Meet Jomar Maalam: The amputee swimmer who is limitless

Barry Viloria on Aug 16, 2016 08:39 PM
Meet Jomar Maalam: The amputee swimmer who is limitless
No excuses for this Ironman 70.3 and Mt. Mayon Triathlon finisher! (Photos by Vincent Garcia)

It’s been a common scene for Jomar Maalam, an athlete born without legs. At the finish line of every relay event of a recent triathlon he has joined, he is welcomed like a star. Both the Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship in Cebu and the Mt. Mayon Triathlon in Legazpi, held in August, stood as proof to this. He is applauded there at the end of the course, then quietly plods on the way out for a towel and some water, but not after being hounded by random passersby for a fan photo.

At the Ironman event in Shangri-La’s Mactan, where I first came across him, he would receive a few congratulatory remarks from everyone on his way, before regrouping with the rest of the Todo Tri Team and their coach Vincent Garcia. It was lunchtime then, moments after he’d go through the 2k swimming race, his longest so far. Also, it was the first time the Ironman 70.3 Asia-Pacific Championship was held outside of Australia.

The sun blazed unforgivingly over the squinting Maalam.

“Ka-enjoy, eh, daming tao,” he said in glee, answering my question what he loved most about the race. His accent, too revealing. His quietude, too drawing.

Born champ
Of course, I was being ignorant. Maalam, 20, is a name all too familiar in triathlon and swimming circles in the country, having started a career in the Palarong Pambansa representing Region 9 (Western Mindanao) in his teens. Coach Garcia discovered the Zamboanga del Sur native there, communicated with him “mostly through emails and seeing them in swim meets,” and, through the Todo Tri Team under the ParaTriathlon Association of the Philippines, nurtured Maalam to join bigger events outside the national games.

“He’s a perennial medalist in swimming among handicaps at the Palarong Pambansa,” Garcia said proudly of his mentee, who has bagged three golds in the national tournament.

Maalam learned to swim only with his upper body, naturally getting into it as his family’s main source of income is fishing. Family is also why he’s been getting into these events in the past years—he is the ninth among 10 siblings.
 
“Mahirap lang kami, hiwalay mga magulang (ko),” he said. “Para ‘to sa aking pamilya.”

True athlete
This was Maalam’s second Ironman event. He had clocked in 47 minutes in the swim part of the series, and although he had won in a special category set for people with disabilities (PWD) in the race, there seemed to be a bigger challenge out there for him and his team. True, he only had a week or so of training for Ironman 70.3 after some miscommunication about their slots. But he knew inside him that any excuse or point of satisfaction has no place for a legit athlete like him.

“Pinapagalitan kami,” he reported calmly about the kind of “umaga-gabi” training he undergoes. No special treatment for this crew, apparently.

“Jomar’s time at Ironman Cebu is not so ideal but he has very big potential,” Garcia spoke of his mentee’s recent race result.

Garcia used to supervise Maalam’s training in Zamboanga, but now the swimmer has moved into his coach’s spare room in Quezon City for a more “personal” training.

“With just correcting his bad swim habits, we improved his time by more than 10 minutes. His 2k time now is 36 minutes. In six months, I hope to bring that down to 30,” said a determined Garcia about Maalam, who’s been with Todo Tri Team for the past three years.

Greater lengths
It felt like a shame bending down next to Maalam, who can obviously outswim myself and maybe some of us. The Mt. Mayon race came a week after the Ironman event, and on September 11, Coach Garcia revealed his plans of fielding Maalam and the rest of his guys in an aquathlon.

“I am looking to train Jomar to use the handcycle and the racing wheelchair for the rest of the year. And hopefully make him race as an individual triathlete next year.”

Maalam, Garcia said, is part of his team’s developmental program and he hopes his generation shall be the ones coaching other PWD athletes in the future next. Because, why not?

For Maalam, though, at least for now, his eyes are on the prize. Given his willpower, something you don’t see everyday, it doesn’t seem impossible for him to be like his “idol”—Matteo Guidicelli “pero hindi pa kami nagkikita.”

His takeaway from his triathlon journey so far? “Basta magsipag ka at magtiyaga, di ka pagagalitan ng coach mo.”

You got a girlfriend? I asked him next in jest, as a way to find our more about how focused he was.

“Wala,” he was shy to admit.

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