DUMAGUETE CITY, Philippines -- Two days before the official start of Palarong Pambansa, the men's high school swim team of Region 9 (Western Mindanao) stretched before their final workout.
They goofed around like kids, shooting jokes at each other, shirtless under the scorching summer sun.
Among them is 16-year-old Jomar Maalam, an athlete from Zamboanga del Sur. He joined the group in stretching his arms. But when it came to leg stretches, he waited for his teammates to finish.
Maalam was born without legs.
Without limbs just below his knees, Maalam learned to swim and keep afloat using only his upper body. He learned to swim as a child, having lived by the ocean and surrounded by family members who are fishermen.
This year, he is poised to compete in his first-ever Palarong Pambansa, the country's largest sporting event which gathers the best student-athletes nationwide.
"I'm nervous. It's hard," he told Rappler. He spoke in mixed Filipino and Bisaya, laughing nervously.
According to Dennis Buco, a Department of Education (DepEd) Special Education (SPED) teacher who serves as Maalam's coach and guardian in Palaro, Maalam is the first-ever amputee swimmer from the region.
He has always wanted to be a competitive swimmer. One of 10 siblings, he started participating in competitions just last year against regular swimmers.
He never won -- at least not on his own. Maalam's sole medal, a gold, is from a relay team he was part of. "Regional champions," he said proudly.
This is the first time Maalam will be competing against other athletes with disabilities. He is optimistic about his chances, and said he is gunning for gold.
Maalam will compete with other male athletes, under the age of 25, who have no limbs below the knee. There is one other category for amputee swimmers -- those without limbs above the knee. Maalam will be competing in all 3 events for amputees: the 50m freestyle, 50m breast stroke and 50m backstroke.
In the pool, Maalam, an incoming high school student who just graduated 6th grade, moves his arms wildly as he works his way through the water. He tries to kick with his stumps, but most power comes from his arms.
From above the water, Maalam looks like any other swimmer. He lifts himself out of the pool using only his arms, gets on the diving board the same way, and pushes himself off the board with all his body weight, into the water.
From the bleachers, he looks like he is flying.
Buco said he first saw Maalam swim in their church's regional sporting event in Dapitan, and was impressed with Maalam's swimming skills. He approached Maalam and asked if he wanted to compete in Palaro.
"Jomar said, 'Sure. I can. I want to join.' He really wanted to because he has always dreamt of competing. His other siblings are swimmers too," Buco said in Filipino.
Buco said the timing was perfect. In June, just 7 months prior, the Philippine Sports Association of the Differently Abled (Philspada) had reached out to DepEd looking for athletes with disabilities, among them amputees, visually impaired and special children, to train for the Asian Games.
When Maalam agreed, Buco said he did his own research and hired a trainer to fine-tune Maalam's strokes. Because Maalam lives about an hour away from the training pool, Buco took Maalam under his wing, fed him and housed him out of his own pocket, and brought him to training every day in preparation for Palaro.
"In training, he just takes in the pain. Whatever it is, even if he's tired, he pushes himself because he really wants to win. He's invested," Buco said.
He admitted there are days when Maalam is down about his challenges, but for the most part, he is upbeat and optimistic. He said Maalam sometimes complains, especially when Buco forces him to do push-ups, but Maalam's passion keeps himself going.
Maalam too appreciates Buco's faith in him.
"I want an award, a gold, to give him," Maalam said referring to Buco, who he called his inspiration.
On land, Maalam, whose fingers in his right hand are also webbed, moves around on his stumps, which are enveloped in calluses. He has never owned a wheelchair despite needing one because his family cannot afford it. He has shunned Buco's suggestions to cover his stump with rubber for protection, because he said he has gotten used to moving around with what is left of his legs anyway.
It is like walking daily without shoes.
Back home, Buco said Maalam is a sort of hero.
Having made it to Palaro is a big deal, especially for the teen without legs. Maalam's parents and family -- who Buco describes as "extremely poor" -- were deeply supportive, especially when they found out DepEd would pay for everything including Maalam's travel and accommodations in Palaro.
Buco said another amputee from Region 9 was invited to join Palaro as well, but his parents disapproved, for fear of their son being made fun of.
For Maalam, the jokes and the criticisms about his disability no longer faze him.
"I don't care about other people and about what they say, because this is what God gave me," he said.
He is overwhelmed and inspired by the possibility of competing abroad, and said this is his dream.
Buco said he is still unsure how many other amputees Maalam will compete against, but shared he saw a swimmer with one leg practicing in the pool. He said he joked with Maalam, "We're at a disadvantage because he has one leg!" But no matter. Buco believes his athlete can finish on top.
"Our goal is really to win, to get a gold. I told him I would give him a prize if he wins, a cellphone, because even if he has one right now, it's old. If he gets 3 gold medals, I'll give him a new phone. So we can communicate better," he said.
Maalam also said he will do his best to emerge victorious. For now, he jokes around with his other teammates from Region 9, laughs heartily in conversation, and wears a smile on his face.
He told Rappler that his new friends, the other swimmers, were impressed when they first met him.
"They said, 'Wow! I wouldn't have guessed you could swim!," he said proudly.
Proving people wrong here, he said, is just the beginning. - Rappler.com