ATHLETES come and go and that’s a fact, but there are a few of them who choose to stay on — for the love of the game — and keep that competitive spirit within.
One of them is equestrienne Toni Leviste, the longest-serving Philippine athlete, who remains competitive for nearly four decades.
Just recently, Leviste competed in the Asian Championship and her team, alongside Joker Arroyo, daughter of the late Senator Joker Arroyo and Fil-American Colin Syquia, won the silver medal.
It was a silver that glitters like gold as Leviste and co. completed the feat despite having only three riders in an event usually being participated by four in a team event. Normally, each team is composed of four riders where each squad is required to have a drop score — the lowest output in each round.
But for the three-man Philippine squad, they need to compete as faultless as possible.
Denied of an opportunity to participate in the SEA Games as an equestrian, for some reason, was not included by organizers in the multi-sports event hosted and won by the country this year, the trio put on its best effort ended up with a solid second-place finish.
“Because equestrian was not included in the recent SEA Games in Manila, unfortunately, we opted to join the Asian Championship. FEI (International Equestrian Federation) wants to do it every two years. It’s the same way as the European Championship and the Pan-American Games,” Leviste told FOX Sports Philippines.
But unlike in other major regional events in sports, the Asian Championship in equestrian does not serve as a qualifying event either for the Olympics or the World Championship as the international federation of equestrian select only one event which is normally being done in Europe.
“It’s not a qualifying event for the Olympics, but they want to make it as a qualifying event in the future. It was well-supported and it was on CNN (international), like it was aired three times. There were 13 countries competed,” added Leviste.
A GLORY ROAD
Facing the daunting task of competing against the best in the region, which now includes Australia and New Zealand, the Philippine triumvirate had to play a near-perfect game and had to be aided by luck and Grace of God.
True enough, that moment came on the second day of the competition, but Leviste and her teammates had to make a big charge to stay in the medal hunt.
“We are only three that is in this level. One guy, is based in the US, Colin Syquia, he’s half Filipino, half American. Joker Arroyo, daughter of the late Senator Joker Arroyo, and myself,” added Leviste.
The Philippines were running fourth by the end of the first day and need to come up with a flawless performance on the final day of competition.
But as fate would have it, the Filipinos were able to come up with a much better show and luck took its turn next.
“After the first round of the team competition going to the second round the next day, we were running fourth — a far fourth place. First was Hong Kong, and they were very solid kasi nga they have a drop score. The other riders were riding their horses for a long time and had been competing as a team many, many times and all of those things contributed to your success. Second was Kuwait and third was Uzbekistan,” recalled Leviste.
“We were far from them. From third, we were eight faults away or two bars down. From the silver, we were, I think 15 faults. That’s a lot of faults. Sure, they can also have faults, but we can also have faults for the next day. We have to ride as faultless as we can and they have to screw up. We had to rely on that, in fact.”
Leviste, an Olympian and the most seasoned among the three riders, served as the anchor rider and not minding the pressure, she came away with a faultless final round, enough for the Philippines to secure a guaranteed bronze at least.
Little did they know, they’re in for even something better.
“I am usually the anchor rider, the last to ride and usually, the last rider has the most pressure because depends on what happened, everything relies on you, especially when you’re just three and every score is counted. I was second to the last to go and the last rider was the rider from Kuwait who was the individual gold medalist last year in Jakarta. He was faultless in the first round. He would normally not have a fault and so, when I came in. I didn’t know I rode a clear round,” added Leviste.
The Philippines’ road to winning a medal was also aided by a bad luck from Team Uzbekistan, which made mistakes ahead of Leviste’s turn to come up with a perfect round.
“Apparently, Uzbekistan made mistakes and I could not afford a fault. When I jumped, everybody wants us to win because we were the underdogs. When I finished my round without a fault, you could hear in the commentary that we won the bronze already. When I crossed the finish line, we won the bronze,” she added.
