Gamble on an unfamiliar sport leads Cris Nievarez to Olympic dreams

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 10) – In the coastal town of Atimonan in Quezon province, a young lad named Cris Nievarez stood out among his peers as he had been breathing sports in his carefree days.

Nievarez, then a Grade 7 student, engaged in athletics and basketball to prep him for his goal of being an athlete at an early age.

"My only dream back then is to play at Palarong Pambansa," said Nievarez, who specialized in the 400-meter sprint back in the day.

As he developed a strong physique complemented with a 5-foot-11 height, Nievarez was spotted by former rowing bet Justine Viñas in Atimonan and invited him to try for a spot in the national team in Quezon City.

Despite being unfamiliar with rowing, Nievarez took a gamble by accepting the invite to train at La Mesa Dam for three months.

"I always grab those opportunities to be invited to play. If I couldn't perform well in the tryouts and enjoy the sport, then I'll return home. But the opposite happened [with rowing]," Nievarez shared his love for sports to CNN Philippines.

National rowing team head coach Ed Maerina noted Nievarez's strict work ethic in training and on game day as his main asset when he first saw the Atimonan native, a fact that hasn't changed until now.

"He always trains in full swing and very serious on his craft. He is a hardworking athlete who always gives his best everytime he rows. That's his credibility to us," said Maerina, the first Filipino rower to compete in the Olympics in 1988 at Seoul, South Korea.

Nievarez's determination helped him win medals in various local and international rowing tournaments in his teenage years, highlighted by his gold medal finish in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games.

The pinnacle of Nievarez's career happened on Monday when the World Rowing confirmed to the Philippine Rowing Association that he will play in the Tokyo Olympics this July.

Nievarez advanced to the Tokyo Games through the continental qualification system, by the virtue of his semifinal finish in the recent Olympic qualifiers. Some nations also recorded multiple podium finishes in the tournament, so they have to relinquish Olympic slots to other countries.

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"A rower takes around 10 years to be ready for the Olympics. I'm happy that I reached the Olympics despite being in the team for five years," said the 21-year-old Nievarez. "Our goal is to qualify at least one boat, any of us, we will fight for that Olympic slot for the rowing community and the Philippines."

Nievarez joined the duos of Melcah Caballero and Joanie Delgaco and Roque Abala Jr. and Zuriel Sumintac in the Olympic qualifiers held at the venue of the Tokyo Olympics rowing competitions.

More than his personal gratification, Nievarez emphasized his upcoming Olympic stint is a big step to make rowing more known in the country and entice more youth like to him play the sport.

"I hope the Philippines will be at par with other countries in rowing," said Nievarez, who is the first Filipino rower in the Olympics after 21 years since Benjamin Tolentino Jr. played in the 2000 Sydney Games.

As they head to the biggest sports competition in the world, Maerina emphasized the need to refine Nievarez's skills since he will match with the world's best lightweight single sculls rowers.

"We will also look into his intensity and strength to improve his stamina," said Maerina, who revealed rowing machines were brought to their quarantine facility to start training for the Olympics.

Nievarez is not expecting big when he sets foot again at the Sea Forest Waterway in July, but promises to play at his best in the then unfamiliar sport that gave him the chance to succeed in life at present.

"I need to push myself more compared to my previous trainings since I'm joining the biggest competition that rowers can compete," he said.