Filipinos have a penchant for underdog stories.That’s why it’s no surprise why they adore boxer Manny Pacquiao, a poor boy from General Santos City who worked hard to become an eight-time world champion and global sensation. Just few months ago, Pacquiao added another feather on his cap when he was voted by 18 million Filipinos to become a senator.
It’s practically the same thing in women’s volleyball.
Alyssa Valdez drew massive supporters not just because of her powerful leaping ability, killer smile and humility, but also because of her background as a poor girl from San Juan, Batangas who led one of the country’s blue-chip institutions, Ateneo de Manila, to become a solid contender in the UAAP.
Rabid volleyball fans know that Ateneo is not a heavyweight 10 or 12 years ago. But everything completely changed the moment Valdez stepped inside the campus.
And fans loved it.
It was such a feel-good story.
So if there’s a player seeing action in the ongoing AVC Asian Women’s Club Championship who matches the underdog storyline of Pacquiao or Valdez, it has to be Aprilia Santini Manganang of Jakarta Elektrik.
Manganang is often the subject of jeer and protest whenever she plays before a crowd that doesn’t know her for being a hermaphrodite, or a person who is born with the presence of both male and female hormones.
Fans ridicule her, saying that a male like him has no business playing in a tournament strictly limited for female athletes. Others branded her as a transgender, a she-male or — even worst — a cheater.
But she just takes everything in stride.
She is mentally and emotionally prepared for it.
And that what makes her very beautiful.
Filipino volleyball fans would never forget Manganang.
In the 25th Southeast Asian Games in Singapore last year, ranking officials of the Philippine volleyball team questioned her gender in a bid to stop her from competing in the opening match of the women’s volleyball competition between the Philippines and Indonesia.
Philippines’ head coach Roger Gorayeb was even quoted as saying: Look at her: Do you think she’s a woman? I don’t think so.
Team manager Ricky Palou said there could be a mismatch because a player of Manganang’s caliber would easily dominate a field composed of young ladies. He also admitted that it is their first time to compete against Manganang and they want to make sure that the playing field would be level.
But the Singapore SEA Games Organizing Committee junked the protest, claiming that based on previous gender verifications, the 23-year old Manganang is a woman and her male features as well as extra-ordinary strength comes from the presence of male hormones.
Indonesia’s team manager Hanny Sidik Surkatty said Manganang has been representing the country in major international events for years and there were no questions about her eligibility.
[quote]No issue because the Philippines is without proof.
We already gave proof to the organizers; we follow the rules of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and FIVB (International Volleyball Federation) and everything is clear since 2012.
It was a surprise because she already saw action in the qualifying tournament for the world championships in Vietnam in 2014. There was no problem.[/quote]
Those in the know said that the denial by the organizers served as a massive blackeye to the Philippine delegation as it didn’t sit well with other countries.
A source who spoke on condition of anonymity said protesting a player who has been a regular fixture in regional and continental tournaments like Manganang is like questioning the honesty and fair play of a neighboring country, in this case, Indonesia.
Manganang is a player who gives pride to the region. Everybody knows her. Yet, some team officials opted to question her without thinking that it will offend not just the player, but her country as well.[/quote]
Manganang was finally allowed to compete and destroyed the Philippines with 11 kills and a block to lead the Indonesians to an easy 25-22, 25-20, 25-20 victory.
It, however, didn’t come easy as boos and insults rained on her every time she soars for a spike. A group of Filipino fans from the gallery was even screaming “lesbian” right after she unleashed a booming kill.
Despite that, Manganang remains a picture of sportsmanship.
[quote]It actually gave me more spirit to play.
It became a motivation for me that I shouldn’t give up. I have to keep moving forward because there are a lot of people behind me. It spurred me to prove that I am not in the wrong.
And to the Filipino fans, thanks for firing me up.[/quote]
A year after that ugly incident, Manganang is in town as her club competes in the Asia’s biggest club tournament.
Yes, Filipino fans still remember her. They still mob her and take pictures of her. They still shout her name. But the screams were not meant to protest, insult, or belittle her.
It’s meant to admire her, to show their love and support to one of the best volleyball players in Southeast Asia.
A ranking local volleyball official said he actually thought that he would see fear and anxiety in Manganang’s eyes right at the very moment she steps on the hotel.
Instead, he saw love. He saw spark in her eyes.
[quote]I think she’s prepared. And she’s ready to accept something that’s not really her fault.
I was watching her game a moment ago and our fans really love her. She’s a rock-star here. Everywhere she goes, fans follow her to take her picture. They may not know her; but they are surely impressed with the way she plays.
I honestly think this is our fans’ way of apologizing to her for the pain she suffered during the SEA Games.[/quote]
Manganang said he was surprised by the warm reception showered on her.
She admitted that before going here, she already forgave those who hurt her and vowed that she will do best to come up with a very good performance and make Indonesians very proud.
And she delivered.
Against Altay VC of Kazakhstan, she singlehandedly carried the Indonesians with 20 kills before surrendering a three-set defeat. The following day, she erupted for 24 points as the Indonesians succumbed to powerhouse NEC Red Rockets of Japan also in straight sets.
With that, the Indonesians were relegated to the classification battle for 9th to 12th places.
But it doesn’t matter.
[quote]Yes, I’m very happy because they cheered for me.
I’m very glad because the Filipinos are very nice and friendly. I really didn’t expect it to be this way.[/quote]
She said she is aware of what happened during the SEA Games and it doesn’t matter anymore. The important thing is that she got to know more about the Filipinos and treated them to an all-out display of volleyball skills, brilliance, acceptance and humility.
[quote]Yes, in the SEA Games? I know about the protest, but it’s okay.
Now, I feel the love and support of the Filipinos. It’s been very good.
Jesus loves me and so I will love every one. I also eat a lot of pork adobo and rice.[/quote]
Then, she excused herself.
Another group of Filipino fans were asking to have their picture taken with her. Manganang happily obliged. She grabbed the camera, aimed it at herself with the crowd at her back. She flashed her sweetest, most enchanting smile.
It was a picture of perfection. A picture of contentment, of forgiveness, of acceptance.
The underdog had completely charmed her way into the heart of the crowd.