“The last rider, the guy who won the gold medal last year in the Asian Games, Ali Al-Khorafi from Kuwait, had to have 10 faults, which is like an impossibility, like saying Michael Jordan should not be able to shoot one shot out of three in a free throw. Normally, it’s impossible for him to have a fault — and we needed 10 for us to claim the silver. His horse stopped in one obstacle so that’s already four faults and so he needs to make a circle and jump again and then he had one more bar down, so that’s already eight faults, but because he made that circle, that added time, so when he crossed the finish line, he already had 10 faults, so we won the silver. Only God can make that happen. You can’t even say it’s a miracle. But if it’s something meant for you, it will not past you. So we fought for that silver and it felt like a gold.”
DRIVEN BY PASSION
For nearly four decades, Leviste has been on board different horses. Beginning 1985 when she competed in the Pony Club at the young age of 11, the well-traveled equestrienne didn’t stop from there even though some of her peers — from Mikee Cojuangco, Denise Yabut-Cojuangco, and Jones Lanza, among others had long been retired — and appeared no signs of slowing down.
“I am actually the longest-serving national athlete in an Olympic sport. I was competing since I was 11 years old. My first competition was in 1985 and I was 11 for the Pony Club of the Philippines and it’s now 2019. It’s a dual meet between Hong Kong and the Philippines. I’m 46 and I’m still competing and still dreaming of that Olympic gold. What drives me? Why I’m still doing it? The fuel that drives me is an Olympic gold medal. It sounds like an impossible dream, but when you dream, you have to dream big. For as long as there’s a Filipino with that dream in her heart, then the gold medal is not an impossibility for the Philippines because someone is dreaming it. Whether or not I can achieve it. It’s God’s will. God has put the dream in my heart. It’s up to me to nurture it,” she said.
“For as long as I have the passion to continue and everyday that I wake up it’s still there. So I have it. No one is making me do it. I’m living in my suitcase. I travel all over the world, all year round. I just come home during Christmas because my family is, of course, celebrating Christmas, the New Year and Ramadan.”
Last year, Leviste competed against some of the world’s best in the World Championship, the only Filipino to see action in the prestigious world meet for showjumping twice.
“I was also there in 2002 in Spain,” said Leviste. “I was able to compete in the Olympics in 2000 in Sydney and the World Cup Final in Sweden in 1999. No Southeast Asian had done all three. It’s really hard to qualify for the World Championship and the Olympics. I’ve been blessed with good partners. You’re only as good as your best horse. They say horses are the athletes, in a way, they’re right. In these sense that they have to jump these obstacles, whereas we have to pilot them to do so — and to do so gracefully, harmoniously, with good camaraderie — so that they are willing to do it for you and to fight for you. But they get old and die, as we do as well,” added Leviste.
But equestrian is a sport that was created on equal opportunities. Men and women can compete with one another as the chemistry between the horses and the riders are the ones determining which of these pairs can stand out among the rest.
“In equestrian, it’s not about brute strength. That’s why men and women can compete equally against each other. The older you are, the more experiences you have in the ring. The different courses, because every course is different. Not like gymnastics or basketball or even golf. I know the factors in golf are different every day. But when you played that course, you more or less know that course and just adjust to the variables. In showjumping, there’s not one course the same, every single time. It changes every single time. The more courses you jumped in your lifetime, the more analytical you are. The more you can assess all these number of strides,” added Leviste.
THE ULTIMATE DREAM
Competing in the Olympics is probably the pinnacle of every athletes’ career and an Olympic gold is the highest achievement for any of them.
Leviste wants to be part of that circle and just like every athlete, she has that dream of winning the elusive Olympic gold medal. No Filipino athlete has ever won a gold medal in the world’s biggest show spectacle, but Leviste never gets tired of trying her luck even though she saw her peers come and go.
“We didn’t qualify for the 2020 Olympics. We tried to. We’re going to vie for the 2024 Olympics in Paris,” she said. “We tried as a team last August, but again, because we were only three and because we’re against New Zealand and Australia, they’re all in the Asia Pacific region. Our groupings are done in a different format. They grouped us with the Asia Pacific, so that includes all of Southeast Asia. All of Asia and including Australia and New Zealand, which is not really fair.”
