Check out our pre-Asian Games features: Kim Kilgroe and Nikko Huelgas.

Eight years ago, John Chicano found himself bringing up the rear of the competition at the Subic Elite Junior race when he emerged dead last in the swim leg. It was his first international race just off two months of swim practice when he was struggling to cross a 25-metre lap pool. His cycling background and a decent run leg brought him past two competitors.

“Do you still want to continue?” asked Melvin Fausto, the Philippines national head coach.

“Yes,” replied Chicano. “I love triathlon.”

By 2017, Chicano was a SEA Games silver medallist behind defending champion and teammate Nikko Huelgas. He had graduated from panicking in the water to aiming for the second swim pack.

Chicano still aims to shave even more time off his swim leg so that he doesn’t have to play too much catch-up.

“When you’re the only one chasing, it’s so hard,” says Chicano as he recalls his debut race in Subic Bay.

John Chicano speeds away from the rest of the field at the 2018 SEATA Duathlon Championships. (Romaine Soh)

From cyclist and troublemaker to triathlete and breadwinner

Initially a criterium and road racer, Chicano fell into triathlon when his father reached out to Fausto. Then, Chicano was more interested in hanging out with his friends than attending class.

After fathering a child and dropping out of college at 19, he was in need of an income source.

“It was not a good time,” said Chicano of his gallivanting days.

Fausto introduced him to the now-defunct Team The Bike Boutique (Team TBB), where Chicano worked as a janitor and assisted the bike mechanic in the shop. Learning the intricacies of a bike was one of Fausto’s requirements if Chicano wanted to be serious in the triathlon.

“Just enjoy and do what you can,” Chicano’s father told his son at the start of his triathlon journey.

Now, the sport is Chicano’s rice bowl. The 26-year-old races every month, but only some races offer monetary prizes. That prize money and a portion of his allowance from training full time since two years ago puts food on the table for a month.

“If I don’t win, we can’t eat,” said Chicano quietly.

Before his wife and daughter joined him in Clark, Chicano would tote a 13-kilogram backpack of training gear and cycle an hour to their hometown of Subic Bay, a small town of 3,000 that is a 70km ride away. Sometimes, he forgets his belongings at either location and has to make a second trip.

But Rambo, a nickname Chicano’s aunt gave him in his youth and has stuck with him since, doesn’t complain. To him, it is just another challenge, like the full marathon he aims to conquer by this year after competing at the Asian Games. His half marathon PB is 1 hour 13 minutes.

Could the Philippines produce an Olympian soon?

A non-sporting challenge on Chicano’s mind is to return to school to complete his degree in network and telecommunications, a pursuit he put on hold to feed his family and pursue the triathlon full-time.

Chicano’s face lights up when he delves into the grassroots outreach program that he helps his coach with. With the lofty goal of qualifying their first Olympian in the triathlon, Chicano’s team, Go for Gold Philippines, conducts triathlon clinics in the rural provinces in search of budding talents. Such efforts have yielded an ever-increasing youth development squad that makes their presence known at the meets when they hit the roads in their yellow tri suits with specks of red and blue.

But before running a full marathon and inspiring youths to dream of the Olympics, Chicano will first be part of the Philippine charge at the Asian Games with the aim of cracking the top ten on Friday in Palembang, Indonesia. It’ll be the first step to get their first countryman into the Olympics, be it himself or an aspiring youth.

2018 SEATA Duathlon champion John Chicano embraces countryman Andrew Remolino at the finish line. (Romaine Soh)