I first saw him in a Filipino game show. He was trying for its grand prize of one million pesos.
But Arnel Navales Aba is worth more than the jackpot. He had already notched two Southeast Asian Para-Swim Records in the 400m freestyle and in the 200m individual medley. He had already done a triathlon and won third. He had already started training swimmers at the Akiko Thomson Swim School* and at the Philippine Institute of Sports Arena (PhilsSport Arena)**. He had already been qualified a national athlete—despite of his one leg.
He lost the other one when he was 20. He was examining the engine of his jeepney when an intoxicated driver drove straight to him, sandwiching him between the vehicle’s bumpers.
Over the next two months, Aba tried to take his own life. He had tried to slash his wrist but got hurt. He had tried to hang himself but the tree broke. He had tried to get hit by a bus but got scared.
He had also tried to put himself in front of a moving pickup truck. But its driver stopped and talked him out of it. The man convinced Aba to just swim his heart out and even offered his resort as a training ground.
But Aba didn’t know how to swim. He nearly drowned when he was eight years old. Still, he took on the challenge. And the instructor of the Iligan City Swimming Team, Cecil Meqiabas, guided him all the way. At first, Aba couldn’t swim more than 12.5 meters; he would end up hanging onto the lane line in the middle of the pool to rest. He also didn’t know how to breathe on the side so he could only swim with his head up.
So Aba ‘negotiated’ with the resort. He would use the pool in the mornings for free. He would try to swim with his head down, complete 25-meter laps without stopping, and do at least a semblance of a butterfly stroke.
To date, Aba can finish a 400m freestyle*** in 5 minutes and 16 seconds and a butterfly in 32 seconds. He swims four times a week—averaging six to seven kilometers—to make room for his day jobs as an assistant swim coach at the Colegio de San Agustin and a part-time sales consultant at the WetShop sports shop. His current coaches are Tony Ong and Ral Rosario of the Philippine Sports Association for the Differently Abled (PHILSPADA).
“I am doing this to show to the abled ones who look at us, the disabled, as useless. I would like to show that we can do some of what they can do. I also want to encourage the other disabled to not to be shy and just show off whatever talents they have.” ~Arnel Navales Aba
*His programs are the Arnel Aba Learn to Swim Program and the Arnel Aba Advanced & Competitive Program.
**Formerly known as ULTRA [University of Life Training and Recreation Arena]
***His favorite event, the 200m freestyle, was dropped from the roster of events in the last few ASEAN Para-Games after he ruled that distance for over three years.
Video courtesy of Just Add Water