Cover story for Endurance magazine.

Below is the original article I wrote after interviewing celebrity Jake Cuenca:

THE CARLOS CRUCIBLE
Nathaniel T. Dela Cruz

He remembers well his moment of defiance.

Jake Cuenca’s baptism of fire was in the cold, deep waters of Subic Bay. Julius Caesar crossed a shallow river to march against enemies he is fated to subdue; Jake swam the open sea to face an enemy he hopes to vanquish.

“My fear is open water. I was really afraid.” Dread is thick and palpable in Jake’s voice. It intensifies with the recollection of a recent experience he’ll probably never forget for the rest of his life.

“I was getting kicked. I was drowning. I panicked.”

Jake thought he would never come out of it alive.

A thespian’s triathlon tryst

Jake is sporty and athletic. He plays basketball and football. What he is not is a swimmer – at least not until six months ago. Deficient in this piscine element, he immediately shunned waterborne activities, including triathlon. “I’ll never do triathlon. Triathlon was something I never saw myself doing.”

But something happened that persuaded Jake to reconsider. “They offered me a project, a soap opera.” Jake agreed to play Carlos for the teleserye Ikaw Lang Ang Iibigin. A romantic drama is not something new to Jake. But this will be his first time portraying a decorated triathlete – a brash, confident man whose gravitas is fueled by his accomplishments in a sport he is dominating.

Jake knows that it is easy to dress up like a triathlete. The self-confessed method actor was concerned though that he won’t be as convincing as he would want to be if triathlon is alien to his own ipseity. He wasn’t going to depart from his artistic approach now.

“I take my roles very seriously. I committed to the role, and I started training,” said Jake, who was determined to rise to the occasion. “Before the show airs, I would have done a triathlon already.” This was Jake’s bold pronouncement.

“The first two months were difficult. I spent three months learning how to swim. I put so much time and effort training how to swim,” explained Jake, who was clearly outside his comfort zone. He admitted feeling scared at first. “I didn’t even go to the deep end of the pool,” Jake admitted.

As soon as he was satisfied with his swim training, he focused his attention to another important facet of triathlon: biking, which was never a recreational activity for Jake. He is expected to make the leap from casual rider to competitive cyclist fast. “My teammates told me how to be a strong cyclist. They showed me how it is done,” said Jake.

Bike training was intense but generally uneventful, and soon, Jake was confident with his biking. The last part of his six-month training was running, which he considers his strongest suit. He has years of running up and down playing football or basketball to thank for that.

Soon, it was January 29. It was a busy pre-race day, but all Jake could remember was feeling restless because of the excitement flooding his entire body.

Tribulation in his first try

At the Subic Leg of the National Age Group Triathlon (NAGT) – his first multisport – the tyro was off to an inauspicious start. “The water was perfect” Jake mused, vividly recalling the sight in front of him as he and the rest of the field were getting ready to race. He was excited and anxious but unperturbed because of the swim practice he’s had in preparation for his first triathlon. “I usually swim double this distance,” said Jake. He was confident that everything will be alright.

Fate has other plans.

As soon as the participants competing in the Sprint M 20-Over were given the green light, the once-tranquil sea began to thrash as eager swimmers descended upon the water en masse and in earnest. “I knew I was going to have problems with it. I knew it was going to be hard. Iba eh, when you are getting kicked, getting pulled,” said Jake.

Engulfed in the mad rush, Jake was fast losing composure. “I almost quit thrice. I was going to give up, but I told myself, Huwag. Huwag. Huwag.”

It took Jake 24 minutes and 11 seconds to finish the 750-meter swim. Caleb Barlin, who dominated the Sprint M 20-Over, only needed 13 minutes and 26 seconds.

Jake, making up for lost time by pedaling hard and running fast, made the cut for top 20. “I thought I was going to crack top 10. I was really hoping to crack top 10,” said Jake. Still, for the De Rosa ambassador, finishing a triathlon for the first time is nonetheless an exhilarating experience. That there is nothing but superlatives for Jake as he tries his best to express how he truly feels says it all:

“The closest thing I have to that feeling is winning an award for acting. When you cross the finish line in triathlon, even though you have a coach and teammates, it is all you. Once you finish, you get the feeling that you are proud of yourself. It’s an amazing feeling. To finish a triathlon is so fulfilling.”

Turning things around

Until early last year, Jake was certain that triathlon is not for him. Today, he is a man with a completely different resolve, and his change of heart is now a mere footnote to a more compelling narrative, and at its core is a life lesson that can inspire and empower.

He did not only embrace triathlon, but more importantly, he embraced transformation – body, mind, and spirit.

Now, Jake Cuenca is focused, fit, and most importantly, free from many things that saddled him in the past. His freedom from his fear of open water was just the beginning. “I don’t have that fear of water anymore. Now when I swim, it’s almost like meditation for me.”

The Corsa Cycle PH – Team De Rosa member is free from his previous lifestyle that can potentially harm his well-being in the long run. Now he sleeps early, rises early, exercises daily, and eats right. “It is not just about the race, but what it entails in life. It turned my life around. I see myself doing things I never thought I was capable of doing.”

Jake is free from distractions, and triathlon provided a new focal point in his life. “You don’t want to try too many things and be mediocre. Right now I am a triathlete and I am devoting my time into it. That is the only sport right now that is on my mind.”

Jake will compete in the Pilipinas Duathlon Series 2017 Leg 1 – his first duathlon- slated on March 5. A week later he will be in Subic for the Century Tuna Ironman 70.3 Subic Bay. Corsa Cycles PH – Team De Rosa fielded two teams for the relay race. Jake was tapped for the biking leg, and he is more than happy to play the part, buoyed by the presence of helpful friends like Gerald Anderson and supportive sponsors. “What the team wants for us is to reach our full potentials as athletes,” he said.

Jake continues to train, and now, he is training smarter. “Instead of lifting weights, I go to cycling classes.” Jake needs to up his cycling game for the duathlon and the bike leg of the Century Tuna Ironman. He enjoys Ride Revolution sessions because it is fun and you get to see the results when you test your leg’s endurance during bike runs, particularly during long rides with teammates. “My workouts must compliment my triathlon training.”

His next triathlon will be in April at the NTT ASTC Subic Bay International Triathlon (SubIT). “I really want to make it to top 10 or top 5.”

Jake will return to Subic a better man. “Now I know what to expect. I know how to strategize better when it comes to the swim. I know the things I have to avoid when I’m swimming. I know what pace I’m going to have.”

Today, Jake feels free from the encumbrance that limits the human experience. “If you have the passion, you can do it,” Jake beamed. Discovering his own inner strength and resolve through triathlon made Jake realize that he can do anything, and this is the same message he wants to share with anyone willing to listen and ready to begin. He is emboldened, unafraid to go big on his dreams. “It is my goal to reach the podium. That is something I’m going to do, with a lot of time, and with a lot of hard work.”

Encountering a sport you consciously avoided wasn’t a cruel twist of fate after all. On the contrary, Jake himself confesses that the project and triathlon, in retrospect, are godsend. He acknowledges it now, vis-à-vis the admission that the path towards self-actualization was far from easy.

And if Jake always radiates at the mention of triathlon the way he did talking about this new passion of his, it will be easy for the audience to see that the soul behind the twinkling eyes genuinely lives and breathes triathlon.

Once the soap opera ends and he is Carlos no more, Jake is sure that he will still be a triathlete even if he’s already moved on to his next project.

“I see myself doing this (triathlon) for the rest of my life.”