doing. And also to see someone else’s perspective, may matututunan ka.”
Junna and Jack.
These two trailblazing sportswomen have devoted their hearts and souls to carrying the country’s flag. Both emerging to be world-class athletes in their respective events. Both of them are strong women who serve as exemplary role models for young Filipinas.
Meeting in a foreign country 6,120 miles away from the Philippines and forging what might turn out to be a beautiful friendship.