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The Reel-to-Real Triathlete

Photos by Jijo de Guzman

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, 29, 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 the character of Carlos for the yet-to-air romance teleserye Ikaw Lang Ang Iibigin. In this series, Carlos is a decorated triathlete—accomplishments that add gravitas to an already brash, confident man.

Jake knows that it’s easy to look like a triathlete. The self-confessed method actor was concerned though that he wouldn’t come across as convincing as he wanted to be if a stunt double did his triathlon takes; if triathlon was alien to his own being. He wasn’t about to depart from his artistic approach now.

“I take my roles very seriously. I am 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 back in mid-2016.

“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,” said Jake, who was clearly outside his comfort zone. He was scared. “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 on another important facet of triathlon: biking, which was not even a recreational activity for Jake. He was expected to make the leap from casual rider to competitive cyclist in weeks. “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 on two wheels. The last part of his six-month training was running, which he considers his strongest suit. He has years of cardio chalked up, thanks to football and basketball.

Soon, it was time to race. It was the routine pre-race day busy-ness, but all Jake could remember was feeling restless. Excitement flooded his entire body.

Triathlon was something I never saw myself doing.

Tribulation on his first try

His first ever triathlon was just last January 29: the Subic leg of the National Age Group Triathlon (NAGT). He was signed up in his age-group for the sprint distance—750-meter swim; 20-km bike; 5-km run.

This newbie was off to an auspicious start. “The water was perfect,” Jake remembered, vividly recalling the sight in front of him as he and the rest of the field were getting ready to race. He was a bit anxious but remembering the months of swim training he did, put him at ease. “I usually swim double this distance,” said Jake. He was confident that things would go by his training playbook.

Fate had 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 dreaded “washing machine,” 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 with a total finish time of 1:30:40. “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 was not his sport. 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 the previous lifestyle that could have potentially harmed 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 distraction, and triathlon provided a new focus in 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, 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 bike 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. The 70.3 Subic Bay bike course is notorious for its hills, and Jake is focusing his training on this challenge by including rides up and down Tagaytay. He’s targeting a finish time of 2 hours and 30 minutes for the 90-km bike. “I’m putting everything out there. I’m in it to win it,” he says.

Because Jake needs to up his bike game for the duathlon and the relay of the Century Tuna 70.3, he’s doing more cycling. He says he enjoys his Ride Revolution spin sessions because it’s fun. He gets to see the results when he tests his legs’ endurance during long rides with teammates. “My workouts must complement my triathlon training.”

I’m putting everything out there. I’m in it to win it

His next triathlon will be in April at the NTT ASTC Subic Bay International Triathlon (SubIT). This will be his first Olympic-distance race, a 1.5-km swim-40-km bike-10km run.

Jake will return to Subic more prepared than ever. “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.”

Jake feels free from the encumbrance that limits the human experience. “If you have the passion, you can do it,” he says. Discovering his own inner strength and resolve through triathlon is the message he wants to share with anyone willing to listen and ready to begin. He’s 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 he consciously avoided wasn’t a cruel twist of fate after all. Jake himself confesses that the TV project and triathlon, in retrospect, are godsent. He acknowledges it, vis-à-vis the admission that the path towards self-actualization was far from easy.

Jake radiates enthusiasm at the mention of triathlon. And we’ve no doubt the audience will see the soul that genuinely lives and breathes triathlon.

Once the soap opera ends and he is Carlos no more, Jake is sure that he will still remain a triathlete.

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

Jake’s Journey to Triathlon

A role inspired him to take up a sport that requires commitment.

Jake Cuenca’s immersed himself in triathlon and he isn’t about to stop just yet.

Jake with fellow Corsa Cycles teammate Gerald Anderson on a training ride last July 2016


Six months after, Jake is in race-mode in his first-ever triathlon, a sprint distance at the National Age Group Triathlon in Subic, where he came in top 20 in a very competitive field


You never forget your first. Boosted by his strong finish, Jake looks forward to his next individual triathlon, this time, an Olympic distance, in April 2017.

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