Volleyball star Jaja Santiago sees naturalization offer a step closer to Olympic dream

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 6) — Filipino volleyball athlete Jaja Santiago believes she could achieve her dream of competing in the Olympics if she accepts the proposal to change her nationality.

Santiago recently revealed that she received the offer from her coach in the Saitama Ageo Medics after leading the team to a gold medal finish in the Japan V Cup. When asked on Tuesday if she has taken or rejected the offer of her team, she replied she hasn't given them an answer yet.

The Filipino volleyball veteran recalled that Coach Antônio Marcos Lerbach told her they want to keep her "the longer the better," and offered to help her process her naturalization, especially if she can get an opportunity to play for Japan's national team.

The first thing she did upon hearing the offer was to call her family to help her decide if she should give up her Filipino nationality if it could mean bigger opportunities for her in the world stage. The 25-year-old import revealed she was torn about wanting to represent the Philippines or move a step closer to her Olympic goal.

"Kung ako ang magdedesisyon para sa sarili ko, mahihirapan talaga ako. Una may pride ako as a Filipino and gusto ko maglaro at tulungan ang bansa ko na kung ano ang level na meron sila sa Japan, gusto ko siyempre ang bansa natin makamit din ang meron sila," she told CNN Philippines.

She quickly added, "Pero half of me, bakit hindi? Bakit hindi ko i-grab? Kasi nga siyempre pangarap kong mag-Olympics, gusto ko maglaro doon and Japan ay nandoon na sila. Hindi siya ganun kahirap tuparin."

[Translation: If I will decide for myself, I'll have a hard time because I am proud to be a Filipino and I want to play and help my country reach the level of Japan. But a part of me thought, why can't I do it, why can't I grab the opportunity? My dream is to play in the Olympics. Japan has achieved that already. It's not hard to reach that.]

The women's national team of Japan is competing at the Tokyo Olympics this year, while the Philippine volleyball team has never qualified for the global games.

Santiago said her family assured her that if she decides to change her citizenship, she will continue to make Filipinos proud with her achievements internationally.

"Sabi ng family ko, 'Sundin mo ano ang nararamdaman mo. Kung tingin mo may pag-asa pa ang volleyball natin dito sa Pilipinas, mag-stay ka. Pero kung wala talaga, grab the opportunity kasi hindi lang naman ikaw ang nirerepresent mo sa paglalaro mo kung magpapalit ka ng nationality sa Japan. Hindi lang ikaw, Pilipino ka pa rin, dala mo pa rin ang flag natin,'" she recalled.

[Translation: My family told me, follow what you want. If you think there is a future for volleyball in the Philippines, stay. If not, grab the opportunity. If you change your nationality, you are still a Filipino, you will still carry our flag.]

Although she has not yet decided on the naturalization offer, the the 6-foot-5 ace said she will surely join the Philippines' women's volleyball team in the 2021 Southeast Asian Games slated in November in Vietnam.

"Maglalaro ako for my national team. Pinayagan nila (Saitama Ageo Medics) ako although meron talagang consequences, merong penalty. Papayagan nila ako maglaro sa SEA Games," she said.

[Translation: I will play for my national team. They allowed me, although I have to face the penalty and consequences. They allowed me to play in the SEA Games.]

Santiago, alongside the country's top volleyball players, represented the Philippines in the 2015 and 2017 Southeast Asian Games, 2015 Asian U-23 Women’s Championships, 2016 and 2017 AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship, 2017 Asian Women's Seniors Championship, and 2016 FIVB Women’s Club World Championship, and 2018 Asian Games.

She was a product of the National University and a recipient of major University Athletics Association of the Philippines awards including three best attacker and one most valuable player. She joined Ageo Medics in 2018.