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[April 29, 2006]

Asias fastest woman during the 60s leaves the past behind as she catches up with the future of Philippine sports

(Philippine Daily Inquirer Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)LONG before Lydia de Vega and Elma Muros became local legends in track and field, there was Mona Coco Sulaiman, once described as the fastest woman in Asia. Three golds each in the 100- and 200-meter dash and in the relay, and a bronze on the shot put at the 1962 Jakarta Asiad in Indonesia, made the North Cotabato native a household name in the mid-1960s.

But like Nancy Navalta, another record-breaking sprinter, Sulaimans intense career was brought to a precipitous end by controversies surrounding her gender. Reports had it that the muscled sportswoman declined to undergo official medical tests and had to be pulled out of the Philippine team. Other rumors ascribed her refusal to take the test to her being genetically male after all.

More than 40 years later, the roving coach of the Philippine Sports Commission sets the record straight. That was absolutely a lie, declares Sulaiman of the rumor. Its source was a chaperone of another local athlete, who wanted to make things worse, and whom I wanted to finish off (in Tokyo) in 1964.

Gender issue

She recalls: I was nursing a bad case of flu at that time and decided to forego the medical check-up because of my health condition. She was surprised that her refusal was blown-up as a gender issue, Sulaiman adds. As I understood it, it became big news back home, shocking thousands of my fans. It might have made a few media careers, she says bitterly, but did they ever care about the deep hurt it had created?

The gender flap nipped in the bud what could have been a glorious sports career and Sulaiman has kept her counsel since then, staying away from interviews and being wary of publicity. Pag gusto ko ang tanong, sasagutin ko, (If I like the question, Ill answer it), she tells this writer.

Her world, she recounts, was turned upside down by the rumor. Not a day passed that people did not ask me about that gender issue. The wife of a Visayan local official then once came up to me to ask about my true (sexual) identity, and I was so aghast that I dared her to allow her husband to sleep with me overnight.

The sense of intrusion became so overwhelming that Sulaiman felt forebodings of physical harm. She decided to pack a pair of .45 cal. guns on her waist to protect herself. Confused, she started doubting even her athletic prowess. Did people seek her out because she had brought honor to the country, or were they only after her as an object of curiosity? Nothing seemed concrete, she recalls feeling then.

Plagued by self-doubts, Sulaiman eventually lost interest in sports competitions and dropped out of the scene. She took various jobs after college: a checker at the Manila Appliance Center for two years; a staff assistant in Guam for a local film producer, a bit player in 1978. She appeared in 18 movies under Junar Productions, taking second lead roles at the urging of actor-producer Jun Aristorenas and wife, Virginia Soliman.

Second lead

Among her memorable movies, says Sulaiman, are Sta. Fe, The Panther, Akoy Lupa, and Interpol Malaysia. Another movie project, Asiang La Luma with Nida Blanca and Pepito Rodriguez, fizzled out. There were also offers to do TV commercials and a flight stewardess job for Philippine Airlines, says the former champ, but they didnt work out.

She tried her hand in small venturesas a supplier of Mindanao goods, manager of three beer gardens in Pasay City, and a proprietor of a mini-grocery. Only the grocery remains in operation.

Shrugs Sulaiman: I easily get fed-up with running a business. I cant stay long enough to see it grow. Perhaps my heart still hankers for sports, where I truly belong.

To indulge herself, she joins athletic events on her own, bagging a gold each in the shotput and discus throw events at the Asian Veterans Championship Meet in Bangkok, Thailand, last year. Nothing short of what I could call my legacy, she confesses.

Shes also found time to travel, spending her savings to visit pineapple magnate King Parker in Hawaii, another friend in San Francisco, and a colleague in Malaysia. Sulaiman relishes as well her closeness to the Marcoses, who once gifted her with a 30-cc Honda motorcycle.

Golden landing

Indeed, the small-town girl has come a long way from the Cotabato Central Elementary School which she ably represented when she was seven, landing a gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash with a time of 13 and 20 seconds, respectively. From there, the young Sulaiman graduated to the inter-scholastic meet, the national open, the district, provincial and island-wide competition in Mindanao.

When she was 13, Manila-based track and field officials spotted the budding athlete at an inter-class meet in Lingayen, Pangasinan. After being convinced to come to Manila to try the circuit, Sulaiman sought athletic scholarships to be able to earn a degree in Management at the Far Eastern University. Between studies, she competed in the 1960 Rome Olympics.

Although Sulaiman failed to land any honors in Rome, she came home, as she describes it, several times richer in experience. From US champion Wilma Rudolph, Sulaiman learned to improve her running techniques and discovered how to put her 58, 130-pound frame to best advantage. She also learned to combine her long strides with breathing and speed techniques. Largely self-taught, she incorporated the techniques into her training regimen. Such diligence earned her a double victory in the 1962 Asian Games in Indonesia and a slot in the countrys team to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Her inclusion in the Tokyo event sent big sponsors on a race, too. San Miguel Brewery pitched in for Sulaimans six-month training at the University of Oregon. Tapped as her official trainers were university track and field coach, Bill Bowerman and Bro. Iking Gonzales. Local shoe brands Elpo and Spartan helped her hurdle Portlands inclined roads.

Through it all, Sulaiman remembers being buoyed by only one thingdoing the country proud once more. She could feel the rousing hopes and the optimism from Filipinos back home and she was ready to fulfill their expectations.

Lowest point

And then the medical test came up. Unable to take it because of illness, Sulaiman was pulled out abruptly from the roster. The resulting rumors and doubts about her gender were easily the lowest point in her life, she says.

The only consolation she had, recalls Sulaiman, were the frequent visits from young American boxers Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Aside from consoling me, Frazier wanted to meet the mestiza-looking Josephine dela Vina (who won a bronze in the discus throw at the 1962 Jakarta Asiad. ) He wanted me to act as their go-between, she says.

Taking up sports seriously became improbable, after she sustained a broken left kneecap from a road accident in 1988. But she does manage a walk-jog-walk along Mindanao Avenue before she heads home to Montalban, Rizal, where she has been sharing a home with long-time partner, Noemi and her two grown-up kids, for 15 years now.

Sulaiman also has to contend with an incipient case of diabetes, for which she received P25,000 worth of medical assistance from the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office. Shes given in to age, says this former athlete, but she still banks on her strength, determination and experience to keep her going.

Pauper state

The rumors about her gender hardly bother her now. Her main beef these days is the pauper state of former athletes and the countrys indifference to them. Ang tawag nila sa amin, limot na bayani, di ba (Well, what can you expect? They call us forgotten heroes, right?) The monthly P15,000 they used to receive has long been scrapped from the budget, says Sulaiman. The same fate might befall the monthly P5,000 each for 20 athletes who have brought home gold, silver or bronze, she adds. Its a good thing she has occasional coaching stints for which she gets P3,000, says Sulaiman; otherwise, she could hardly make ends meet.

A source of comfort these days is the Mona Sulaiman Foundation, a project she has been mulling over for two years now, to help young athletes get free education under an athletics scholarship. The foundation, which will be located on the outskirts of Manila, will have its own oval track, school, living quarters and excellent facilities where 100 young recruits can prepare for international competitions.

It remains a dream, she admits, as she has yet to write the proposal and outline the financial support she needs. The support of private companies and individuals is crucial. And so is the role of former athletes who will oversee the sports training of the young recruits.

Sighs Sulaiman: Some people have consigned us to oblivion. Truth is, we could still prove our worth and are aching to be back in action.

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