“In our sport, they have that advantage. It’s not fair for us. Because equestrian is part of their culture. They live in the countryside and they’re farmers. It’s part of their lifestyle. That’s their sport. It’s like us doing sipa. Dapat kasama sila ng mga Europeans, but it is what it is. That’s why it’s very tough. Yet, I did it, so it’s not impossible. It’s just difficult. And we were trying to do it as a team this time. We’re trying to become the first Southeast Asian team to qualify, but we did it.”
Australia and New Zealand were able to qualify for the spot for the Olympics and the next major event lined up for the Philippine equestrian squad would be two years from now.
“The next World Championship is 2022. It’s always the same year as the Asian Games. Last year, I went to the Asian Games in Jakarta and then I went to the World Championships after,” added Leviste.
Looking back at her already stellar career, competing in the Olympics is like no other.
“My greatest achievement for me is being an Olympian. I think once you’re an Olympian, you will always be an Olympian. That’s why we have the POA — the Philippine Olympian Association. It’s easier to become a Senator than being an Olympian. I’m not downplaying the Senators. I’m just trying to make a comparison at how difficult it is to become an Olympian. You cannot buy a spot in the Olympics. You have to work sweat, blood and tears, literally — to make it there.”
“I have highlights in my career that keeps me going, but the dream or the fuel that drives me is the dream of the Olympic gold. I think every Filipino athlete dreams of winning the gold. I know it’s a near impossibility because what are the chances? Even qualifying is hard enough, but if you dream, you dream big.”
Unlike in other sports, earning a berth in the Olympics or the World Championship is as tough as nails. There are no qualifying events lined up as compared to basketball, for example, which has windows for either the Olympics or the World Championship through their series of qualifying events.
In equestrian, there’s only one.
“I think we are always allowed to have a swimmer or an athlete in track and field in the Olympics — every country. They are always allowed of those spots. Mandatory ang swimming and track and field sa Olympics, so we have to choose at least one. Our best swimmer and our best track and field to be in the Olympics. That’s why in every Olympics, we have athletes in swimming and track and field,” said Leviste.
“I tried to qualify every four years. What’s hard for our qualifiers, there’s only one competition — it’s always do-or-die. The international federation chooses only one competition and it’s normally done in Europe and on that day, the best team qualifies. No wildcards.”
PROUD TO BE FILIPINO
In 2006, while competing in the Doha Asian Games, Leviste, a Muslim, was offered to become a Qatari. It was a tempting offer, one that is hard to refuse as it is known as a staunch backer for equestrian.
“I won a team silver in Busan Asian Games in 2002. We won a team gold during the Manila SEA Games in 2005 and I won an individual silver. In 2011 during the SEA Games in Jakarta, I won a team silver and an individual silver,” added Leviste.
“When I was competing in Qatar in the 2006 Asian Games, Qatar offered me to become a Qatari. They knew I was Muslim. They wanted to encourage Muslim women to be involved because Prophet Mohammed loves horses. They wanted to encourage women to be involved in equestrian so they wanted me to be part of the team.”
Known as an oil-rich country and also a destination of choice by Filipinos who want to work overseas, Qatar is hard to pass up, but Leviste has better reasons to turn it down.
“Team Qatar in equestrian sport is the highest funded team in the whole world. They love horses. They have natural gas. They don’t have to worry about training or finding horses. You just have to concentrate on finding the horses and competing and that’s it. It was a tempting offer, but very easy to refuse for me personally, because I believe that,” said Leviste.
“I ride with passion because I ride for my flag and country. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t ride at all. That’s what drives me, too, just like the Olympic gold medal, for the country. Anywhere in the world I am, every rider that’s invited in an international event, their countries’ flags were raised. Whenever I see the Philippine flag flying high, hoisted up among the other flags, even if I’m the only one who knows that’s the Philippine flag, my heart is so proud that it’s there because of me. It represents a hundred million people. Even if they don’t know nor care, I care. That’s important to me. I couldn’t ride for another country.”